God promises that his Church will last forever (see Matt 16:18). There are, however, no promises made by God that our local churches or our church bodies will last forever.
Stated in more depth: the Holy Christian Church, filled with saints triumphant, the same Church we confess in the Creed each week, cannot be harmed. Nothing can pull believers away from Christ as their head aside from their own decisions to leave him. However, the local churches that we belong to, those in whose directories our names, addresses, and phone numbers are recorded, are certainly susceptible to collapse. Likewise, our national church body, the specific denominational affiliation to which our local church belongs, has no guarantee of longevity attached to it either.
It may surprise you that current statistics indicate that approximately 4,000 churches close their doors for good each year. That’s 80 churches on average in each state each year. Sound like a lot? Sound like it could never happen to your church? Well, on Monday, one of the most famous churches in America in recent memory filed for bankruptcy. The Crystal Cathedral, a 10,000 member megachurch in Garden Grove, California, is rumored to be between 50-100 million dollars in debt.
Although continuing services while cutting back staff and outlets to their national television program (the “Hour of Power”), the Crystal Cathedral seems on the verge of closing doors.
It’d be really easy to sit back and cite all sorts of problems in doctrine that the Crystal Cathedral has as reasons for its decline. And, to be sure, sound doctrine is incredibly important and lack of sound doctrine can be deadly. God says, “(My Word) will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11) and “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). Sound Christian doctrine and its powerful and lasting results is what is being referred to in these sections. Consequently, if false doctrine were prevalent in a church, it would seem that this lack of sound doctrine would be a natural thing that Christians would point to for lack of success, i.e. “God didn’t preserve this church because it wasn’t doing any good for his people (His Church).” That argument could only be entertained though if it was strictly the churches with the most blatant false doctrine that were closing. The truth is, churches from all different levels of faithfulness in teaching are theoretically at risk to close. What that means is that there are a variety of reasons, a combination of both practical and spiritual, that contribute. And realistically, it’s pretty basic.
We’re not going to cover in a single week’s post all of the factors that contribute to local churches suffering and collapsing, but for the most part it boils down to a lack of weekly attendance (failure to worship), lack of Christian service (failure to cover necessary volunteerism), and lack of finances (failure to bring offerings to the Lord). Historically, it was the same basic problem that led to the collapse of God’s Old Testament “church”, the Israelites. In general, God’s people B.C. gradually became apathetic about God’s Word and will, they stopped caring about and caring for one another, and they saw no need to thank God for his blessings. Instead of creditors, God had the Assyrians and Babylonians close their doors for them.
If you’re wondering how specifically, the Crystal Cathedral church – a church of 10,000 members – goes belly up? It’s been many of the same factors:
- decreased attendance – the church’s attendance had noticeably grown older and smaller throughout the years. When churches become dependent on one guy – as the Crystal Cathedral had seemingly become with Robert Schuller – this pattern is not uncommon.
- controversy and dispute – after senior pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006, his son, Robert Anthony took over as senior pastor. After two years, Robert Anthony was removed from his position for a “lack of shared vision” with the leadership at the church. Robert Sr.’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman was made senior pastor.
- decreased offerings – the Crystal Cathedral saw a 30% offering drop in 2009, as many churches did, due to a continued lagging economy.
- poor stewardship/management of those offerings – for instance, one of the church’s financial hang-ups right now is that they are being sued by vendors who haven’t collected payment for their animal services provided at last year’s Christmas and Easter pageants. Clearly, you’d imagine that a church called “the Crystal Cathedral” would perhaps have some proclivities toward lavish expenditures, so it isn’t too surprising. Continuing to do all this on credit though is just plain foolish.
Poorer attendance, internal turmoil, and financial struggles are all practical issues that have led to the downfall of one of America’s most influential churches. And practically speaking, these issues, which most often sprout from hearts grown cold, can happen to any local congregation.
This week, we’ve had several important financial meetings at my church. Like many churches in this economy, we’ve fallen quite a ways behind in where we need to be financially in order to operate (i.e. behind budget). When you have church leadership going through every line item in your budget to see where slashes can possibly be made in order to ensure that “lights stay on” in the future, this is a serious situation.
There is no desire to “cry wolf” here. God’s people, by virtue of being God’s people, never have legitimate cause to panic. But, for our purposes today, it’s important to understand this: when churches do end up shutting their doors, many of the church’s members end up flabbergasted that God would allow such a thing to happen. What they may fail to understand, however, is that the way God intended to preserve his churches was by working through his members (Ephesians 2:19-22), not by dropping mortgage payments, utility bills, and payroll checks from the sky. In other words, if I never maintenance the engine on my car and then that car breaks down, I have no right to blame Ford. I failed to take responsible ownership of a blessing. This one’s on me.
What can we do to ensure that our local churches can continue to faithfully minister to God’s people without hindrance? What can we do to ensure the winning and nurturing of souls for Christ through law and gospel proclamation? What can you do? A TON.
Naturally, as a member, encouraging the health of your congregation starts by regularly being with your church in worship. It then continues by loving and serving those in your church. And it concludes with the area that Martin Luther said was the last part of a person to be converted (the pocketbook). Faithfully offering financial support to the body that regularly feeds you with God’s Word has always been God’s will for his people too. Show me a congregation that, as a whole, is regularly joining in worship, lovingly serving one another, and generously financially supporting the ministry, and I will show you a congregation that has almost zero chance of closing. It just doesn’t happen. This is simply part of the practical brilliance with which God created the concept of “church” – when Christians do the things that Christians do, that church will be just fine and will be able to focus on what it was meant to do – rescue the lost and nurture the found.
Before I began regularly serving in churches, I’m not sure I understood the concept of taking ownership in my church. It’s been a progression of maturity for me. I originally went to church because I was, in part, forced and told it was good for me. As I grew in faith, I became convinced that it was indeed good for me. As I exercised that faith by becoming involved in service, I started to enjoy it. And as I started to see God working through me (in a small way) to reach others with the message of Jesus, I began to figure out that it wasn’t just about me, but about others too. Grumpiness, self-centeredness, or apathy were no longer a Sunday morning option. God had in mind to use me for good, to make me part of something much, much bigger than myself. This bigger thing was to expand and bless the Church by using me and the gifts that he’d given me to expand and bless my local church. I, as a Christian, was a mere messenger, a jar of clay, out of which God was seeking to dispense a message that saves lives (2 Cor 4:5-7).
God has given us all tremendous gifts with which to serve the church (1 Cor 12:4-7). Own your church – Be there. Serve it. Support it. I’m guessing, if you haven’t done this already, you’ll share my experience – “Oh……this is what church is supposed to be like.” It’s an amazing thing when God leads us to the realization that “church” is not something we have to do to make him happy, as though God is desperate for our affection, but it is something we get to do that can direct us to eternal happiness. I’m pretty sure I was told that when I was younger. Today, I believe it.