Resurrecting a Dead Church

During my sixteen years of pastoring, I did a lot of funerals. I remember doing one in particular for an avid farmer who attended our church. As morbid as this might sound, I specifically remember how cool the casket was. On the side of it was an exquisite engraving of the deceased, driving a John Deer tractor. It actually looked just like him. I was impressed. Later on, I noticed a lot of families did things like that for their loved ones. I’ve seen everything from racecars to twelve point bucks engraved on caskets.

As I look at churches in America today, I am fearful, no I am certain, that many serve in the same capacity as a fancy casket. Their buildings are nothing more than nice decorated boxes that hold something that used to be alive. Matter of fact, if you hang around long enough, you may hear a story about “the good ole days.” You will probably hear about crowded Sundays and people meeting Jesus. Isn’t that just like a funeral? Talking about the things that happened while the person was alive? When people talk more about what their church used to do instead of what it’s doing, that’s a good sign the church isn’t alive.

A dead church isn’t a new concept. Jesus identifies one in the book of Revelation as He speaks to the church at Sardis. He says, "I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive -- but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). There are a lot of churches that look alive, or at least look like a church (they have a nice box). People gather there. People pray there. People give there. But new people aren’t coming, and if they do, they don’t stay. People aren’t finding Jesus.

Unfortunately many of these churches refuse to change (or be buried). In many cases they are family owned and operated; they are risk adverse and inward focused. Tradition pushes the gospel to the backburner and despite years and years of weekend gatherings; guests are rare and few people, if any, meet Jesus.

There is, however, a solution. There is a way to get healthy, a way to bring the church back to life. We see a picture of this in John chapter eleven when Jesus’ friend Lazarus becomes sick and dies.

“Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days. Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:39-40, ESV)

Remove the Stone

Oftentimes pastors resist change for the same reason Martha didn’t want to remove the stone. No one likes dealing with things that stink. Bringing a church back to life requires the willingness to confront the unpleasant. Lifeless ministries, disgruntled leadership and non-resonant worship reek of demise. When Jesus told the people to remove the stone, he was basically saying, “Let’s expose this and deal with it.” Sure, it’s easier to keep stinky things tucked away in a tomb, but seldom is the right thing to do, the easy thing to do. Avoiding confrontation and conflict creates an incompetence that infects the entire team and eventually, the entire church.

Removing gravestones brings perspective. It forces you to deal with the issue. It takes courage and a lot of prayer to begin rolling back stones to reveal what’s stinking. When a team can be honest about what’s behind the stone, they can begin a journey to health and vitality and eventually a church resurrection.

Trust God

When Martha resisted Jesus’ request, he replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” At the end of the day, we have to believe God wants our churches to be healthy. He wants our churches to be a hub for the gospel. He is on our side. Which brings me to the next point. We have to trust God even when it doesn’t make sense. Jesus reminded Martha of this when she feared dealing with what was on the other side of the stone.

Resurrecting a dead church requires making decisions that people aren’t going to be happy about.  It forces us to make choices that will cause people to leave our churches, people we’ve known for years, and never come back. For pastors, our emotions sometimes drive our actions because we love people. That can be good and bad. But at the end of the day, we simply have to trust Jesus and follow his instructions, despite the stink we have to deal with. He is calling churches to come forth. But it begins with removing the stone and boldly dealing with what lies behind it. Then, resurrection comes.

Check out more resources at The Unstuck Group


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