He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" - Romans 8:32

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Sunday, October 23, 2011 

Crisis at County Seat First Church

Can we just leave churches to die? A worthy consideration by my Uncle Thom (Rainer):

The emails come to me in greater frequency. They are from search committees or similar groups at established churches around the United States. The church has been without a pastor for a long period, and there are few realistic candidates for consideration. The church has been in a modest decline for several years, but the period without a pastor has exacerbated the erosion. A crisis is imminent.

The Dilemma

Sometimes they are called traditional churches, but I prefer the nomenclature “established churches,” because of the confusion often associated with “traditional.” Simply stated, an established church has been around for at least ten years, sometimes well over 100 years. It has become established in the way it “does church,” and is often resistant to change.

I know that such a definition is nebulous. Sometimes I refer to these churches as “County Seat First Churches” because it communicates the stereotype of established churches. The church may not literally be in the county seat, but it was once the hub of the community, and now it is declining. Newer churches are perceived by many to be more relevant. The established church is also seen as change resistant with old ministries and programs. Committees or similar groups wield the power in the church, and are fiercely determined to keep control.

Now I realize that there are hundreds of exceptions to my stereotyping. Still, I estimate that there are as many as 250,000 churches in America that come close to fitting the description above.

The Pervasive Stereotype

I hear more and more pastors and seminary students say that they don’t want to go to a church like County Seat First Church. They have heard about the difficulties others have experienced at these churches. They have heard the condescending comments like: “It is easier to birth a baby than to resurrect the dead.”

Of course, the comment refers to the preference of church planting over leading an established church. And thank God for church planters. We need more of them. A new church is more likely to reach people than an established church. In no way am I suggesting that we have too much emphasis on church planting.

But I am not ready to give up on established churches.

The Problem with Giving Up

If church leaders across America decide in large numbers to give up on established churches, we simply will not replace them fast enough with new churches. The most optimistic church planting projections fall well short of replacing more than one-half of the churches in America.

Another problem with giving up is that many of the established churches do have great potential with the right kind of leadership. While many will resist change to the point of death, many are ready to move forward.

Finally, the new churches will soon be established churches. Most churches begin to demonstrate resistance to needed change within ten years of their founding. We will always have the challenge of County Seat First Church, regardless of location, denominational affiliation, or demographics.

A Call for Incarnational Leaders

Let us continue to train and send as many church planters as God provides. Let us continue to start new churches in an abundance of locations.

But please don’t give up on the established church.

We need leaders who will have a long-term perspective, who realize that, while change may be slow, it is possible. We need leaders who will love the existing congregants and lead them at a pace that will not divide the church. We need leaders who will love and live among the church members. We need leaders who will live and love in the community.

Jesus had an incarnational ministry. He lived and loved people where He was in His time on earth.

We need a missional mindset for the established church.

There is a crisis at County Seat First Church. But in the power of Him who sends, it is truly possible to see the crisis become the miraculous.

May God raise up a new generation of church planters and a generation of those who can love County Seat First Church.

We need both types of leaders. The need is urgent and the time is now.

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