Options for Declining Churches

On this good Friday, I want to talk about how God can take death and turn it into life when it comes to churches in decline. There are a lot of churches that have been in decline for some years. Churches shut their doors every single week. There are churches that used to be 400 and now are down below 100. The congregation is aging, the young people are gone, and the sound of babies hasn’t been heard in a while. What do you do when it seems inevitable that the church is going to have to close its doors in the future? The good news is that change does not mean death or failure. Instead, it can be the birth of something new and better.If you do have to close your doors, realize God is still at work. The tabernacle wasn’t forever. Shiloh wasn’t forever. The temple wasn’t even forever…what makes us think that “such and such church” will be forever either? None of those closures bothered God because God could see what was next. When the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 AD God already had his plan in place…we are his temple. What is tragic to us in one moment can unfold into God’s larger plan. So don’t fear the future.

Here are a few things churches can consider,

Merging with another existing congregation: Combine your resources, staff, leadership to make something that is better than each congregation by itself. This takes humility and it takes people being team players who can put the good of the kingdom above personal agendas. This can be a hard transition depending on the personalities and circumstances involved but it is better than dying completely.

Get back in the game: Determine that there is a better future for the congregation and start taking steps that are in line with that future. This takes good leadership. If the leadership is weak, pray God would strengthen that and give you clarity on how to move ahead in ways that would glorify Him.

If you want to get back in the game, outreach is going to be important.I would recommend any church to have a look at Church Steps outreach as a way to get Christians involved in outreach and start getting more people in the congregation through conversion. It is also vitally important that these churches retain any youth they have by getting those youth and their families involved in ministry, personal spiritual growth and discipleship. Last, the young adult crowd is another group that needs to be brought back into existing congregations and converted for those young adults who aren’t Christians. You don’t have to have a band and the most dynamic speaker in the world to that. If you are interested in some ways your church can do that, feel free to contact me and we can talk it over – matthewdabbs@hotmail.com (the same with Church Steps). Moving in new directions is going to take a focus and reliance on God.

It can be hard to turn the ship. Often, we tend to keep moving in the same direction even if it isn’t working. That is called homeostasis (same state) and it is hard to break out of that. It takes great motivation and courage but it can be done!

Donate your resources to an existing congregation/non-profit. Churches are not for profit entities. When they liquidate the proceeds have to go to other 501c3’s. Find a worthy cause that is growing, Christian-based and is need of additional facilities due to the growth and success. Bless them with your building and resources and move your people on to another congregation(s).

It is important that we see God in the middle of these things so that we can take Him and His word, that he really is making all things new. How appropriate on Good Friday that we can talk about God taking death and turning it into new life!

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Easter, Bodily Resurrection and the Immortality of the Soul

One really common belief across religions is that existing comes with an inalienable right to continue to exist in perpetuity (forever). That is called the immortality of the soul. That view didn’t come from Judaism or Christianity but from the Greeks. Socrates and Plato both influenced this idea and it has had a heavy influence in Christian circles even still today. It is popular but is it scriptural that all souls are guaranteed eternal existence? Matthew 10:28 says it is entirely possible for God to destroy the soul. Revelation 20:14-15 call hell the “second death”. If these people have already died and are being judged and condemned to hell to die a second time and death is the cessation of life, it is entirely possible that they are consumed and gone forever (some call that the annihilation view of hell). But it only makes sense that your right to an eternal soul does not trump God’s sovereignty or ability to destroy your soul if He so wills it. Instead, many have opted for Plato even where it contradicts scripture.

The Greeks believed there was a body/soul dichotomy. The body was temporary and evil. The soul was eternal and good. So when you die, in some sense, you got an upgrade because your body was no more…decayed and never to be useful again. There was no interest in this body after death because when you die, the Greeks thought, the very best part of you lived on. Many Christians have adopted that idea and it has resulted in the belief that heaven is a place of disembodied souls like in the old hymn “Home of the Soul”,

“If for the prize we have striven,
After our labors are o’er,
Rest to our souls will be given,
On the eternal shore.”

And then, speaking of heaven in the Chorus,

“Home of the soul, beautiful home,
There we shall rest, never to roam;
Free from all care, happy and bright,
Jesus is there, He is the light!
Oft in the storm, lonely are we,
Sighing for home, longing for thee,
Beautiful home of the ransomed,
beside the crystal sea.”

Resurrection
In this view, heaven is a place of disembodied souls that live eternally with God. But is that biblical or is that just pagan Greek philosophy intermingled with Christian doctrine? This view fails to capture what the New Testament teaches us about the resurrection. What happens to the soul after we die? The Greeks believed the soul lived on in the afterlife as a shade/shadow of your former self. Jews and Christians believe in a general resurrection at the end of time and in the meantime your soul was at rest (there is disagreement on what the intermediate state consists of).

So here is the question – Jews and Christians believe in a general resurrection…the question is, “What is raised?” If you believe heaven is a place where disembodied souls live with God forever then you must insist that souls are being raised and that when 1 Thessalonians 5 says “The dead in Christ will rise” that souls are rising to meet Christ. Rising from what? Rising from the ground? The souls must have left their resting place, returned to the ground (where they were buried??? and then rise up from there)? That certainly seems strange. What is more, if you think souls are eternal AND heaven is about disembodied souls then why does scripture talk about resurrection giving us new life? You are already as alive as you would be, under that theory, as a disembodied soul. And, what does it mean for Christ to conquer death if there is no sign in our lives of that ever being the case? If our bodies suffer eternal decay, that certainly doesn’t seem like much of a victory over death (1 Cor 15) to me.

But if our bodies are raised the whole thing makes sense…death is not the victor, decay doesn’t have the final say and the effects of sin are reversed! The scriptures speak with continuity and clarity on this. Jesus was our forerunner. Jesus was raised in the body. He ascended to heaven bodily. Do you think he ascended bodily but checked his body at the door of heaven or do you think he will be the only guy in the room with a body in heaven? Or is it possible (and scriptural) that our bodies will be raised just like His? That is what the ancient Jews believed, what the New Testament teaches and what the early Christians believed as well. But somewhere along the line we let ancient Greek philosophy cloud our view of all of this, even when it contradicts scripture.

Kids, Play and the Power of Narrative

millionmilesI have been reading Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, highly recommend it. This book is Miller’s reflection on working with producers on the movie version of Blue Like Jazz. Turns out, life isn’t like the movies…most of us wouldn’t make good movie characters. As Miller reflects on their take on his life and the producers’ need to spruce up his story a bit he realized his own need to live a better story than he had been living. Great book. I will share more thoughts on it later.

While reading this book I have been more in tune with the power of story.Turns out, it’s everywhere…everyday. This evening the our boys, ages 2 & 4 were playing. As I listened to the imaginative things they were saying, it dawned on me that when children play they create stories. Play is their work and that work often involves one of two things: the construction of false play narratives that are impractical and impossible. Second, play often co-opts existing narratives and changes some of the essential components of the narrative to be more appealing to them or try things out…like when they say things to their stuffed animal or younger brother that they hear their parents say.

So I hear the boys playing in Elijah’s room. Elijah is standing on his big firetruck. It was parked up against the wall, right under a brown tree we had painted in the nursery. Missy painted this tree when we set the room up for Jonah as a family tree, to be able to teach the kids where they came from. After we painted it, we hung pictures of family members on its branches so we could teach them who they (the kids) are, who their relatives are and where they came from.  So back to Elijah. He is perched up on the side of his firetruck, his back to the wall and says…”I’m Jesus!” Jesus on a tree, right? He is playing Jesus. Jonah says, “Put out your arms.” It was stunning. We painted that to show them where they came from. The tree hasn’t ever shown it more clearly than today when looking at that tree reminded me that God put his own Son on the cross for us. It is where we came from. It is part of who we are.

What happened next was play that was a reflection of real life…it wasn’t meant to be that but it taught me something important that I won’t ever forget. Moments later, Elijah got into a plastic bin and Jonah proceeded to push and pull Elijah around the house in that bin. He said it was Elijah’s car and he proceeded to “drive” him around the house. Aren’t we like that? One moment it is about the cross and identity and things of great significance…the very next we are back to our silly and senseless games! It is like going to church on Easter just to go back to life as usual on Monday. One moment, we are attentive to the story of the cross and the next something mundane and silly doing some sort of adult equivalent of pulling a 2 year old around in a plastic bin.

ElijahBin

Seeking God’s Will is Tough

When it comes time to make a big decision it can sure be confusing. Is it difficult because God wants me to persevere through trials or is it difficult because God is trying to tell me there is a different path? Is success a sign to keep doing what you are doing or does it show you that the work is mature enough to make it on its own…or with a fresh set of ideas? What do you do when you seek godly council and two godly people tell you exactly opposite opinions on something? What if you fast and pray and you come up with no more direction than you started with? Why is it with difficult decisions that you only see what the right timing would have been in retrospect?

Now, I have never had all of that happen to me all at once. I have had each of those things happen at different times and different decision points in my life. It gets confusing. There are all sorts of strategies out there for determining and discerning God’s will. If there was a perfect plan, I have yet to find it because in my experience, God always finds ways around all those strategies to come up with something better than I could have planned for or anyone could have prepped me for.

So, here is the key – you don’t have to navigate through all those above questions perfectly in order to have a great outcome. Here is what you have to do…seek the Lord. Just keep seeking. Keep fighting on. Keep being faithful…seek the Lord. You will mess it up. It won’t be perfect. The timing could have been better or a decision could have turned out better…but what is most important is not making every decision perfect but that the distance between you and God is getting smaller every day.

The Greatest Command: It’s Okay to Love Yourself

2 Timothy 3:1-5 warns,

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

How often do we talk about the love we should have for ourselves? Maybe one reason we don’t do that very often is because 2 Tim 3:2 tells us that a horrible day is coming when people will be lovers of themselves. So we see love of self as an evil to be avoided. You might even feel guilty to think about loving yourself. But here is what Jesus said in Matthew 22,

““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In these two verses we have love of God, love of others and an implied love of self. You will notice that Jesus didn’t need to command us to love ourselves but he did imply that we can and should have a healthy love for our own self. Commands are usually given for things we don’t do naturally…I mean, where is the command in the Bible to eat three meals a day, right? We don’t need anyone commanding us to do things that come naturally.We would all say that God loves us. Millions of people can quote John 3:16 which says exactly that. Many millions grew up singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know…for the Bible tells me so.” We know Jesus loves kids but once we become adults and become aware of our own sinfulness it becomes a lot harder to have a healthy love for yourself. It is hard to see ourselves as forgiven and let go of our guilt.

It is hard to see ourselves as valuable but here is the deal…we don’t have value apart from Christ. The only reason we have any value to begin with is solely because we are made in the image of God and in that passage in Genesis 1:26ff, Scripture says “Let us make man in our image…” – plural. Are we made in the image of Christ as well?, only to have sin mar that image only to later have Jesus come to reconcile and restore that within us back to our initial state? Here is my point…you do have value but not because of yourself. The value you have is because of God. God loves you, Jesus loves you, other Christians are commanded to love you…Jesus implies we ought to love ourselves as well…just don’t make the focus or the center of that love the love of self apart from Christ.

So, do you love yourself? If you struggle with that, what makes it so hard?

Principles Wrapped In Practices – Fasting

Jesus could just tell us to rely on God. Instead He taught His disciples how to fast. Jesus was the master teacher, wrapping up principles into practices. Repeating those practices solidify the principles Jesus wants us to make a part of our lives. What is more, Jesus doesn’t just tell them that they should fast and hope that they get the principles. Jesus tells them how the fasting is tied to the underlying principle,

““When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18

Why not just lecture them to be more concerned about what God thinks than about what men think? Why not preach a sermon on the value of trusting in God for what we need? Jesus could have pulled aside the twelve and explained to them how fasting will bring God & God’s will into clearer focus. He didn’t do that because there was a better way to teach it than just using words. He wrapped those principles up into practices…Instead of just telling, Jesus prescribed a practice that solidified the underlying principle he wanted them to get. It is up to us to make these things more than teachings,

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24-25

Jesus Understood People, What Do We Learn From That?

One of the things that stands out about Jesus was just how well he understood people. First there is the obvious…the Bible says everything in creation was made through Christ (John 1:3) so it makes sense that the creator would understand his creation. What is more, Jesus became a part of the creation by taking on flesh (John 1:14) and spending time with us. That certainly helped him understand people. Third, Jesus didn’t just know regular things about people. Jesus even knew their thoughts (Mark 2:8) and knew what they would do before they even did it (John 13:21). Jesus understood people and he used that knowledge to make people feel welcome. He used that knowledge to draw people to God. I think if I had that kind of knowledge I would probably end up pushing more people away from God than drawing people to God because I probably wouldn’t have enough common sense to use that knowledge effectively.

What do we learn from that?
What do we learn from Jesus’ ability to understand the people around him? First, we aren’t going to know people’s thoughts but we can invest in people so that we really can get to know them. This is tough in ministry, especially if you minister to a large group of people. It is impossible to be best friends with 80 or even 500 to 1000 people. It just won’t work. But it is important that we learn from Jesus to be available, to be interested in others, and to invest ourselves in the lives of those we can. When we do that we also will grow to understand people better than we have before and can use that knowledge to help bring about transformation in the lives of those God has sent our way.