Must every church eventually die?
It’s a mostly unspoken reality we all live with. Every person (except for those privileged enough to be living when the Lord returns for His Church) will eventually die. As much as I would like to keep on living, some day I will no longer be able to remain alive on this earth. And so I prepare. I buy life insurance. I set money aside for retirement. I draw up a will so my family knows what to do with the stuff I leave behind. And one day my friends and loved ones will hold a memorial service to pause and reflect on my life.
I also have two children. When I’m gone from this earth they will be, by far, the most important legacy I leave behind. I love them dearly and I’m immensely proud of them. They are 22 and 27 years younger than me so my memory and contribution to the earth will live through them another 20 to 30 years after I’m gone. And I’m hopeful that my kids will have kids of their own and experience the same joy and legacy of passing along the memories of their contributions to the next generation. And so on, and so on, until the return of the Lord.
This analogy of human life and legacy can also be applied to the church. The inevitable reality seems to be that every church will eventually cease to function as a healthy community of faith. The pre-eminent planter Paul the Apostle himself failed to plant a single local church that has survived until today as an identifiable organizational entity. To be sure, the life span of churches can and does extend beyond the average life expectancy of human beings and to be just as sure, there are many things we can do to increase the number of years a church can remain missionally viable.
But in the denomination I am a part of, the Assemblies of God (AG), statistical data bears out the fact that churches, like people, come and go. In 1965, 8,443 AG churches were reaching out to lost people in communities all over America. By the end of 2009, the total number of AG congregations had grown to 12,371. But during that 44-year period, we closed 8,153 existing churches and opened 12,049 resulting in a net gain of 3,928 churches. My point is simply that the closing of churches is more common than most people expect and is actually normal, which leads us to some powerful insights.
- In the same way that living and dying is a normal part of the human experience, opening and closing churches is a normal part of the organizational life of the church.
- In the same way that I make plans with the end of my life in mind (ie. Purchase life insurance, make a will, set aside money for retirement, build a nest egg to pass along to my kids, etc.), churches can and should anticipate that they will not survive forever as an organization and plan appropriately.
- In the same way that I prolong my legacy through my children and hopefully my grandchildren, churches can extend their legacy by starting new daughter and granddaughter congregations that reach the unreached people groups in every American community.
- In the same way that my kids help me stay active and energized about life, so starting new churches actually prolongs the missional vigor of parent churches.
The pace of opening and closing churches over the past 44 years demonstrates how essential the 12,049 new churches have been in helping the AG family of churches stay connected to the mission of Christ. Imagine the magnitude of the tragedy if all we did was close churches since 1965. Even more importantly, there are tens of thousands of individuals who will be eternally grateful for the exercise of faith and extraordinary sacrifice manifested by the starters who opened those 12,049 churches.
These new church starters have been courageously sent out by thousands of Kingdom-hearted existing churches and their leaders. Therein lies an important characteristic of churches that live long, vigorous lives – they make intentional reproduction a core element of their ministry strategy. The decision to become reproductive requires a church to make other decisions that increase its vigor. A reproductive church chooses to be dissatisfied with status quo. A reproductive church chooses to develop and release healthy leaders. A reproductive church chooses to steward its resources in a manner that facilitates reproduction. Any church that chooses to pursue a path toward healthy reproduction will increase its lifespan and fruitfulness, just like any person can increase her lifespan and fruitfulness by how she chooses to live.
God is calling people to start new congregations. Planting churches is not a fad and closing churches is not abnormal. A growing number of congregations are extending their productive years and “planning for retirement” as a congregation by intentionally developing strategic plans that include starting new congregations. Yes, it might be true that every church will eventually die. But the end of their organizational existence does not need to mean the end of their ministry. Churches that plant churches live on as their offspring co-labor with God in making his Kingdom known throughout the earth.