This question seems to be the reaction I receive every time
I bring up the idea of churches merging. I do not hear the same reaction when I
bring up the subject of churches splitting or closing their doors. What does the
unchurched in the community think when they see churches fight and split, only
to start or join another church around the corner? What do they think when they
see another decaying church building because it closed its doors? The usual discussion
turns to opinions of what someone else did that was wrong leading to what that
person would have done differently to solve all the problems. The reality I
have known in nearly three decades of ministry is that the root issue is the
same everywhere and the solution to all the problems is still found in scripture.
What happens is that people fail to see the root issue and, therefore, never
find the solution in scripture.
The extent of no churches in your area or churches on every
other corner is often determined based on where you live in the country. Areas of
our country that lack churches in their towns and cities can trace back to whether
there ever was a church there or if the church or churches died long ago. For
those of us who have lived most of our lives in the “Bible Belt,” we do not
always comprehend that there are towns and cities here in the United States
that have no churches. Most churches I know have little to no money designated
to plant churches here in the USA. Truth be told, they refuse to bring on “missionaries”
who stay in the states. They make statements like “missions is for other countries”
or “we don’t need any more churches here in the USA.” Yet, these same people become
angry at their church, leave, and start a new church around the corner so they
can have church their way.
Through years of ministry, I have uncovered a phenomenon of
church growth and decline. I have learned that the community of churches in an
area goes through growth and decline in a cyclical fashion. While one church is
in decline another church in the same area sees numerical growth. Over time, these
churches seem to flip roles. These ebbs and flows show a consistent, curious statistic.
If we look at the total number attending all the churches in the area going
back 30 years, 20 years, 10 years, and the total number now, we note a net loss
of church members. We found that every time there was a “church split” there
was a net loss of members for the overall community. We all know churches have
lived and grown off the back of other church’s members. The old pew hopping
routine was in full swing. Many walk away from church altogether. Now, we have
multiple churches near each other who are struggling to stay alive. Why, then,
I want to help us see God’s vision of the church. Churches say
they want a New Testament church like the early church. They have even ensured
the church name is connected to the early church to represent themselves as a
true biblical, New Testament church. When we look at the early church, we see
that almost nothing of what we are today looks like the early church. The Jews
had synagogues that the early church availed themselves for use as a meeting
place when possible, but they did not have a place of their own. Instead of buying
or building a large meeting place, the early church met in houses. This is not
to say that having a building today and not meeting in houses is unbiblical. It
simply means that the early church had no concept or, in many cases, ability to
have such a place.
The Bible describes the early church as “the church of Jerusalem,”
“the church of Antioch,” “the church of….” Although they met in different
houses, what we learn is that all believers in a local area were considered all
one church. They always saw themselves as one church meeting in many houses. We
do not need to duplicate this model. They had no choice; we do. We meet today in
what some call “the house of God” or “house of worship.” Could it not still be said
that all those who live in proximity, who hold to the truth of the scriptures
on salvation are not all in the same local church but meeting in different houses?
(At this time, I am prepared for the loud and long critics to wax eloquent on
the reasons this is not true.)
“The church on the other side of the street doesn’t agree
with us on important issues like which hymn book to use or, worse yet, they do
not use a hymn book.” “The church on the other corner doesn’t even have a Sunday
night service.” “The church on the next block doesn’t have Sunday school they
have…life classes.” How could we ever fellowship with those places when they
are obviously wrong in Bible teaching?
The truth is that if a person is biblically saved, is
meeting with others in a local body or church who are biblically saved and is reaching
others with the true Bible salvation message, then they are a part of the body
of Christ. Therefore, the early church would have considered them a part of the
entire local body or church. Over the last 2000 years there are those who call
themselves churches but have completely turned from the truth of scripture and
are not the true church. I am not speaking of them but of those who at least
claim to believe the exact same truth of the gospel.
What has separated us is preferences of practice (methods) not
principles of pure doctrine. The cause of most “church splits” is over
preferences, not principles. If we then have two churches near each other to say
they believe the same truth of scripture and both are struggling to keep the
doors open, then why have they not merged? Usually because the members,
including pastors, want to continue doing what they have always been doing
expecting to change the results.
Often members of a congregation have established leaders, practices,
and traditions that, in their words, cannot change. “This is our church. We
will never move.” “They don’t do things the way we do.” “I know those people over
at that other church. You should hear what I know.” “They are going liberal
over there.” “They are strict to the point of legalism.” “I don’t like their
music.” “I left there years ago because I didn’t like the way the pastor was
leading the church.” These statements go on and on.
The bottom line is that churches do not merge because of pride. (Read that again.)
Churches are splitting. Churches are closing. The lost are
dying and going to hell while we keep our four tiny churches on each corner
alive on life support. As Bible believers and born-again followers of Christ,
we need to take a serious look at what is happening around us.
Do we truly believe what we say we believe? In any community
I can find two or more churches whose doctrinal statements, though phrasing may
be different, are completely identical in beliefs. Yet, somehow, these churches
cannot fellowship or work together. Too often they are churches with a history
of beginning after splitting with the other church. They did not split on doctrine
as their statements show they believe the exact same thing. They split over
preferences that more than likely do not even pertain to today.
Some suppose that it may not be God’s will for churches to
merge. It is God who established the church and called it a body. In 1 Corinthians
12 we see that God put the body together complete with all the parts desiring
no part be missing. It is never God’s will for a section of the body to act
independently from the entire body expecting to do the task of a whole body. Churches
are limping on one leg, or trying to serve with no arms, or asking questions
but unable to hear because there are no ears. Unfortunately, many church bodies
are being kept alive by artificial means hoping no one pulls the plug. It is absolutely
God’s will for churches to merge if for no other reason than that they are
already biblically supposed to be a part of the whole local church body God
intended it to be. We have parts of bodies spread-out all over town. We need
the Great Physician to perform grafting surgery to heal the body.
Instead of letting another church die or splitting another
church, I propose that churches consider regrouping, rebuilding, then replanting.
What happens when you close one church location to join
another church? Don’t you lose ground on reaching the area where the first
church was? Assuming you are not talking about churches that are across the
street from one another, this is a legitimate question. This is why churches must
regroup, rebuild, then replant. The ultimate goal is to replant. If the church doesn’t
regroup and rebuild, it will die; thus, the potential for a replant is next to
Churches need to regroup. Again, this is not grouping up
with those who do not believe in the fundamental doctrines of scripture, but with
those who state clearly that they believe just as we do. Regrouping is illustrated
from a military view as shoring up the battle lines. There is no doubt we are
in spiritual warfare. What we continue to do is go into the battle with armor
off and half the body gone. I believe there comes a point where some church
groups are no longer engaged in the battle but are merely meeting weekly because
that is what they have always done. When you have multiple groups in an area
doing the same thing, the enemy wins. Church members and, even pastors, need to
recognize this, put away pride, and seek to regroup.
Regrouping is probably the most difficult of the three
steps. Regrouping takes the churches down a long road to merging. After nearly
30 years in ministry, we have developed a process to help churches do just
that. I commonly refer to it as the long steps to reach the spot where you ask
the 1000 questions to be answered to bring two churches together. The first step
is recognizing it is God’s will to do so. Then, they (leaders and congregation
alike) must lay aside pride and seek wisdom on God’s leading in leadership responsibility.
The pastor of a church is the one who will stand before God and answer for what
the church has done. No one else in the church will ever stand before God and
answer for the church, except for defying the God-given authority of the man of
God holding that role.
If more than one pastor is involved, who will be the pastor?
If we look back at the early church as our model of God’s plan, we find that
there were multiple Elders or Pastors in a local body. If you will, we do the
same today, we just don’t recognize it as such. There are churches all over your
town who believe exactly as you do, and they all have a Pastor/Elder. The local
church has a plurality of elders. How then is it, unlike the early church that
worked together and had all things in common, that today we do not work
together? Why is it today that two local groups struggling to stay alive cannot
come together to regroup under one roof instead of struggling under two roofs? Step
one is to regroup.
Step two is to rebuild. I do not mean rebuild a building or
buildings. I do not mean join large numbers to build bigger buildings. Rebuilding
does mean that the people will need to choose one location in which to meet. The
realization of this choice usually brings about the result of not doing step
one of regrouping. If the churches will allow the process to work in step one this
will not be an issue in step two. Too many churches have spent more time
building the local church with more classes, more programs, and more buildings
and failed to train and send. Hoarding members, building bigger ministries
leads to the death of a church.
I propose rebuilding the lives of the members thus
strengthening and rebuilding a healthy body. Two dying congregations coming
together is vital to the health of the whole body. It is the assembling of the
body that allows for edification/encouragement. At this step there must be an
extensive amount of time emphasizing the spiritual health of the people. Rebuilding
the foundations of doctrine provides the foundational truths for stability of the
Healing is needed as the leadership and members have exhausted
themselves holding a church together. Merging is not a quick fix to all
problems. Taking the time to heal during the rebuilding process cannot be
passed over. Status quo cannot be the play of the day. Long standing programs
and schedules need to be paused. Spiritual help and growth of the people is the
priority. How long this takes is unknown based upon many things. Regardless of
how long it takes, rebuilding the people cannot be overlooked.
Once there is a strong foundation of the body, the church
can begin to rebuild and restore broken relationships and fellowships over past
wrongs. The church must make right the wrongs of the past and rebuild relationships
with those who left church completely. Identify those who have been hurt by the
near death of the churches to help bring them back to the flock. Avoid and guard
against rebuilding this newly merged church through emptying the pews of
another; this is what started this near death to begin with.
As the church rebuilds its own spiritual walks and rebuilds
the broken pieces from the past, it will need to rebuild its outreach. The church
needs to emphasize reaching the lost and the unchurched. During the rebuilding
process the church is creating disciples who will fulfill the commission to go.
Classes, services, programs, and activities should all be geared to training
members to be prepared to go. But not everyone can go. There is a biblical principle
of financial giving so that others can go which is where most churches end in
their sending. However, if a church sends no one from their own church family
then that church is failing to follow the commission of God and eventually
leads to the death of the church. The rebuilding of the church is for only one
purpose and that is to go or to replant.
Replanting, the third and final step, can be a way in which
a called-out group can go back into the neighborhood of one of the previous
churches to become a new work reaching the lost and unchurched of that area, assuming
again the original church was not across the street. The focus is that a growing
church sends out of its congregation to reach out to “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” “Samaria,”
and the uttermost part of the earth. Failure to do this causes the death of the
Imagine, instead of churches dying in your community or
churches splitting, churches began regrouping, rebuilding, and replanting. Imagine
a community where the local church body is united for the cause of Christ. Imagine,
if with this church unity in the community, the ongoing church hopping became a
thing of the past. What if we were able to strengthen our “Jerusalem” and send
disciples to all the other areas?
Merging churches not only can be done, it should be done.
Merging churches should begin before another church closes or splits.