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Sean Lucas, drawing on some of the lessons he is learning while researching the history of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS, writes:

As part of the research work that I’ve been doing, I’ve tracked down various churches that are mentioned in biographical sketches or represented in various events. Just today, for example, I tried to find information about Point Breeze Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (where Harold Ockenga ministered); Central Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga (where Wilbur Cousar pastored); United Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, WV (where John Reed Miller served for a time) and Central Presbyterian Church in Jackson (where R. E. Hough pastored). What do these congregations have in common? They were all thriving, large, significant churches, pastored by conservative, talented men: and they no longer exist today.

Now, the reasons why these churches no longer exist are as various as the congregations themselves. Still, as late as the 1950s, they all were thriving congregations; and if congregational death can happen to these congregations, it can happen to my congregation and to yours. God’s mercy has been evident in the fact that FPC Jackson, a downtown church, has continued to thrive and prosper even as the city of Jackson, Mississippi, has changed several times through the decades.

But it would only take a generation for a church to show signs of decay: perhaps a poor pastoral choice; a failure to continue to preach God’s Word faithfully; a transition in the church’s understanding of mission; an inability to see and adapt to the neighborhood around it. It is enough to cause us as pastors to get our knees and to beg God to continue to grant mercy to our congregations and to grant them mercy in the generations after us.

You can read the whole post here.

Don’t forget Don Carson’s perceptive analysis and warning (my emphasis):

In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague . . . Dr. Paul Hiebert . . . . springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless.

One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments.

The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments.

The following generation denied the gospel: the "entailments" became everything.

Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.

. . . What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? . . . Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, home schooling, women's ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and countries have a full agenda of urgent, peripheral demands. Not for a moment am I suggesting we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?

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29 thoughts on “It Only Takes One Generation for a Church to Die”

  1. Jermayn says:

    So true I have seen it personally, having grown up in a church where my folks were saved in a ‘rocking’ church, they neglected the next generation (mine) and now the church is dead…

  2. David Roseberry says:

    Carson’s comment reminded me of an old saw about family money: ” the first generation accumulates, the next generation speculates, and the third generation dissipates.

  3. Reading this reminded me of something the late Ron Dunn said to a group of Campus Crusade Staff at their annual training, circa 1972:

    [quote from memory — not exact] If you go to seed on any given doctrine or idea, no matter how good or important it may be, you will fall into excess. But if you go to seed on Jesus Christ, you will remain in balance.

  4. I see this as not just about the local church, but can see whole denominations going this route. So much of what passes as Christianity today would not past muster 2 or 3 generations ago.

  5. Dave Lee says:

    I think that a congregational death is likely to occur when an extraordinarily gifted and beloved pastor who has led the church with much fruit hands off the baton to an ordinary, though faithful, preacher. Oh, what a pain that must be! I pray the congregation that I am a part of will stand faithfully until Christ returns. For that, we need God’s mercy.

  6. Ian Smith says:

    An interesting and related read might be J Edwin Orr’s ‘Campus Aflame,’ which describes the ebbs and flows of Christianity among college students in American history. If I were to say that the book had a specific thesis, it would be that without the Holy Spirit and revival, no institution, no matter how well founded can stand the test of time.

    There are ways to compensate–and many traditions have. By focusing on community, by separating from culture, by clinging to rituals. These in a way preserve a visible life, but without the internal indwelling of the Holy Spirit they ultimately lead to churches with no impact on the world around them for Christ.

  7. And you might want to look to Tim Keller as the kind of person who, while certainly still confessing the gospel, has in his other hand the “entailments” which seem extremely elevated in his theological expression.

    1. CG says:

      …you’re exhorting us to pray for that congregation’s faithfulness, right?

      Or are you just tossing lit matches?

      1. Alex Guggenheim says:

        I am stating an observation. Your wish to find something more is of course your creation.

        1. CG says:

          Hmm, “you might want to look” doesn’t sound like an observation, but rather a suggestion.

          And I think the criticism is unwarranted. You don’t even have to attend Keller’s church to see what he emphasizes. Just looking at his last couple books, the most recent was an in-depth look at the Gospel of Mark and the pivotal place of Christ in salvation history. The book before that was an elaboration of Jonathan Edwards’ argument that the gospel inspires us to work for shalom in society. The book before that was one contrasting the true gospel with false worldly idols like wealth and power.

          Now, certainly, there are those who work for shalom and lose sight of the gospel. There are those who legalistically abandon wealth and power, but lose sight of grace. But Keller, on the other hand, seems to go to great lengths to ground his positions in the gospel.

          Let us pray for that congregation’s faithfulness, certainly, but let us mortify our own self-righteousness, as well.

          1. Alex Guggenheeim says:

            Well then we’ll call it an observation with a suggestion but we will certainly disagree on our views of Keller’s trends. I believe it is toward “entailments”, you do not. So is the world of theological discussion. Best wishes on mortifying your self-righteousness.

  8. The centrality of the gospel is God loves each and every one of us and His love is absolute. When we begin to understand that and to ask God for His knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we will be on the way towards the life that is greater than the loss, death, and destruction that has ensnared our world. The love of God goes far beyond the strictures of religious organizations.

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    It Only Takes One Generation for a Church to Die

    Satan is relentless, attacking and leavening from multiple angles.

  10. Discipling the next generation requires that we teach them to disciple the generation after them.

  11. Neal Ammerman says:

    This is the story of the Church through its history. Each of the major denominations had their distinctive styles or worship, traditions, and minor doctrinal distinctives…but all had at their core the belief in the Infallibility of Scripture. This is not true today as a general rule. The Truth of the Gospel has continued on and has taken other shapes and sizes…often in either “offshoot” branches of the old denominations or as independent fellowships. Study history..the pattern repeats itself over and over. There are factors like demographics, but mostly it’s still essential to have a strong commitment to the study and preaching of the Word, and the commitment to teaching the people to learn and study and discern for themselves to teach the next generation. The first sign of a compromising church is a “soft” approach on inerrancy..questioning Creation, the Flood,the Depravity of Man’s condition.the need for Christ as the only Way of Salvation, etc. In even our evangelical outwardly strong churches today there is a weakening here that we need to guard against.

  12. Ian Smith says:

    This article has been in and out of my mind for most of the day. I believe that there are actually some underlying presuppositions that need to be examined/challenged/questioned.

    What are churches? Are buildings churches? Do church names mean anything? Are churches meant to last more than ‘one generation’? When a church closes, is it a bad thing? What is the role of church closing in regards to church planting? Should we desire churches to last more than one generation? When a church passes its prime, should we put it on life support or put it down? Do churches that should have closed years ago bring glory to God? Does our desire to have a building, leave a legacy, claim a territory mesh with the teachings of Jesus? Are we missing opportunities to go to where Jesus would have us go because we are bound to out-dated models, old buildings and church names and traditions?

  13. rosyatrandom says:

    You assume that a church’s death is due to some kind of failure to carry out its mission effectively — basically, mismanagement.

    Perhaps it is a failure of the mission itself that no inside endeavour could correct.

    Perhaps people didn’t want the church, or any church, any more.

    And perhaps you cannot do anything about that.

    1. Alex Guggenheeim says:

      In defense of the article, it offered a myriad of possibilities and not one overriding assumption as to why but that it can happen in one generation.

      1. rosyatrandom says:

        In my defense, I didn’t RTFA.

        Wait… is that a defense?

  14. Peter Morris says:

    “. . . What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? . . .”
    The fact that you don’t have to have a church because as they say, God is everywhere. Therefore you can be out digging the garden, in a shopping centre or in a car crash. All churches seem to do is to 1. Explain to a congregation, 1 persons’ view (preacher) of how to interpret the bible and 2. for people too congregate because they have no strength of faith within themselves to be able to go it alone and read and accept and interpret for themselves, any religious document, regardless of the ‘subgroup’ they feel they belong. People NEED to belong. That, in itself is a lack of faith.
    All, my own opinion, of course. :-)

  15. zrzzz says:

    Don’t you see? God wanted for your church to become a burned-out hulk where heroin addicts shoot-up and prostitutes fornicate for money. It’s all part of his glorious plan.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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