Though there are signs to hearten and cheer us in various places, nevertheless an ever-deepening crisis concerns the demise of smaller churches, often, but not always, in little towns and villages.
Sometimes the factors driving decline may be peculiar to particular localities and settings – for example the extraordinarily high price of housing in certain localities, say in London, which means that the average person cannot afford to live there.
But apart from specific difficulties, it is worth thinking about more general considerations that the evangelical community, concerned for Christ’s cause, needs to face.
Spiritual state of the UK
Starting here does give a general context to the demise. Of course secularism expects the churches in Britain to fade into oblivion as outdated relics of a bygone age of foolish faith. But Scripture would tell us that it is not ‘progress’ that makes a land spiritually barren. It must be due to the judgment of God. And where we have a country in which successive governments have written into law the promotion of attitudes and behaviour directly opposed to God’s standards, we are bound to see it as the inexorable slow-motion wrath of God in action.
This does not mean that we should abandon evangelism or that God does not save people today. But it does mean that the going is tough. The gospel is directly opposed by those who hold the levers of power and who shape public opinion.
Some try to be upbeat by saying ‘Well, we are simply back in the situation faced in Acts.’ But that is actually far from true. There are now hindrances that the early church never faced. ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news.’ The gospel was ‘news’ to the first century world. But our times dismiss it as ‘old hat’. And with political correctness dominating public discourse, the exclusive claims of Christ and the call to a godly life look restrictive and bad, not good. It is assumed that Christianity has been tried in the past and is now found wanting.
Furthermore, the church of Acts did not have to contend with groups that call themselves churches, but having drifted from the gospel, are not churches at all. And further still, whereas the church of Acts was full of the power of the Spirit and holy love, the evangelical churches of today are rarely of that quality (this calls for repentance). Some are grim, joyless, unwelcoming places – fraught with in-fighting going back years. This too makes evangelism tough.
See the situation in context. It is easy for us to despise smaller churches and for their pastors to become despondent. Sometimes in their despair they simply give up.
Small churches, good and bad
Some smaller churches, having grasped the tendency of God we find in Scripture – to champion the needy and to use what is weak to show His power and glory – are full of faith. They are a joy to visit. They are a band of brothers and sisters, full of hope and love, who are up for anything so long as it is biblical and will promote Christ’s name.
But many smaller churches are not like that. They are discouraged and gloomy. Three obstacles to progress are especially common.
Obstacle 1 – ‘Our church’ mentality
The first is the attitude that sees the church as ‘our church’ (rather than primarily Christ’s church). This can be in terms of one prominent family who regard it as their church. Woven into that phrase ‘our church’ is a whole raft of unhelpful assumptions and attitudes including a cloying concern to keep things as they always have been for the comfort of those who have long attended. There is no desire to reach out intelligently to a modern world which is lost.
Obstacle 2 – Tricky individuals
The second road-block to progress in little churches is often a particularly difficult character. There can be one outspoken and angular person, male or female, who dominates the church. They say their church needs help, but actually what they want is help in keeping things precisely as they are, including their own hold on position in the church.
Obstacle 3 – Insular culture
A third hindrance can be when a church consists of a group of shy diffident people who are determined to remain so. They choose a pastor like themselves, who is not really a ‘people person’ and, although they would like to see the church grow, they do their best to avoid visitors. ‘It’s just the way we are,’ they protest. But the real test of our obedience to Christ is whether or not we will obey Him when His commands cut across our natural tendencies.
A few years ago a zealous young couple went to a small church determined to do what they could to help. They moved house and threw themselves into the work. But it was like bashing their heads against a brick wall. Eventually they decided to pull out. Sometimes the closure of small churches is down to themselves.
The attitude of large churches
It is of course wrong to generalise – not all larger churches are as I will now describe. But quite a few are.
Some large churches simply neglect helping smaller churches around them. In fact they might even despise their brothers and sisters in Christ simply because they are not ‘successful’ like them. The secular world is all about success and these churches too see success purely in terms of numbers. Lack of success is the new leprosy for these churches. They don’t wish to be seen to be associated in any way with the disease. They pass by on the other side.
Other large churches look upon the plight of smaller congregations as nothing other than an opportunity for them to build their own empires. ‘Yes, we will help you – but it can only be as a takeover.’ It is ecclesiastical Darwinism at work. Evidently, the strong are meant to prevail and the weak must go to the wall. These churches go in to help as lords not as servants. Understandably, many smaller churches take fright and refuse the offer of a takeover.
Still other stronger churches do feel a pang of conscience that they really ought to be helping the weak. But, realising they should do something they keep their commitment to a minimum, or shape it more in terms which will help them rather than the needy group. The small church is seen as a place to send young inexperienced preachers for a trial to fill the pulpit, but little else is done. Many large churches aspire to becoming a ‘hub church’ for the area. Reputation is what it is all about.
Being big often does mean that the Lord has blessed. But how is that genuine blessing to continue? The Lord Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).
Candidates for the ministry
The idea of being called to an obscure parish or little country chapel doesn’t go down well with many men who aspire to the ministry today. They frequently desire the security of being part of a team ministry, and of course they must be in a church which attracts students.
Listen to the challenging words of John Newton giving counsel to another minister: ‘Considering that our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, I have thought it a little strange, that when his ministers think He calls them to leave one charge for another, it should almost universally be from less to more; to a better income, to a larger town or a more genteel congregation. We seldom have an instance of a retrograde call. … For one to leave London for a charge in the country is rare indeed.’1
In all these areas something has got to change if churches are not to fold.
John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, www.pastorsacademy.org
1. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., Edited by Grant Gordon, Banner of Truth, 2009, p.262