Death on the Way to the Altar: Do Local Churches have to Die?
Many churches are suffering today around the world from persecution and hardship. Often their only solace is that in their suffering, they can rest in the promise of eternal reward for their faithful service and perseverance in the mission God has set for them. But there is another type of suffering in many of our North American churches, and it is that many are on the verge of collapse and death. Though the problem is often blamed on an antagonistic and secular culture, the true source of decline comes from within. Small wounds were allowed to grow into a festering infection. This conflict is worn on the faces of those few individuals that remain, and any would-be guests rarely stay long. And a word of warning – a dying church will not always have open conflict either. Many will die peacefully in their sleep since their conflict resides in their lack of willingness to live on mission.
We’ve all seen it. Some of you serve in a church like this, and you are longing to run away as far as you can without looking back so you will not have to watch the leprous bride die on your watch. We have been told that churches will die every year, and while sad, we are also told that the death of an individual church is natural and predictable. However, I call upon all of us to begin to see the local church with a renewed sense of compassion and responsibility once again. If we as pastors and elders claim to be called to lead the church, how can we stand by and watch the bride of Christ die on the way to the wedding feast?
Ezekiel 37:1-3 says: “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” (ESV)
When looking at the decaying and exposed bones of our suffering churches here in America, we cannot help but hear this same question echoing into our hearts from the mouth of God: “Can these bones live?”
The answer is well placed in the text as well: only God knows. But that is just it. Only God knows, yet we try and answer this for Him all the time by calling down judgement on ailing churches and writing their obituaries instead of recognizing that God is the only one that can make that final decision (see Revelation 2:5 for more details).
The story in Ezekiel goes on to show God’s ability to restore his people even though they seem to be destroyed in exile and far from God. God gives Ezekiel the power to prophesy life into the bones again, and to the amazement of the prophet, Ezekiel watches as they reanimate before his eyes. Do churches die? Yes. But the better question is this: do churches have to die? Certainly not! God has the power to breathe new life into old bones, if we will seek His guidance and power. Change will have to take place, but seek God, and He will help to lay out the path forward.