How to Kill a Church

A prefatory note: This brief story was written based on conversations I’ve had with ministers, laypeople and leaders, young and old, rich and poor, and those no longer visiting church. 

It was a cold, December day and though the Nativity scene was brightly lit, the truth was all too dim: Main Street Church was dying.

After a series of meetings analyzing finances and low attendance numbers they accepted their reality. They would slowly, but surely, fail to meet the demands of their personnel, building, and grounds forcing an eventual church closing.

Before they closed down the church for good, they sought the quality advice of a seasoned minister, Noah Vale, to ensure they hadn’t missed anything. Just as any good doctor would do, Noah decided to spend a year evaluating his patient. He would, of course, hope to find the answer to several diagnostic questions: Was there even enough left to revive them to life? Do they still have tumors that need to be removed? Have they accepted their condition? Are they ready to do the hard work of rehab?

It was through this in-depth patient analysis that Noah realized there was an unhealthy pattern that emerged: how to kill a church. It was unfortunate that no one had shared these pitfalls with Main Street—perhaps they wouldn’t be as injured as they are now. Hopefully, these cautions will help save another church’s life.

Noah Vale decided to share this, a checklist for how to kill a church:

  1. Assume that people are looking for a church based purely on location. Don’t worry about getting to know your own neighbors, co-workers or acquaintances. If they need a church, they’ll ask you. Or, they’ll see it when they are driving by and be compelled to stop.
  2. There is no need for you to have a mission or a vision. It is enough that you feel that God wants there to be a church. It is not up to you to decide for what purpose, need, or connection in your city.
  3. Focus on money. Make all plans according to how much you do or do not have. Reduce your budget in key areas needed for growth. Examples include (but are not limited to) children’s programs, outreach, and communications. When difficult budget reductions are actually needed, continue funding personnel because of loyalty, regardless of job performance.
  4. Make poor decisions when hiring your ministers by focusing only on what you can afford, not seeking advise of professionals and other ministers, and elevating age and/or experience as the most important criteria.
  5. Rather than living as a community, think about yourself as a family. Families are difficult to join. They bicker and fight, lack a mission or purpose, and are together by obligation and history (or marriage).
  6. Refuse to admit that you need to change. Keep things exactly the way they are. Under no circumstances should you learn what it means to be relevant to your particular community.
  7. When you have conflict in the church, ignore it, downplay it, or isolate the individuals who are causing it. Do not address it in a healthy, open way. If the conflict is somehow resolved, be sure to carry a grudge. It’s important you do not forgive or forget.
  8. When filling volunteer leadership positions, regardless if they are necessary, do not look at the individual’s gifts or strengths. Rather, fill each place out of desperation.  Also, be sure that the volunteers serve years past their energy or success. And do not have any procedures in place to remove unhealthy volunteers.
  9. Be sure you do not communicate your needs, dreams, goals, concerns or observations with your ministers or one another. In fact, do not, under any circumstances, communicate anything effectively. This includes all forms of communication: print, digital or verbal.
  10. Refuse to make sacrifices of time, money, energy, and emotions. If you must sacrifice, make sure to compare with others for equal effort. Also, be sure that everyone knows what kinds of sacrifices you are making.
  11. It is important that you do not learn from your past mistakes. Be sure to repeat them often. When you think of your past, it’s best if you do not remember your history correctly. Do not become good storytellers.
  12. Above all, forget why you are a church in the first place. Obviously, this has nothing to do with God, love and people. It is about meetings, committees, money and reputation—a place to spend your time.

Now that the warning signs were laid out, it was up to Main Street Church to decide if they could, and would, change their ways. At the least, it is hopeful that their discovery will help others.

Zachary Bailes

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About the Author
Bailes holds a Master of Divinity from Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is the Editor of Crazy Liberals and Conservatives, a website dedicated to engaging the intersection of faith and public life.

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  • Cindi Knox

    But, alas, it was to Noah Vale

    • Georgianna

      ouch…that was painful! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/PastorSamBrannon Samuel Brannon

    Can I use this article in my January newsletter?

    • abpnews

      Of course! Please site: “This article originally ran on the ABPNews blog (www.baptistnews.com/blog) on December 11, 2012.” and give credit to Zachary Bailes. Thanks!

      • http://www.facebook.com/PastorSamBrannon Samuel Brannon

        Thanks…

      • http://www.facebook.com/zerohero38 Joe Adams

        *cite

        • abpnews

          (sheepish) Thanks, obviously our editor doesn’t write the comments!

      • Naomi golter

        I would also like to use this in our news letter and would be happy to give proper credit. Would that be OK?

        • abpnews

          Of course!

  • http://www.facebook.com/moore.stuartj Stuart J. Moore

    Painfully true that congregations can’t always see this in themselves. And it is hard when there are so few “able bodies” that “the willing” serve in places more than “the qualified.”

    Our current church is shifting. They are doing some things well, but many things on this list are still occurring. I specifically related to history and storytelling. In our church, almost every story begins with “20/30 years ago, we used to….” They are living in glory days gone by.

    Many congregants say that they want “young people,” but don’t want anything to change that might attract that constituency.

    For all those with good intentions, may they see the illness of their ways and seek attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000836608135 Kate Eion

    A more appropriate title would have been ‘How the church is committing suicide’. I see it constantly and it is frustrating and sad.

  • diane

    My main concern with churches is their (excuse the term) “Holier than thou” attitude toward other churches and religions. We’re bigger, we’re better, we have a better sound system…we have a larger/wealthier/more prestigious…etc congregation…… Competition needs to STOP……IT IS NOT GODLY BEHAVIOR. Churchs work best when they support one another.

  • ed schwartz

    well said i will be 63 in janauary, and head of property from 1992 till now, my crew consist of a 94 year old 89 year old, and a 88 year old, and my self, i am not as active becaused i suffer a stroke. i am not as active becaused of my stroke, when i asked young people to join are committee. i get i dont want the headaches that you have running the church property

  • Bea

    This can also be seen in: http://issendai.livejournal.com/572510.html

    A lot of churches are sick systems. A Lot. Like, most. Which is why a lot of those “young people” that all the churches claim they want are remaining unchurched. Because the systems are so unhealthy and sane people don’t walk into them.

  • Susan O’Shea

    Oh, boy! This nails it. I don’t think we can ‘save’ the institutional church. I think we’ll just have to grow something else along side it. What if we built multipurpose community centers in, say, oh, the community? Multiple investors, professional maintenance. How about a common secretarial pool serving a half dozen parishes?

  • Suzanne

    Thank you so much — and thanks to The Christian Left for posting this on facebook. Talk about a message from God! Our church in our small eastern NC town fits every one of these points to a T! The “established power” in the church refuses to budge and our minister lacks the backbone to challenge them. My husband & I have practically been shut out of our previous leadership positions because we dare to push these very issues. With your permission, I’d like to pass this article along to our minister and several in our membership. I’ll be curious to see if they’ll admit to recognizing themselves in these 12 points. Again, thank you!

    • abpnews

      Please, share away! Blessings on your efforts!

    • Wayne A Yost

      If you and your husband were “shut down” do you really expect the pastor to fair any better, particularly if the pastor stands alone. Throw the pastor to the lions and expect them to be tamed?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/allen.bennett.50 Allen Bennett

    Pointless article given that any church actually ordained and blessed by God will succeed… if you are having financial or community troubles, you might want to give up on pursuing something that the owner of the industry obviously isn’t supporting.

  • nymphas

    Baptists must look to their denominational roots to avoid their own coming collapsing attendance. These light hand clever philosophies won’t do. Back to the Bible or back to the jungle!

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