Why some dying churches are proud to be dying churches

Photo by Stanislav Ferrao on Unsplash

“We showed them what the Bible teaches and tried to set them straight, but they seemed to have their minds set on doing some strange things.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like…” he paused and scrunched up his face. “Like being inclusive. They seemed to care too much about growing.”

“But…the Gospel…didn’t Jesus…?” I stammered. Before I could finish the question, his phone rang and he picked it up. I walked away to give him space to talk in private.

I also decided to walk away from offering to preach and teach at his church.

Just a few minutes earlier, he told me that they were between ministers and needed someone to fill in. Since I do that for small congregations that don’t have their own ministers, I was about to offer myself.

But when he seemed to say that there is something unbiblical and wrong about being inclusive, about growing, I knew I had nothing to offer him.

More on that in a minute.

I left the conversation, got in my car, and turned on a podcast. The two men on the podcast talked about the Christian cultures in which they grew up.

One of the men grew up on my own branch of the Christian family tree: The Church of Christ. I found myself laughing and shouting “yes!” as he described in detail what it is like to be in a Church of Christ congregation.

Then he said something that made me pause, rewind, and listen again.

He said: “In the Church of Christ, we have not been so much about growing as we are about winnowing. We define being faithful in terms of who we cut off and exclude on the basis of certain scriptural purity tests.”

He went on to explain that those “scriptural purity tests” are often not about “big things” like the divinity of Jesus or the saving work of God; rather, we “flatten” all of Scripture so that every jot and tittle is equal in importance. Even when Scripture does not speak, we find a way to turn its silence into rigid rules. And those rules–drawn from the inferences we make from the Bible’s silence–become equal in importance to “essentials” like the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

He gave an example that is familiar to me: Church of Christ congregations that “split” over kitchens.

Twice in my life, I belonged to Church of Christ congregations that divided over ovens and refrigerators. Groups of people in each congregation insisted that, since the Bible is not explicit in its authorization of kitchens in church buildings, congregations that have kitchens “fall away”.

At both of the congregations that added kitchens to their fellowship rooms, large groups of members left (“split off”) and started new Church of Christ congregations just down the street. These new non-kitchen Church of Christ congregations disfellowshipped the congregations from which they split. They believed the Church of Christ congregations with kitchens in their buildings were in open rebellion against God’s will and, therefore, should be shamed and shunned for their sin.

This is one of the main reasons so many Church of Christ congregations are dead or dying. If you believe that the sign of your faithfulness to God is cutting off and excluding until you shrink to just a few lock-jawed holders-on, then you will be proud when only a few people are left.

You will point to the time that Jesus said that “only a few will find” [salvation] (Gospel of Matthew 7:13) as proof that you few are the faithful ones.

I can’t argue with any of this.

And I’m not even going to try.

Which is why I didn’t offer to come preach and teach at the man’s congregation. When he filed “inclusion” under the category of “strange teachings,” I knew right away that I believe in a different Bible, a different Christ, a different God, and a different Gospel.

There is unlikely to be anything that I can say to convince them that inclusion is the essence of the Gospel. They so set and trained their minds to enjoy exclusion that inclusion can only be bad news to them.

And when I preach, I : a) deliver good news and b) tell the truth. If I were to preach at a congregation where exclusion is good news, I would either have to deliver bad news or lie from the pulpit.

So I shook the man’s hand, thanked him for the conversation, and moved on. He and the few who are left in his congregation will be much happier as they proudly cut themselves off and die alone.

I am not happy about this. I am very sad. Grief-struck.

“He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart…” (Gospel of Mark 3:5).

Oh, that my heart and your heart might always grow softer and open wider to the people around us for this is the heart of God.

God’s inclusion…this is the Gospel.

This is the Way.

Grace and peace.


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Bert Bryan

COVID took Bert Bryan’s life on Saturday, January 2, 2021. You might not know Bert. As I thought about him last night, I had to admit that I didn’t know him that well either. We belonged to the same church for almost 20 years. I was in... Continue →