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

The One Overarching Reason Churches Close their Doors

 I like to think of myself as a student of the root causes of the death of local churches and what it takes to turn around a congregation that’s on a death spiral before it winds up closing its doors. Dozens of books and articles seek to explain the ins and outs of church death and church revitalization. And while church deaths all have their own unique stories and individual circumstances leading up to the closure, there’s only one overarching reason a church closes its doors. That is because our Lord shut it down!

What!? That’s right. The New Testament speaks only once of a church closing. Only once! That’s in Revelation, Chapter 2:1-7 (NASB, 2020), where we read:

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: 2 I know your deeds and your labor and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people, and you have put those who call themselves apostles to the test, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured on account of My name, and have not become weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and I will remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But you have this, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat from the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.”

Jesus tells the Apostle John to write a warning to the church at Ephesus. He says, “Repent! or I am going to remove your lampstand! “In other words, Jesus says, He’s going to shut down your church. You’ve forgotten your first love! Remember that first love and go back to doing what you once did!

The Ephesian church is one of orthodox theology. It’s a church that doesn’t tolerate false teaching. Instead, biblical truth emanates from its pulpit. The congregation at Ephesus has quite the pedigree. The Apostle Paul founded the church with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18). Paul labored there for two years (Acts 19), and eventually, he sent his protégé, Timothy, to serve as pastor of the church.

The church has endured despite false teaching and hardship—most likely, persecution for their Christian belief in a city that is the center of the worship of the Greek goddess, Artemis. But heritage, doctrinal orthodoxy, and perseverance are not enough to shield the Ephesian church from the Lord’s displeasure. There’s a spiritual problem serious enough—an element of disobedience so flagrant—that Jesus is ready to shut down the church if the Ephesian Christians don’t immediately make an about-face.

What’s the issue? What could the church be doing that is so egregious that the Lord Jesus Christ can no longer abide even their existence? It’s not what the church at Ephesus was doing—it was what the church was neglecting. The church at Ephesus has abandoned its first love. I believe this is the overarching reason that churches in America are closing in droves today—they have lost their first love.

What does Jesus mean when He says the church at Ephesus has left its first love, and why does the same warning to Ephesus apply to American churches today?

Most commentators believe that Christ speaks of the first love as a passion for Him and His life-changing Gospel. The church at Ephesus has degenerated to a cold orthodoxy, perhaps a spirit of legalism or Phariseeism. Zeal for Jesus, once expressed in an enthusiasm to see people transformed by the Gospel, now displays itself in a church simply going through the motions. Great Commission obedience has become Great Ommission negligence. The church is inward-focused. Nice folks, all of them, no doubt. Comfortable with their group of friends. Respectable and not too crazy with all of the evangelism mess.

It makes sense when you look at the lifecycle of a local church. A church plant is evangelistically hungry. The church grows and, after several years, reaches a plateau after turning inward. After coasting for several years, the church declines, unable to rekindle the Great Commission spark. Eventually, the church closes its doors. Or, I should say, having given the church ample opportunity to repent, Jesus removes its lampstand. I am heartbroken at the thought of a local church closing its doors and ceasing to serve as a lighthouse for Christ. But the truth is, the Gospel light flickered out in the church long before the congregation withered away and the doors closed.

But in his message to the Ephesian church, Jesus makes clear that all hope is not lost. He says, “Repent!” He allows the church opportunity to turn around. And if they do, “To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat from the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.” No doubt that must also mean that any church today can return to life and health if it returns to its first love.

Over the last year, after seeing a church restored to the newness of life, I have had the opportunity to visit many churches—most in deep decline, but some doing well. I have heard a variety of excuses for the sorry state of churches. Some argue that “People don’t want to come to church anymore.” I don’t buy it. They just don’t want to come to your church—probably because it’s insular and dead.

Indeed, this morning, I attended a church packed to the gills with hundreds of people. While the worship service was of high quality, with contemporary music, I don’t believe this church is attracting people by entertaining them or tickling their ears. Instead, I heard a church laser-focused on introducing its neighbors to Christ and being a force for positive transformation in the community. I listened to the Gospel presented, with the unashamed affirmation that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, and the only way to God the Father. I heard the pastor preach against sin. Indeed, the pastor was brave enough to say plainly say that there are only two genders, even as he spoke of a desire to reach people who struggle with such identity problems. Even if he wore skinny jeans, this preacher boldly proclaimed that Hell is for real. I heard prayer for those without Christ instead of the usual litany of prayer requests for sickly saints.

What’s the prescription for the dying local church? The church’s immediate action must be to repent humbly. The church got that way because the congregation and its leaders let it, not because people don’t want to come to church anymore. Stop blaming the neighborhood for not responding, and start praying for them. Stop equating your preferences with biblical mandates. Love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the Great Omission to Great Commission obedience. Pray as a congregation, not simply with a list of saved people’s health problems, but with a desire that God would once again use the church as a Gospel lighthouse in the neighborhood. 


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