Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is it dead? Or is it just pining?

How do you know when something is dead? Seems a simple enough question, doesn't it? Just the very thought of asking a question like that causes me to think of the old Monty Python sketch about the dead (or is it just pining for the fjords?) parrot:

This came to mind recently when a dear brother and fellow pastor emailed me with a question: "How do you measure whether or not the Spirit is moving? What standard do you use to determine whether your church is alive or dying?" Below is my response to his question:

What is a dead church? I mean, not "dead" as defined sociologically or denominationally, but theologically, what does it mean for a church to be dead? I'm not sure we've seen many good descriptions of that. I would say that as we think toward what a dead church is, it would include some of these characteristics: loss of love for God and the brethren; absence of biblical authority; absence of the gospel; man-centered, rather than God-centered, worship (I am talking "substance" not "style"); lack of concern for the lostness of the community and the nations; lack of any involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission. I am sure that list is not exhaustive. But I do think that an exhaustive list could be compiled using Scripture as our guide. I think there would be a finite set of characteristics that would indicate that a church is DEAD.

So then, how do you know if your church is dying? Is it moving in a direction toward those things? If it is not, then it is not dying. If it is moving toward the direction of the antitheses of these marks, then I would say it is not only alive, but actually healthy and getting stronger.

The problem is that people are looking at the wrong guages. Numbers and emotionalism do not a healthy church make. In fact, using just the few characteristics I have outlined above, I know of some large (and ever growing) churches who have excellent music and mind-boggling programs, but which, by theological definitions, are dead. And on the flip side, I know of some where barely more than 12 gather, but those 12 love God, love one another, submit to His word, worship in Spirit and truth, and fervently attempt to share the Gospel with their community and the nations. The "experts" would say that church is dead because they don't have a praise band and they aren't baptizing new people every month. Theologically speaking, that church is NOT DEAD. Now, might that church be closed down because of finances or other reasons in the next 6 months? It might. Then can we say it died? Perhaps, but not in the tragic sense, rather in the glorious sense of martyrdom. That church went to its "grave" being faithful to its Gospel-centered convictions, and refused to compromise for the sake of institutional survival. In that case, we do not pity them in their "death," we celebrate their glory and mourn that such a faithful body is longer with us. Additionally, the "closing down" of an institution or facility does have to be the "death" of a church. Many churches are so institutionally minded that the loss of their property results in the disbanding of the church by default, but no one said that this had to happen or that a church had to own property or a building. They could continue on in another venue or under other circumstances.

Now, I can anticipate someone saying that if a church was that faithful, that committed to the gospel, that concerned about lostness, etc. then there is no way it should have ever had to shut its doors. I'm just not sure we can prove that. It seems that we have seen examples in history of missionaries who have faithfully labored for decades with no visible fruit in the field. And we celebrate those men and women and say, "What faithful servants to endure so much and see so little fruit from it!" Why could we not say the same about a church? After all, Jesus' promise is that THE church will endure forever, not necessarily any particular local manifestation of it.

After some further reflection, I added more to this conversation:

When it comes to determining the death of a church, who gets to decide? I remember sitting in Epistemology class in seminary discussing the concept of "Critical Realism," an epistemological framework that admits in surprising and humble honesty that there is no "bird's eye view" of reality. We can't examine a state of affairs with complete and total detached objectivity, because we are in it, and we are affected by it. I think that has a bearing on this discussion.

A church is a gathering of flawed people. Simul iustus et peccator. How do I evaluate that with complete detached objectivity? I am also simultaneously righteous and sinful. Depravity affects my own judgment. And it affects the judgment of all those who would define "dead church" for us. It seems to me that there is only One who can objectively evaluate the situation, and if we aren't using His criteria to measure our churches, then we are using broken guages. So our task is not primarily to evaluate the church, but to understand the Word, and then to allow the Word to evaluate the church. And when we do that, we are probably all in worse shape than we imagine! But, we see throughout the NT that God uses imperfect churches to carry out His perfect will. Good thing, because if He is going to use churches at all, imperfect ones are all He's got to work with!

So, what do you think? How do you know if a church is dead? Or dying? Or just pining for the fjords?

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