In conversation with a clergy colleague whom I used to coach in leading a church in transformation (Her church ran out of money to pay me but that hasn’t stopped us from talking.) she asked the somewhat rhetorical question, “Are some churches unfixable?” That really got me thinking.
Theoretically and theologically (According to my theology which believes God can do anything.) no church is unfixable. When I consult with churches, I am often asked by church pastors and lay leaders if I believe their church is going to make it. Honestly, sometimes I have my doubts. It is not unusual for a church to not realize their need for revitalization and transformation until things have become grim. Many of our churches are not just unhealthy, they are on life support and it is time to pull the plug. But if you suggest that to the church leadership they want to give you a sound beating. If church leaders would direct their passion toward transformation instead of denial, more churches would be transformed and flourish.
Most leaders are unaware that a normal church loses an average of 10% of its membership on a good year. If there is change in the church or if there is conflict, the decline will often be much more dramatic. That means that most churches need to bring in a minimum of 10% of their present membership to stay even. Honestly, it is an unusual church that experiences that much “Growth.” Thus, most are consistently losing ground on a regular basis. Often the decline is very slow, incremental and hard to detect. Unless, of course we have one of our good old fashioned church fights that poisons the atmosphere in the church and speaks volumes to the surrounding unchurched about all that is wrong with the church. No doubt the unchurched look at the church in open warfare over issues that seem inconsequential to them (And are usually inconsequential to the church, really.) and think, “See, I knew there were good reasons to not go to church.” Every preconceived negative notion they have about the church is proven when we just have to have a fight. One of the best things we could do for evangelism and church growth is to think about how our fight will affect others before we have one. And then not have it.
But the question of the day is, are some churches unfixable? To answer that, allow me to share a story from early in my ministry journey. I was a student minister the Christian Church in Waddy, Kentucky. The Christian Church in Waddy is one of those wonderful churches that are willing to put up with the ineptness of student ministers to have a sermon every Sunday and help kids like me gain some experience and hone some skills. I still think fondly of those wonderful people. One summer day a car pulled up in front of the parsonage and a lovely young woman, who was a stranger to me, emerged. She introduced herself and told me that her mother was a member of the church. Her mother, Nellie, had not attended for a long time because of a chronic illness. In fact, she had stopped by to let me know her mother was in the hospital in Shelbyville and ask me to go visit her. I was happy to and left almost immediately for the hospital.
When I entered Nellie’s room I was struck by how small she was. A better word would be emaciated. She could not have weighed more than 100 pounds. As we conversed she shared that she had come to the hospital because she could not hold down any food. I asked her how long she had been ill. She said, “About 20 years.” I thought, but didn’t say, Wow! Later in the conversation I mentioned that I had met her daughter and we talked about her for a while. Having a child, I assumed she was married so I asked about her husband. At that question an amazing change came over her. Within seconds Nellie’s demeanor totally changed. No longer warm and engaging, she became hostile and surly. It was as if a storm had suddenly internally overtaken her. Her voice even changed. It took on an edge. She told me she was no longer married. That she and her daughter’s father had divorced. From her profoundly negative response I thought the divorce must have been recent. Divorces take some time to get over – to get past. There is a grieving period.
Again I was completely floored when she said they had been divorced for several years. My mind started clicking and I asked her exactly how long they had been divorced. She replied, “About 20 years.” In my head the lights flashed and the warning sirens went off: Twenty years sick and twenty years literally hating her ex-husband’s guts. Sounded like a significant connection to me.
Being young and stupid I asked her, “Nellie, have you ever considered that your illness and your obvious hatred for your ex-husband could be connected? Could it be that your hatred and unforgiveness are causing you to be ill?” She looked me directly in the eye for what seemed to be a very long time and then said, with the light coming on behind her eyes, “Yes. I believe there is a connection.”
“Would you like for me to pray with you so you can forgive your ex and seek God’s healing?” I will never forget her reply. She simply said, “I’d rather die.” And she did.
So, can a church be unfixable. Yes, but only if it chooses to be. When a church is confronted with the need to change; with the need for transformation and refuses, it is saying the same thing Nellie said to me all those years ago in that Shelbyville, Kentucky, hospital. I’d rather die.
And that is, to me, the surprising answer I hear from many churches. They don’t say they would rather die. But they do refuse to change and that is basically declaring a death wish. And that is Unfixable.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved