Where Have All the Great Churches Gone?

In the previous post I echoed a question that some have asked regarding where have all the great Presidents gone? If you missed it, you can read my thoughts on the possibilities and the question itself but at the end of the post I mention that I am more concerned with a different question and that is, “What happened to all the great churches?” I meant it rhetorically but it got me thinking so I thought I’d unpack that a little.

The question usually comes in several variations:

“Why isn’t our church great anymore? We used to do this and this and this …and now … it’s not the same …”
“Which churches are really making a difference in our culture today?”

The first question is usually asked in conversation informally longing for the days of old. And the latter is usually asked from a pulpit or from some type of a stage or found in a book that is going to attempt to alter your perspective on the church, discipleship and what it really means to …. (insert book’s thesis here). Btw, a number of these books (and the people asking the question) are great, some not so much.

Now, let’s get some of the obvious things out of the way – certainly there are a number of great churches today. Secondly, the standard of measuring the greatness of churches deserves many more words than I intend on giving. So for the sake of simplicity, I’m merely suggesting that great churches are those that are deeply committed to following Jesus, rooted in Scripture and boldly and effectively proclaiming the good news of Jesus in their community and throughout their world.

The point of this post is that we don’t get too hung up on the question but move forward being intentional about being communities that truly love others and faithfully follow Jesus. But before we get there, we should allow ourselves to be humbled by the question, then motivated to live its answer in a way that is great in Christian Kingdom sense, not great in the world sense. Here’s a bit of what I mean.

There’s a question that’s often asked in pastor circles that goes likes this, “If you church suddenly closed down, would anyone in your community miss it?” It’s often met with a groan of fear, while the internal monologue worries over “Would we be missed??” It’s a question that gives small and mid-size churches a great deal of anxiety and it calls for all sorts of questions in larger ones.

I’m a big fan of the missional church conversation and I remember talking with a pastor whose church he described as “very missional.” They were very intentional about reaching out beyond their four walls and serve the community. He actually used this question as part of their mission statement, “We want to be a church that would be missed if we left the community.” I was dialed in as he told me that their building (that they inherited from a congregation that ceased to gather so they gave them the property for a $1) is used by various organizations in the community like AA, ESL, various Moms Groups, Girl Scouts even, and various other support groups.

I asked a couple questions regarding the interaction between the church community and these groups that met. He admitted there was very little but they were very comfortable with that. I was too, in the Christian sense but as I left for home, I couldn’t help but think that if this church closed down, these groups wouldn’t really miss them, they would only miss the free meeting space that the church approved.

I’m certainly not saying that those who participate in such groups should also be required to worship and tithe on Sundays in order to continue meeting there. I don’t believe in attaching such strings. Also, I still think this pastor has a great church and I still think they are on the right track of being missional and so forth but what I am saying is that these are not great examples of fulfilling their mission.

To go back to the earlier question that laments why isn’t our church “great” anymore. Greatness isn’t exclusively found in high attendance, building projects and an energetic atmosphere. In that sense, the church may have been large, but may not have actually been great. Certainly, those are all good things but I think we’ve seen how such “results” do not always give answers to the questions being asked.

Greatness is not to be equated with indispensable. There is nothing in the created in the world that is actually indispensable. As theists, we would say that only the existence of a Triune God is actually indispensable. Some might say this is circular, I’ll suggest that it is merely logical but in the Christian perspective, only God is indispensable.

Consider if we apply the question to outside the Church. Which company could we as a nation really go without? Which college/university if it were to suddenly close down would truly impact our society? Which institution is so great that if it were dissolved would truly bring ruin to us?

If Harvard closes down, students will apply to other Ivy League schools, if Apple loses it all, we’ll buy Samsung. If Facebook becomes the new MySpace, something else will become the new gathering point(s) of social networking.

Nothing in this world is so great that it is truly indispensable.

Which Jesus seemed intent on explaining when he to offer a paraphrase he said “Those who want to be great must become last.”
Those churches that really want to be great, must learn what it means to be “last” in this sense. Such communities need to be committed to “be great” in being sacrificial, great in loving, great in intentionally reaching out in a way that is truly Christian.

There are many churches that desire to be that – but I doubt any of us would say we are satisfied with how sacrificial, how loving, how far-reaching we are.
May we do more, give more, be more for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Feel free to offer your thoughts, push-backs and high praises allowed ;)



  1. This is such a great post. I would like permission to repost it on my blog.

  2. Hey Terry, I just checked out your blog – you have some good stuff on postmodernity and the church there – feel free to repost and thanks for reading/reposting. See you around.

  3. Ruthann A. says:

    I love this question, and I can give you an example of a church that one time was “great” that has become truly great. As a child growing up I went to a largely popular, extremely conservative church that was considered a “great” church. Attendance was high, people adhered to the dogma, christian vs. non-christian activities, entertainment, clothing codes, KJV, etc..

    At the same time there was a hurting urban neighborhood that, as I remember, the adults spent an inordinate amount of time grumbling about. Many of the discussions centered around ways to keep “them” out. “Them” referred mainly to the neighborhood kids who saw our enormous parking lot as a place to play and run. A few gates and fences will fix that, they thought, however, it didn’t stop “those kids,” however, because they proceeded to climb the fence and continue to play there anyway. So the next step was to add a big, hideous guard rail right down the center of the lot, which pretty much ruined the mood and the space. The kids stopped coming as much, then stopped coming at all.

    The adults also complained that when the neighborhood kids came to our children’s programs that they were a “bad influence” on us saintly (hah!) church kids. I met my first (gasp) Catholic friend there…I often wonder what happened to her…she was really nice…

    People that did happen to come visit from the neighborhood were initially accepted, and as long as they began adhering to the dogma and looking/acting/speaking like “church” people. Those that didn’t change fast enough were given the non-verbal message that their grace period had run out by the proverbial snub. Consequently, most people who arrived within our doors from the neighborhood didn’t last very long.

    Fast forward 25 years from my youth to the present. The popular pastor has left the church, and it has been through 3 or 4 other pastors since. Attendance has dropped over time, which meant the money coming in has dropped too. The gates to the parking lot and fences have rusted through (still waiting on that guard rail though…), and the church people who are left have turned the church of my childhood into a haven for these neighborhood kids, many from broken/dysfunctional homes who are exposed to alcohol, drugs, abuse of all kinds, and violence.

    Every Wednesday night there is a meal offered to these kids, many Then the children’s program commences with 50-60 children coming every week, consistently, and mostly from the neighborhood. They are shown Jesus’ love, given boundaries, and they know that in this place they are loved and cared about.

    On Sunday mornings a good portion of the congregation is comprised of broken people who have found the love of Jesus or are sensing His love and wanting to know more. Some of them are parents of “those kids.” The congregation now numbers less than 100, but they have become a truly “great” church. The building isn’t in pristine condition anymore either, but the atmosphere has become pristine, a place where Jesus’ love shines out from.

    Don’t feel like you have to post this comment, it’s as long as you blog for goodness’ sake, but I did want you to know. Trust you are and family are doing well. We miss you guys!

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