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 because, at the risk of sounding morbid, I specifically remember how impressive the casket was. On the side of it was an exquisite engraving of the deceased, driving a John Deere tractor — and it actually looked just like him! As time went on, I noticed a lot of families did things like that for their loved ones. I’ve seen everything from race cars to twelve point bucks engraved on caskets.
As I look at churches in America today, I am fearful that many serve the same purpose as a fancy casket. Their buildings are nothing more than nice decorated boxes that hold something that used to be alive. If you hang around long enough, you may hear a story about “the good ole days” of crowded Sundays and people meeting Jesus. Isn’t that just like a funeral — only talking about the things that happened while the person was alive? When people talk more about what their church used to do than what it’s doing now, it’s a sign the church may be dead.
A dead church isn’t a new concept, either. Jesus identifies one in the book of Revelation as He speaks to the church at Sardis, saying,
“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 today that simply look alive. 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 dead churches refuse to change (or be buried). In many cases they are family-owned and operated; they are risk-averse and inward-focused. Tradition pushes the Gospel to the backburner and despite years and years of weekend gatherings, guests are rare. Few people, if any, meet Jesus.
I’m convinced that there is a solution. There is a way to get healthy, and a way to bring a dead church back to life. We see a picture of this in John 11 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)
Here are two lessons we can learn from this:
1. 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 dead church back to life requires the willingness to confront the unpleasant. Lifeless ministries, disgruntled leadership, and non-resonant worship services reek of demise. When Jesus told the people to remove the stone, he was really saying, “let’s expose this and deal with it.” Sure, it’s easier to keep stinky things tucked away in a tomb, but the easy thing and right thing are not usually synonymous. 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, but it is not until a team can be honest about what’s behind the stone that they can begin a journey to health, vitality, and, eventually, a church resurrection.
2. 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! This is why we have to trust God, even when it doesn’t make sense. Like Martha, we need to lean on the fact that God wants the best for us – and knows what that “best” looks like better than we do.
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 (even people we’ve known for years) and never come back. For pastors, our emotions sometimes drive our actions because we love people – for better or for worse. However, at the end of the day, we have to trust Jesus and follow his instructions, despite the stink we have to deal with. He is calling churches to come forth. It begins with removing the stone and boldly dealing with what lies behind it and then, resurrection comes.