A small band of thirty people congregate in the church auditorium. The orange carpeted risers are bare, the grand piano and pipe organ sit draped and mute. Radiating dedication, a pianist lacking natural talent plays a small Yamaha keyboard to provide background sound as an older gentleman leads in singing all four verses of three familiar hymns. He announces the number for each one and patiently waits as the congregation finds the correct page.
Projected onto the tattered collapsible screen at the front of the auditorium is the picture of a smiling baby. An inexperienced techie frantically pushes buttons, trying to turn it off. I wonder if the child is someone’s granddaughter.
Sunshine peeks through the dusty stained glass windows, but does little to dispel the cold chill of the big, empty room. Years ago the meager supply of warm air from the ancient heating system was supplemented by body heat from 600 church members.
Christmas lights twinkle on the trees decorating the spacious platform. In their simplicity they hide much of the worn carpeting, but do nothing to mask the protruding wires and extension cords which seem to go everywhere and nowhere at the same time. A smaller tree on the left is in desperate need of one new string of lights to cover its unlit middle and the spruce that leans too far right begs to be straightened.
I envision scenes from years past: a choir of 35 or 40 sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, clad in blue and white floor-length robes with matching v-neck collars. Every eye would have been glued on the director as they sang an anthem of praise. Six ushers, all men in suits and ties, taking the offering. And right before the sermon a solo, a duet, a ladies’ trio, or a men’s quartet; it was called “special” music.
Pastors, evangelists, and missionaries from all over the world placed their Bibles on the smooth surface of the elevated dais, then took off their watches and laid them on the beveled edge to appear cognizant of the time. Today’s speaker, who is my husband, abandons the ornate pulpit for a small podium, one that he pushed down the center aisle so he could make eye contact with the thirty faithfuls huddled on the back six rows. As he begins to speak, I hear a faint buzz in the microphone. No one else seems to notice.
I shiver inside my warm jacket and ask God, “What happened here?” A multitude of church members have left and it feels as if the Holy Spirit left with them.
My husband serves as a regional director for our denomination and I travel with him to visit member congregations. It is our responsibility to help each body of believers find the resources and personnel they need to reach and maintain their maximum potential. This particular church is located on the outskirts of our jurisdiction and this is our first visit.
The main building sits in the middle of the large property and provides 8,000 square feet of space divided into an auditorium, classrooms, offices, fellowship hall, and nurseries. Another long, narrow building once used as a Christian school sits to the north and a large parking lot stretches the length of the south side. There is a small weed infested playground behind the sanctuary.
The location of the church is a realtor’s dream. Built on a moderately elevated plateau to the north of downtown, the third story and the ancient spire are visible from just about anywhere in the bustling city. If the property has to be sold, a new work will find it difficult to duplicate the possibilities this site offers.
I have heard my husband’s sermon several times so my mind wanders. We walked through the downtown shops yesterday to visit with the local merchants and learned that a great many people used to go to this church. They were reluctant to tell us why they left but their guarded eyes and the quick change of subject spoke for them.
Regardless of what happened in the past, what they are doing now is obviously not working. A frank discussion with the leadership and a reality check are definitely in order. It will come as we meet with key people after dinner but how it will be received is anybody’s guess.
How can we redeem this gospel witness? Would a change in style make a difference? Newer music, a more modern décor? A younger pastor? Certainly a good piano player would help but nothing in Scripture suggests that the age of the pastor, a particular type of music or a contemporary church interior has anything to do with church growth.
In this situation, the foundation has crumbled and a quick fix is not possible. The church is people and key people need to be put into place:
-a dedicated, hard-working, Bible-believing pastor, willing to serve regardless of financial gain; emphasis on hard-working
-a core of idealistic, evangelistic believers willing to canvass the community; emphasis on evangelistic
-a group of financially stable senior saints willing to sacrificially give; emphasis on sacrificial
-a motivated band of skilled handy men and sturdy women to clean, repair and upgrade the facilities; emphasis on skilled
-a cluster of faithful prayer warriors bent on storming heaven in search of God’s blessing; emphasis on faithful
Along with key people, simple Biblical attitudes are necessary:
-an all pervasive attitude of optimism, emphasis on attitude
-a willingness to change, emphasis on CHANGE
By definition, a church is also a building and what people see on the outside determines their impression of what goes on inside. These things are also essential to the success of this church:
-a name change and other significant actions, i.e. painting, signage, that speak of “new management,” emphasis on new
-additional ministries to utilize the space, help finance the property, and provide community services, emphasis on service
Can this church be restored? Can we convince the leadership that continuing in the same patterns guarantees extinction? We have dealt with this scenario before—a once vibrant church dwindled down to thirty or forty elderly people— some boards took the risk and made major changes, others clung to their preferences and closed the doors.
Can we find a pastor, young believers, and others interested in being part of a make-over? A young pastor would have to work a second job, making ministry more difficult. There are a lot of older men supplemented by retirement funds who are willing to serve but can they handle the amount of work this project would require?
We could ask nearby college students to help in a blitz canvas, or perhaps a big event, such as a concert, to stimulate awareness of the church. However, this congregation doesn’t have the infrastructure to support even a small influx of people. If just three children showed up for Sunday School, they would not be able to handle them.
We have other churches in the area with people willing to help on a more permanent basis, IF they are given the freedom to initiate new ideas and establish new traditions. If we ask them to become part of the dying process, they will decline.
As my husband offers the closing prayer, I pray silently that God will direct the discussion over lunch. I ask for a miracle: that hearts will be open to reality and viable solutions. It occurs to me that none of the key ingredients God brought to my mind involve a great deal of money. All that’s necessary is people who are willing to sacrifice and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as He breathes new life into this once glorious church.
The baby is gone; my husband turns off the buzzing microphone.
I stand as we sing all four stanzas of the closing hymn.
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