One of the most wonderful experiences believers can share is being part of a strong, growing church. What a joy it is to share in a congregation that has unity, love, holiness, a sense of the Spirit in worship, Christ-centered preaching, God-fearing leaders, members of all age groups and ministries towards all members, and a passion for reaching the lost. In contrast, it is burdensome to be part of a dying congregation: Worship is mundane, large age group segments are absent, there is strife among members and coldness toward visitors, and there is no purposeful preaching of the gospel to the lost or the baptized.
Having been part of both thriving and dying churches, I have witnessed believers make choices that have either blessed or harmed the recovery of their congregations. Here are some humble suggestions on how to live godly when you are facing a dying church.
First, review the basics of the gospel. At the core of the life of any church is its faithfulness “with one mind [to strive] side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). When this is lost, the church will die spiritually, even if it does not die numerically. Faithful congregations can avoid this, in part, by reviewing the gospel regularly at the Lord Supper and Baptism, and by studying through the doctrine of the church as a means of grounding members in the gospel. Using the historic confessions and catechisms in Sunday and weekly teaching is helpful to this.
Second, look for signs of self-interest. Important to being a healthy body is that each member “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” and “outdo one another in showing honor” (Philippians 2:4; Romans 12:10). Church should be an experience in which each member is working hard to make everyone else feel like the Number 1 Person in the fellowship. Churches start a slow march to death when self-interest becomes the rule of the day. When you look at the ministries of your assembly and say, “There is nothing here for me,” or “I prefer the way things used to be,” you are not thinking of others; you are thinking only of yourself. A church in which many think of themselves rather than others will cease to be a church; it will become a dull party of everyone doing what is right in his own eyes (cf. Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 17:6; 1 Corinthians 1:26). This attitude led to Israel’s downfall, and it corrupted the church of Corinth.
Third, be slow to depart. Stay in the dying situation together with all of the saints and “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Be a change agent and think of what your presence means for those who will stay. Expect a turn-around to take several years of faithfulness—and that only after corporate repentance, great prayer for the mercy of God, church-wide deepening in the gospel, and wholesale fighting against self-interest.
Jumping ship is the easy thing to do, requiring no dependency on the Spirit of God. All leaving takes is a choice to abandon those with whom we have shared in the mutual love of Christ and one another. Staying takes prayer, patience, meekness, faithful service with reduced resources, and faith in what is not immediately visible—all things that are works of the Spirit, and not works of the flesh.
Fourth, seeks ways to give sacrificially. One unkind act that comes with a godly façade is that if something is not going the way I think it ought to go at church, then I should withhold my giving in protest. The thought behind this act is that when others and I drain the church of financial resources, we can stop the direction of the ministry. It is couched in sayings like, “God doesn’t want me to give to support that,” or “I’ll just designate my giving to support missions.”