By Thom S. Rainer
What imagery comes to your mind when you hear the word “fortress”? A medieval castle? Fort Knox? Huge buildings with gates and locks and moats? Something that is almost impossible for the outside world to enter?
Any of those word pictures will work. The key is to keep people and possessions on the inside safe, and to keep people on the other side out.
If you talk to members in a dying church, most will deny that their church is a fortress. But in our [research of dying churches], we found that is exactly what was taking place. People in the community did not feel welcome in the church. Those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than reaching residents of the community.
You see, these churches really were fortresses. The very thought of making significant changes to reach and impact the community is frightening. To suggest that the church members begin to transition leadership to residents of the community seems absurd. It is our fortress, they say. Outsiders not welcome. We will fight to keep the church just as it is until we die.
And that day is not very far away.
When a church ceases to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death. Whenever local churches are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always exhorted to be other-centered.
Paul told the church at Philippi to look after the interests of others even as it considered its own interests: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:1–4).
Did you get that? Vibrant and living churches look after the interests of others. They are concerned for their communities. They open the door for others.
But dying churches are concerned with self-preservation. They are concerned with a certain way of doing church. They are all about self. Their doors are closed to the community. And even more sadly, most of the members in the dying church would not admit they are closed to those God has called them to reach and minister. Our [research] revealed, that at some point in its history, a dying church stops reaching and caring for the community.
The church does not look like or reflect the community in which it is located. Or if it does, it has stopped ministering to those around them.
God called the church to look outwardly.
Does your church try to reach and minister to its community, even to the point of giving up authority to better reach the people?
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. A respected researcher and former pastor, he has written more than 20 books, including many best sellers, such as I Am a Church Member. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons, several grandchildren, and live in Nashville, Tenn.