New Life for a Dead Church

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: Legend has it that in 1775, the English trading ship Octavius was discovered drifting among the icebergs in a remote area of the Arctic. The captain was found at his desk, apparently frozen as he made one last entry in his logbook. The crew was likewise found, some in their hammocks and some in the cabin, all frozen to death. The last date in the logbook showed that for 13 years, the Octavius had been moving among the ice pack, “a drifting sepulcher, manned by a frozen crew.” This is not very different from many churches out there—where members are stuck in position on cold pews going nowhere!

Have you ever visited a church that seemed a little cold, mechanical, and lifeless? Or have you wondered why we have many small churches that don’t seem to be growing— or why many big churches seem to be shedding members? As I travel for speaking appointments, it’s always refreshing to encounter a vibrant, growing congregation because, unfortunately, it seems to be the exception. Well, why are so many churches stagnating? Could it simply be that because iniquity abounds, the love of many has grown cold? (Matthew 24:12).

Perhaps you are part of one of these churches. You’ll generally know a dead church when you see one—the only outreach program is the sign on the building, and the youngest member is on Social Security.

The Scriptures tell us that the apostolic church was energized by the Holy Spirit and driven to spread the good news at any cost. This is why in one generation the gospel had penetrated into every corner of the Roman Empire (Colossians 1:23).

The Deadliest Infection
One of the best ways for you to experience a revival in a cold, sleepy, or dead church is to share Jesus with others. In fact, that’s the primary function of the church. So many small growth-less churches are so busy looking inward, after their own needs, that they only pay lip service to the great commission. The problem is that when our focus is inward and our needs are met, what happens? We stagnate, get bored, and don’t see church for what God meant it to be.

You know this is happening in a church member’s life when you hear, “I don’t get anything out of church.” Many Americans are spectator oriented; we are used to being entertained. Yet TV watching is a passive activity. You just sit there and soak it up. We often come to church with the same mindset, but in reality, church should predominately be where we go to give. We give our praise, our songs, our offerings, our service, and our attention to God.

If we would just escape this rut of thinking a church service is supposed to be a satisfying performance, we wouldn’t come away saying we didn’t get anything out of it. We would come away thanking the Lord we were able to come and give our praise and worship to Him. One evangelist who was asked to give his response to a rather dull church service simply responded, “The speaker wasn’t very interesting, but God sure was.”

The core reason people are bored with their churches is they have hearts void of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, seldom have an appetite for spiritual food. But if we were hungering after righteousness, we would be less concerned with perceived faults. “To a hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7).

Ellen White put it this way: “While the people are so destitute of God’s Holy Spirit, they cannot appreciate the preaching of the Word; but when the Spirit’s power touches their hearts, then the discourses given will not be without effect.”

Unfortunately, some pastors think the only solution for building church attendance is to break out the band and bring on dancing deacons. If your pastor seems to be floundering for solutions for church growth, perhaps he needs your help. Let him know you’re on his side and that you want the church to be alive and growing.

Advanced CPR for the Dying Church
The best way to energize a dead or cold church is to invite a non-member to attend with you or to win a new convert who will have that “first love” coursing through their veins.

You might say, “But I’m embarrassed to invite anyone to our church! It’s so cold and lifeless that a blast of Arctic air enshrouds you as soon as you enter the door!”

I believe that new converts or sincere people who visit your church hungering and thirsting after God will not so quickly notice the imperfections that seem obvious to you. Rather, they’ll help you get a fresh perspective.

One of the features of the body of Christ is that it constantly needs fresh transfusions of new converts to be healthy. The church must always be involved in evangelism to remain warm and vibrant. We are often caught in that vicious cycle of thinking our church is not ready for evangelism or new people when, in reality, evangelism and new people are the cure.

Working to keep others warm and alive in their Christian experience will help keep you from freezing!

And before you excuse yourself from reaching out to wake up the saints by saying you don’t have enough experience, remember that you have exactly the same qualifications the 12 disciples had when they started out. Jesus sent them out preaching even though they were not completely converted or perfectly trained. Sharing their faith was part of their conversion process.

If you think you are in a dying church, get involved. You can even gather warmth from the coldness of others. An igloo might be made of ice, but it keeps the inhabitants warm! Need some ideas? Here are four keys to get you going …

1. Start a home Bible study group. Some people who don’t go to church will often feel comfortable in a home Bible study. If you come to church each week glowing from a home study during the week, you will have some warmth and light to share.

2. Drown yourself in good Christian media and materials. Listen to elevating Christian CDs and DVDs and pass them around. This will help generate spiritual conversations and is like giving a bowl of hot spiritual soup to someone shivering and hungry.

3. Energize your Sabbath School. Make an uninteresting Sabbath class come alive by asking thought-provoking questions that stimulate biblical discussion. For example, “How can I know if I’m really converted?” Just remember to generate more light than heat with your questions and turn to God’s Word for the answers.

4. Pray for revival. Go home and get a piece of chalk. Draw a circle three feet in diameter on the floor. Kneel in the middle of the circle. And then pray that God will start a revival in that circle. When God starts a revival in that circle, a revival will have begun in your church.

When revival happens, you might face new problems. Instead of trying to survive in a cold, dead church, your church might grow so rapidly you’ll be wondering how you will now survive in a big church!

Survival Tips for a Small Church
One of the big problems that small churches face is the over-involvement in one another’s personal lives. Sometimes there is too much meddling in private business. There also seems to be a hesitancy to let newcomers integrate into church leadership, even if the “newcomer” has been a member there for 10 years.

Here are some ways to help your small church not only survive, but thrive …

1. Respect the privacy of other members and guard the privacy of your own home. While there might be nothing to hide, every family needs privacy. Ellen White wrote, “How many lives are made bitter by the breaking down of the walls which enclose the privacies of every family, and which are calculated to preserve its purity and sanctity!” Remember to give people their space and gracefully let them know when you need yours.

2. Refuse to be a link in the gossip chain. When someone comes to you with a “juicy” story about another member, you don’t have to listen. Try turning it back by responding, “Let’s pray for them and leave this in God’s hands.”

3. Don’t play favorites. While it might be a temptation to join the “in crowd,” remember Jesus was the friend of outcasts. He treated both John and Judas with equal love and respect.

4. Avoid power struggles for church leadership. Positions in small churches are generally held by a small group. People who cling to power often do so from a point of insecurity rather than strength. A person with leadership gifts who is strong in the Lord will not feel threatened by others and will give them an opportunity to exercise their talents. On the other hand, a person who is truly gifted doesn’t necessarily need the leadership title in order to exercise their gifts; they don’t mind if someone else gets the credit.

5. Search for hidden gifts. In a small church, it’s often the same few people who do most everything. This is sometimes due to somebody wanting to maintain control, but more often it is because the same people are always asked. These willing workers are being worn out. Naturally, in a small church, there is a smaller pool of talent to pick from, but if the leaders are willing to take a risk from time to time, they might discover undeveloped gifts and hidden talents in their midst that just need an opportunity to be cultivated.

6. Add some new enthusiasm. Sometimes a church is small because its witnessing program is stunted and needs a transfusion of new members. As I mentioned, the church must always be involved in evangelism to remain warm and vibrant. If it seems to you that church members are more interested in maintaining the status quo than praying for revival, you can step out and have a one-person evangelistic series by witnessing for Christ. Give Bible studies, hand out witnessing materials, or invite a physician to conduct a community health seminar on diabetes, hypertension, smoking recovery, or weight control. The opportunities are endless.

Survival Tips for a Big Church
The challenges and social dynamics in large churches are naturally different from small churches. While it’s easy for members in a small church to recognize a guest in their midst, it’s equally easy for a new visitor to get lost in the crowd at a big church.

Overall, the key to surviving in a big church is to have several small “churches” within the large congregation, while keeping your eyes open for those drifting at the edges. Anything you can do to make your worship experience seem more like a family gathering—a testimony time, for instance—helps people to connect with one another.

1. Take the initiative by reaching out to other people in the church. Some people complain they have no friends, but the problem is they’re not being friendly. “A man who has friends must himself be friendly” (Proverbs 18:24). Try greeting newcomers or sit by someone who seems to be alone in the crowd. It’s amazing how often people in a large church sit in the same place every week and never meet the folks sitting in other sections. Be friendly and try sitting in a different place each week!

2. If you have needs—such as for counseling, Bible study, or even practical necessities—make them known. Most large churches have pastoral staff or lay-leaders who can help with counseling needs or have contacts who can. Many are just waiting to be able to do their job of ministering! The pastor is often the last person to know when someone is sick, has experienced a tragedy, or is discouraged, because other members never tell him. If you don’t know how to locate someone to help you, a good way to start is by getting a copy of the church directory or the list of officers from the bulletin.

3. Don’t let the size of the church overwhelm you. You might not be able to know each member of the church individually, but perhaps you can start with your Sabbath School class. Try inviting a few class members to your home for lunch or sundown worship on a Sabbath evening.

4. Sit up in the front. If you feel like a lone minnow in a school of sardines, just swim up the aisle a little closer to shore where you are less likely to drown in a sea of distractions. I’ve noticed at my evangelistic meetings that the ones who sit up front are generally the ones who get baptized.

5. Participate whenever there is an opportunity. Try going to the midweek prayer meeting. The size of the crowd is usually not so overwhelming, and the atmosphere is much more like being part of a family. If the church is conducting an evangelistic series, ask how you can help. Nothing will revive your faith faster than watching and helping new people come to Jesus!

6. Break the habit of just being a pew warmer by getting involved. Find out who is in charge of the program you have an interest in and let them know you want to be involved. They would be overwhelmed with joy if you volunteered your services! If you don’t find the program that interests you, start it.

7. Start a church within a church. Find other members who share your desire for revival and burden for soul winning. Then meet together for singing, prayer, Bible study, and witnessing programs.

Church Is a Great Place to Be!
Church membership is not an elevator to heaven; yes, we sadly know that many names on the church rolls today might not be citizens of heaven. At the same time, Satan knows that “united we stand, divided we fall,” so he is working hard to divide God’s people so that our power evaporates.

Focusing solely on the challenges that threaten our churches can leave a person with the impression that being in God’s house is a negative experience. But in reality, God designed His church to be a very positive and loving environment. Yet even if we’re in a church that doesn’t meet this description, we must remain committed to God’s movement and treat His church with respect. “Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 12).

This is why it is so important that we glue our hands to the plow, squeeze until our knuckles are white, and never look back or let go! (Luke 9:62).


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