It is painfully apparent that many local churches are not growing.
It is clear from the scriptures that the Lord wants His church to grow. As souls are saved, people will be added to the body of Christ. However, since God has ordained the existence of local congregations as His only organizational structures on earth, the growth of His kingdom will most likely be manifest as local churches grow. Of course, the universal church can still expand regardless of what happens in various congregations. Over a period of time, a local church in one area may decline while another church in a different area may increase. Yet, each Christian who is a part of a local congregation surely wants to see the local church grow.
Unfortunately, it is painfully apparent that many local churches are not growing. Some congregations have existed for years with very little appreciable change in their numbers. Others were once much larger but have diminished in number over time. A few have even closed their doors. The reasons why these situations occur are probably as numerous as the different specific instances involved. Some things are just beyond human control. The area around the church building may deteriorate, or the economic condition of a region may force people to leave for jobs. In general, we live in a more mobile society were people move much more frequently than in past times. Yet, there are some reasons why a lot of congregations have declined about which we might be able to do something.
Lack Of Leadership: -- One reason is a lack of leadership. In nearly every human endeavor where people must work together, it has been a fairly universal, though not always absolute, observation that where there is no real leadership things tend to drift and eventually fall apart rather than move forward and make progress. Imagine what would happen to a flock without a shepherd. There must be a reason why God uses this figure of speech with regard to His church. God's plan for the organization of the church is that Christ is the head of the body (Col. 1:18). Yet, God has also ordained that there be elders in every local church as leaders to shepherd and oversee the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Too many congregations have existed for years without appointing elders. Of course, if there are no qualified men, no elders should be appointed. We do know that congregations existed in the first century for a time without elders (Acts 14:23). Yet, it is not God's intent that this should be a permanent situation. Many young Christians have grown up without ever having the experience of submitting to godly elders. Every single congregation should be working toward that day when qualified, godly elders can be ordained. The fact that so many churches today go for such a long time without elders does not speak well, whatever the reason. This lack of leadership is very likely one reason why many churches have dwindled.
Losing Young People: -- A second reason why a church may dwindle is that it loses its young people. Sometimes certain brethren have been heard to dismiss reports of baptisms when they are "just children of members." Yet, a preacher friend of mine has observed that if we simply had all the members' children still remaining faithful we could probably fill our buildings. I have worked with churches where there were some wonderful older saints, yet nearly every one of them had several grown children who were no longer serving he Lord. Other preachers have said that they have had the same experience. I do not profess to know all the reasons why. I do know that some very godly parents have done everything within their power to raise their children to be Christians and have been disappointed in the results. There are many forces at work in this world by which Satan tries to draw people away from the Lord. Children are free-will individuals and ultimately make their own choices in life. At the same time, I also know that a lot of parents who are Christians did very little to bring their children up in the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Just taking them to Bible study classes and church services are not enough. Their entire home life must be centered on seeking Christ first (Matt. 6:33). Many churches have undoubtedly dwindled because their young people were lost to the world.
Fighting And Bickering: -- Still another reason why some churches dwindle is that they have had their share of fighting and bickering. There is nothing that can drive people, both young and alod, away from a congregation faster than an atmosphere of feuding and fussing. "But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:15). Of course, there are times when truth is at stake and those who stand for truth must fight the good fight of the faith against error (1 Tim. 6:12). Yet even in this we must be careful how we go about the fight. The use of carnality in supposedly defending the truth can have serious consequences in souring people and opening the door for equally damnable errors (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Most of the time, however, the fighting and bickering that arise are not the result of standing for the truth but of self-centeredness in matters of opinion, judgment, and individual liberty. Some brother reaches a different conclusion, suggests an expediency, or engages in an action with which another disagrees, and, even though no principle of truth is at stake, a constant warfare erupts that tears things apart. We have too many people like Diortrephes (3 Jno. 9). Instead, we should endeavor to maintain unity of the spirit in the bond of peace by esteeming others better than ourself (Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:3). Congretations where this advice is not heeded often find themselves dwindling.
Failure To Convert: -- The primary function of the church is to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The chief way in which this function is accomplished is by preaching the gospel to a lost and dying world (Mk. 16:15). The early church grew very rapidly. Why? There are many factors which help to make up the explanation, but certainly one reason was that "the did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" and "those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts 5:42; 8:4). Too many today are content with coming to services one, two, or three times a week, warming a pew, watching the Bible class teacher, song leader, men wo lead prayer or wait on the table, and the preacher "do their thing," then go merrily on their way about their own daily lives. We have lost sight of what God wants every faithful Christian to do (see 2 Tim. 2:2). There will be two benefits of focusing more of our attention on evangelism. First, as lost souls are taught the truth, believe it, and obey the gospel, they will be added to the Lord (Acts 2:47). More faithful Christians do add up to larger numbers. Second, as we spend more tiem in seeking the lost, we will probably have less desire and energy to engage in those activities which tear down rather than build up. Experience shows that churches which do not direct their attention to saving souls usually have a tendency to dwindle.
Conclusion: -- These are not the only reasons why churches dwindle, but they are common causes. Also, it is not the purpose of this article to suggest that all cases where churches dwindle can necessarily be traced to the reasons stated here. As stated earlier, sometimes circumstances occur which are beyond people's control. Fewer numbers do not always translate nto being unacceptable with the Lord. The preaching of Noah saved only eight souls. Paul's response in Athens was apparently much less than what he had experienced in other places. God holds us responsible not for the results but only for the effort that we put forth (1 Cor. 3:5-7). Too much emphasis on numbers can result in watering down the gospel message just to please people. However, we need to remember that there are some things which we can do to promote the kind of growth that God wants, and there are some things that we can do to hinder such growth. Therefore, let us resolve to be a part of the solution rather than the problem by striving to promote the former through working for scriptural leadeship, training our children in the way of the Lord, pursuing the things that make for peace, and sounding forth the word to save the lost, while seeking to avoid the latter.
by Wayne S. Walker in Biblical Insights, Vol. 4, No. 9, Sept. 2004.
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