Read This Book

I’m coming off a long five days of conferences and gatherings and so I’ll make it short and sweet:

Read this book.

Paul Nixon is a United Methodist pastor who sums it all up here. What if all of us in professional ministry refused to lead dying congregations?  If God gives us gifts for apostolic leadership, why would we waste those gifts on ministry that doesn’t give God our best? 

A note to tired pastors:  there will also be a need for palliative care in congregations that are indeed dying and if your gifts are hand-holding and  marrying, burying, baptizing, and preaching comforting sermons, there are parishes that will need this leadership too.  But keep in mind that you are tending to the dying.  Let them go.

And the next question is:  how do you know your church is dying? 

It’s not about size.  I’ve worshipped recently with a congregation of less than 100 that is clearly alive, bold, and community-focussed.  And I’ve worshipped with  large congregations that haven’t done anything bold in decades.  Their building is a fortress.  Their ministry is drudgery.  A church is dying when there is no evidence of an urgent sense of discipleship.  Paul Nixon explains it well. 

So, read this book and let’s get moving.

4 responses to “Read This Book

  1. I actually pretty much hated this book. I thought the definition of “alive” was too narrow, and the quickness of casting off that which at first glance appears old/wornout/tired/useless appalling. I was looking for something imaginative, and what I got was “how to build a 1989 megachurch.” I’m not so interested in those “just have more small groups and leave your historic building behind” formulas that have been proven to build the same institutional pointlessness that he’s decrying. I want a book that thinks outside the box, and this wasn’t it.


    • Teri – thanks for your comment. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time with congregational leaders who share building issues (and have little energy for loving each other inside that building much less going out and making disciples) maybe I read this book with too much reckless abandon. But I really resonated with the call to become bold (aka more alive.) The two most life-changing things my former church did were utterly bold: start an adult computer training program and start another worshipping community. It was stunning. At a single meeting, someone had offered written proposal to train underemployed people in computers and not only did the elders’ eyes not glaze over, not only did they list all the reasons why we could not do this, but they immediately gave her $10K to get started. I have rarely seen that kind of risk-taking. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, cool things blossomed.

      I really do believe that many of our congregations are dead/dying. It’s not an indictment as much as it’s just the way things appear to be. There are church buildings that need a million dollars in repairs and no plan to do those repairs because we just can’t. The church doesn’t need to die but they won’t give up that building. Yes, some of the “answers” Nixon offered were tired, but the basic concepts were on target.


  2. Thanks for the post AND the comments about this book!

    I’ve been thinking about reading this, but haven’t yet precisely for the reasons Teri gives. And yet… there is *something* about the title that speaks to me.

    You see, I pastor a tiny, rural chuch in the midwest. The elephant-in-the-room is, well… imaginary. Many in the congregation *think* they’re a dying church because they are fewer in number and tend to be older.

    But in truth, the congregation reflects the area’s demographics. And we know the same thing is happening at mainline protestant churches of all shapes and sizes. This simply who they are—as the population of the area has shifted, so has this church.

    So I think I will read this book after all, because:
    • I do believe in pallative care for churches that really are dying.
    • I don’t believe any person or church is old/wornout/useless
    (and I don’t believe in the 80s megachurch fantasy in most situations)
    • I don’t believe I’m leading a dying church. . .

    . . . but I have to convince *them*!


  3. I think it is true that there are congregations whose buildings are serious liabilities. It’s the generalizations that got me–“if you have a historic building, it’s crap and you should sell it to the library and build something shiny and new.” umm, really? there’s no in between? not a single historic church building being used for ministry in creative ways?
    There are congregations that are dying and don’t know it, that are doing business for 1955 instead of 2011. I just think his assessment was overgeneralized and ultimately unhelpful because they are also for a church that’s already gone. I don’t want a church built on stereotypes of young people, that casts off people too old or too sick to “participate” (since that’s defined so narrowly I had to put it in quotes), or that simply decides that throwing away places saturated in prayer and hopes and fears and dreams and clouds of witnesses to get something “useful” (as though these places can’t be useful) is the first course of action.
    Are there buildings that need to be put to another use so congregations can do ministry more effectively? Yes. Are there “functional” new buildings housing dying congregations? Yes. Are there churches entirely made up of older people who are too tired after 60 years of doing ministry to do something new? Yes. Does that mean those people are useless? no.
    I guess the difficulty for me is two-fold, therefore. The overgeneralization based on stereotype, and the lack of imagination. Maybe I’m sensitive to that because I’m so ridiculously tired of BEING stereotyped as a “young person.” Maybe it’s because I’m tired of people who are critiquing the institutional church then offering prescriptions for how the church should be in every place, as if that’s not the basic purpose of an institution. Even just an acknowledgement that context matters, that we do ministry in our context, that what is a risk for one congregation would not be for another, that it is possible to do important, active, bold, lively, engaged, spirit-filled ministry in a historic building, bolstered by people 60+, and without wearing cool glasses and having a rock band…that would have helped me with this book. In other words, appearances can be deceiving, and context matters.

    And I serve a church with a dearth of 60+ year old people, and we have a rock band (and no “young people” come to that service–they come when there’s choir and organ, so take that, stereotypes!). lol.


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