Churches are dying all around us today. But I’m not sure Satan is always the one who’s shutting them down.
Sometimes, I believe God himself is shutting off the lights and throwing away the key. Why? Because those “houses of worship” are only interested in worshiping themselves.
One Friday afternoon, years ago, I was in the tech booth alone in the back of a church’s empty sanctuary typing my sermon notes into the video computer for Sunday. I didn’t want to be interrupted so, just in case, I made sure the sanctuary doors were locked. This was one of those times I needed to get my work done quickly and be able to get home.
Did I mention no one else was around?
The sanctuary ceiling lights were controlled by a panel at the other end of the room from me. From where I sat in the booth, the panel was directly in my line of vision. As I concentrated on the computer screen in front of me, I suddenly heard four distinct clicking noises, and the ceiling lights directly in front of me popped on and off—twice.
Immediately, at the first click, I had looked up. No one was at the light panel, and there was no other panel in the room to control that lighting system.
“Was someone playing a joke on me?”
When I finally got to the panel, there was no one there. I checked the nearby doors that exited the sanctuary. They were all still locked.
As I stood there trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened, my mind went to the only logical place I could find.
For several years I had been trying to move that church forward, but it was like pushing through molasses. Worship felt like it had an oppressive spirit keeping us from breaking through. I had wondered what was wrong, but that day I felt I had finally been confronted by the problem.
Something or someone wanted to let me know they were working there, too, that Friday afternoon. Actually, they had been working there a long time before I came, and would still be at work long after I’d gone.
I think Satan is pretty happy about how many of our churches have been operating. For years, some churches have existed for no one else but themselves. They’ve raised money to build nicer places to worship. They have built banquet halls to eat in, and even built their own recreation centers so they wouldn’t have to work out with those “heathens.” And they managed to do all this in the name of “outreach to the community,” when the community never really reaped any of the benefits.
In other words, the church made church “all about themselves.”
Instead of preaching the Gospel and drawing people out of sin to Christ, we’ve “massaged” the message, so we can be sure to take out anything offensive. No one’s worried about anyone else’s soul, we just want to make sure our cat makes it through the pearly gates!
But with the onset of Covid-19, thousands of churches began dying. Church strategists tell us downward trends in church growth were accelerated by the shutdown, and churches that would have died in 10 years were now dying overnight. Though some attribute the problems to the devil’s work, I think the devil has been well pleased up till now.
Instead, I’m afraid this might actually be the hand of God, clearing the table of all the deadwood so that he can start over from scratch.
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” – John 15:6
We used to go door to door asking people, “If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?” Instead, the church should have been asking, “If our church died today, would anyone in our community even notice we were gone?”
The answer for many is a resounding “no.”
God warned us a long time ago that when church became less about doing his will and more about having our way, he’d eventually put a stop to it.
“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” – Amos 5:21-24
Instead of returning to glorify him, serve our neighbors, and draw people to Christ, we try to fix things with human strategies. We change the style of the music, update some programs, do a little more advertising on social media. Nothing wrong with these things, however, they won’t make a bit of difference when the problem is not natural, but supernatural.
We exchange dead traditional worship for dead contemporary worship, dead programs from the 1990s for dead programs that are the latest thing. We exchange outdated technology for state-of-the-art equipment. But none of these things will make a spiritually dead church alive.
It’s like that movie, Weekend at Bernie’s. The plot is pretty ridiculous, but suffice it to say our two heroes have to keep people thinking a dead mob boss is still alive, or they will be killed. So they end up dragging his body out in public with them, with sunglasses covering his eyes. They manipulate his arms to wave at people, they even put him on water skis and let him bounce around on the waves. It’s less macabre and more ridiculous than it sounds.
And how ridiculous to think that a flurry of activity in a church means it’s still alive. We wave the arms of the corpse around, thinking we’ll fool people into thinking there’s still life in the old girl. What we don’t realize is we’re not fighting off a death by natural causes. What we are fighting is actually evil that has infiltrated the church’s ranks and compromised our true mission.
Trying to accomplish anything in those churches feels like carrying Bernie’s dead body on your back and into the pulpit every Sunday.
I believe that Friday afternoon in the church sanctuary, I was not really alone. There was someone trying to tell me something.
They were saying, “Preach your little sermon this Sunday if you like, but just remember who’s really in charge here. You may be the pastor, but we’re in control…”
If you want your church not only to survive but grow in the coming years, it will take more than trendy ideas. I believe God is no longer tolerating our games. If you want your church to thrive, stop making it about what you want.
Make your church the lighthouse in the community it was meant to be. Do so much good that you can’t help but draw people to the irresistible Christ they see in you. Be so dynamic that your city would mourn the day your church’s doors closed.
But if you won’t be that lighthouse, don’t be surprised when God turns off the lights and walks away himself. And don’t make the mistake of thinking he won’t do it just to make his point clear.
Like our dads used to say: He brought you into this world. He can take you out and make another one that looks just like you.
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.