Insights on Church Revitalization

2. SYMPTOMS OF A SICK CHURCH (1)

How do we know if a church needs "revitalizing"? Harry Reeder identifies a number of tell-tale symptoms. There are the obvious ones like declining numbers attending worship services and plummeting financial giving. But there are other less obvious signs as well. It is these we want to consider in this and in the next of our weekly insights.

One sign of a sick church, Reeder says, is an over-dependence upon programmes. In some churches there is an underlying belief that "success" rests on having the right kind of activities or church growth strategies in place. "If only we have the right programme" the thinking goes, "things will turn around. People will flock to the church, giving will soar, and all will be well." So the church embarks on a never-ending hunt for "the latest organized ministry or pre-packaged church growth plan" (p. 9), writes Harry Reeder, convinced that the number and impressiveness of these will guarantee its health.

But programmes in themselves can never impart life. God may use them as the channels of life and grace to a church, but they can't give it themselves. It is a serious mistake to transfer dependence and expectation from the Lord to a human programme. The fact that he is jealous for his glory practically ensures that a programme-dependent church will fail.

A second symptom of a sick church is an attitude of nostalgia, and an over-appreciation of tradition. Sometimes churches (and individual Christians) live in the past. They hark back to earlier "glory days," and their only concept of renewing a church is in fact to take it backwards to where it once was. Hand in hand with that is an immovable commitment to "the way things were done," to traditions in other words. Both these characteristics are signs of spiritual sickness.

"The past is important and should be celebrated," Harry Reeder writes, "but we need to realize that the pleasant river of nostalgia can swell into a sweeping current that takes the church backwards and downwards to destruction" (p. 11). Often nostalgia paints the past in unrealistic colours anyway. But more important, it puts a memory in the place Christ needs to have in a church's life.

Thirdly, sick churches are often personality dependent. They place a great deal of dependence upon strategic people (the pastor, the worship-leader etc.), and upon these people having a particular personality type. "Dying churches tend to rely on certain personality types," Harry Reeder says, "whether or not they have such people in the church" (p. 11). If the church is not growing, the reason, people say, is because the pastor is too introspective or too much a "nice people's person." If only we had a man with a bit of drive, with a "high D" personality type, everything would change.

The common characteristic of all these "symptoms of church sickness" is a focus on something other than Christ. The real source of problems - spiritual relationship with God through the gospel - is not in view. As important as programmes might be, as valid as a respect for the past is, and as critical as selected personalities might be to a church, none of these can guarantee its health. When they are depended on, they become a primary cause of sickness rather than strength. Christ alone can give life to a church (or, equally, to an individual Christian).

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