Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

Church Revitalization Is Spiritual Warfare

 Is your church is inward-focused, squabbling over petty things, straining at doctrinal gnats, and otherwise just generally ineffective in reaching your community with the Gospel?  There’s at least one person happy about that.

Who? The Devil.

Yes, you heard me right. I do believe in Satan’s active influence in this world—and without apology. The Bible clearly tells us demonic forces are engaged in the world. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).

Now, I don’t blame the Devil’s direct control for every single bad thing that happens. Instead, I think he’s generally happy to let people be people. People just being themselves will do the work of the Devil for him.

If your church is declining or near death, take a look around.

Are you preference-driven? Is it “my way or the highway?” Have your music, hymnals, furniture, and even your order of service somehow taken on (or more likely, overshadowed) biblical importance in the church’s life? Do you have guests? Better yet, do you follow up with them, and do they come back? Has corporate prayer vanished?

Does the church leadership dismiss other churches’ success by saying those preachers must be tickling the ears of their listeners? At the same time, do they explain your church’s failure with a sigh, saying it’s a sure sign that, here in the end times, people won’t endure sound doctrine anymore?

If so, I’m sure right now that Satan is spending little time bothering with your church. He holds the territory in your neighborhood, and your church isn’t the least bit threatening. Your church has given in to the flesh—the inner predisposition of people towards evil. And it has given into the world, with its unbiblical assumptions. The Devil needs to do very nothing to keep you at bay. (And by the way, the cigarette butts tossed in your parking lot and the petty vandalism you experience every few years are not demonic attacks. They’re just people being people.)

But go ahead and try to do something about your church’s sorry state. Decide you’re going to obey the Great Commandment to love God and your neighbor. Choose to be intentional in carrying out the Great Commission. Commit to reclaiming your neighborhood for the Gospel. Work hard to show the love of Christ in your community. As a church, devote yourselves to revitalization, revival, and renewal.

And then standby for all Hell to break loose. Because, you can rest assured, Satan will not let you march into his territory unopposed.

Church revitalization (or renewal, or replanting…call it what you will) is, at its very heart, an exercise in spiritual warfare. I’m convinced Satan is okay with inwardly focused churches. But make that outward turn and just watch what happens. Well, the looky-loos in the church probably won’t experience much change. But the pastor and any other leaders interested in outward focus will experience real spiritual beatings. The Enemy will goad them, play on their anxieties, remind them of every failing. Within the church, arguing and squabbling will start in places no one would ever have predicted.  Opposition to change will arise.

As William Cook and Chuck Lawless note, the Enemy attacks a local church on several fronts—all of which strike to the heart of the church’s very purpose. In place of God-exalting worship will be idolatry. Music styles, personal preferences, sacred-cow furniture, and even the past all become objects of worship. The Enemy will also foster within the church body a deep fear of evangelism. The church is responsible for equipping the saints through teaching and mentoring. The Adversary will work to ensure no discipleship takes place at all. The Devil will oppose any attempts church members make to edify each other through ministry and service. Pride and self-glorification will take the place of service. The Enemy will see that corporate prayer and dependence upon God are supplanted by prayerlessness and self-dependency. Instead of encouragement through the fellowship of believers, internal church conflict will be the order of the day.[1] Next thing you know, the church runs off yet another pastor.

The Satanic gameplan? Get that church that suddenly thought maybe God could use them in their neighborhood for a great work for His Kingdom to sit back down. Go back to making sure the remnant stays comfortable.

Look, all ministry is challenging. And ministry that’s making a Kingdom difference will routinely encounter spiritual warfare. What I’m saying is, it’s going to come as a shock to the comfortable members of a decaying church. And it’s going to go hard at the pastor or leaders who try to lead that church back to health. Be ready for it.

Before I went into ministry, I was a naval surface warfare officer. I had the distinct privilege of commanding a coastal patrol ship off of Iraq during 2004-2005. Most of the action took place ashore, but coastal Iraq was a busy place with some occasional hostility, as well. As I reflect on that time, I can’t help but think how closely spiritual warfare mirrors the physical. Enemy attacks don’t come at our places of strength, but rather, at our weak spots. We need to know his tactics and be continually looking out ahead, lest his attacks come as a surprise. And we need to go into battle adequately equipped.

As Paul writes, 

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:13-18a).

I pray that we will see a great movement of the Holy Spirit in America in the renewal of the church of Jesus Christ. Let’s be armed and ready. Let’s be prayed up in expectation of those fiery darts!  Remember, we believe in the God who turns crucifixions into resurrections.

Church revitalization doesn’t just involve spiritual warfare—it is spiritual warfare.

[1] William F. Cook and Chuck Lawless, Spiritual Warfare in the Storyline of Scripture. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2019.


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