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Dallas pastor, Liberty dean examine ‘Why Churches Die’

DALLAS (BP)–“Church would be a whole lot easier if it were not for the members.” That honest assessment introduces a new book titled, “Why Churches Die: Diagnosing Lethal Poisons in the Body of Christ.” Co-authors Mac Brunson and Ergun Caner admit to being surprised when they heard a leading evangelical pastor make the comment as he admitted that he hated pastoring.

“Perhaps this statement is a bit strong,” they add. “Perhaps it is better said that he loved the calling, but the tangential bureaucracy of modern church life drove him crazy,” Brunson and Caner write.

Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, has served as president of the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference and president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. Caner began his ministry as a youth minister in Vincennes, Ind., and later served as pastor of a church in North Carolina. He now serves as dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va.

They offer common examples of things that wear down pastors:

— the spat over bulletins.

— the arguments over the color of choir robes.

— the quarrels concerning parking lots.

— the disputes over committees, deacons and sermon length.

“You get the point,” Brunson and Caner write. “It is a sad secret that many pastors secretly resign every Monday. They lie in bed, debating internally whether to get up or hide under the mattress.”

With a combined experience of 50 years of pastoring, the two men recognize that many church members go through the same internal war.

“They faithfully attend church but quietly rue getting up on Sunday,” they write. “… The silliness and sinfulness that consumes many churches drive Christians to survive church.”

Both men have written other books. Brunson’s two books, “The God You’ve Been Searching For” and “The Miracle You’ve Been Searching For” were released last year and Caner’s “Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Belief” was co-authored with brother Emir Caner. He’s written 10 other books.

In this new book from Broadman & Holman, the authors say they “identify the diseases that besiege local churches, tell how to excise the poisons and bring church back to the biblical model — joyous and encouraging.”

Brunson and Caner offer a New Testament survey of specific actions members are called to take.

“Looking over that list, one could easily become depressed,” the authors concede. “So many people attend church to be seen, to make connections or to attack one another. Often it seems that the majority of people who profess to be Christians do not act as Christians.”

Using a list they dub the “Holy Dozen” as a scriptural standard for church life, Brunson and Caner diagnose the most debilitating diseases in the body of Christ.

“Consider this an autopsy of churches that have died and a biopsy of churches that are seriously ill,” they write.

Brunson and Caner propose a spiritual autopsy to examine the root causes of the death of churches. “Why do Christians, many of whom have been raised and trained in godly churches and under biblical preaching, end up acting like pagans — in the church?” they ask.

Although the two men have changed the names and locations to “protect the infected,” they relate several examples revealing the presence of spiritual disease in various churches.

“These infections and poisons exist in churches across our land,” they write. “It is time to treat the illness and stop the infections.”

The “schizophrenic” fellowship described at Ephesus and the “chaotic” pattern at Corinth provide case studies from which today’s local churches can learn, the authors state.

“Scripture contains examples of men and women who were venomous. Like carnivorous animals, they prey on helpless and trusting sheep. They destroy the flock. The lives of these biblical characters are not to be emulated as good examples, but they should be studied intently,” they write.

“The purpose of this book is to expose the diseases, poisons and ailments found in almost epidemic proportions in virtually every church,” the authors write, offering a biblical treatment to help cure such churches. “Rather than waiting until the death of a church, fellowship or friendship and performing an autopsy, we believe it would be better to diagnose the problem while the church still has a chance of recovery.”

In offering what they call a classic case of spiritual manic depression, Brunson and Caner describe a member who comes forward at the invitation every service.

“The church was not cynical or hardened” toward the man, they explain. “They just understood … he was either witnessing the incredible, miraculous wonders of God or he was within scant moments of devastating failure.”

While the authors recognize some such individuals are thought to be emotionally unstable or suffering from a chemical imbalance, Brunson and Caner are convinced that for many “their emotional roller coaster is not a chemical or medical condition; it is a spiritual problem.” Furthermore, “they consume the time of staff and members alike. They are vocal and they are needy. They can also be dangerous.”

Brunson and Caner add, “Once they hit what seems to be an incurable depth, they are capable of the most ungodly responses. They lash out at other Christians. They respond angrily when you set limits in your relationship. They complain to anyone within earshot about your lack of Christian compassion, and if you are a church leader, they challenge your commitment to Christ and his work.”

Through the example of Simon Peter, Brunson and Caner write, “The Bible shows us that even the most unstable Christian can become a productive and vital leader in the fellowship. The authors called Peter “the patron saint for the spiritually manic-depressive.”

A further word of warning is offered to churches that grow mainly due to emotions and feelings. “A church that is averaging two hundred in attendance calls a new pastor and a new worship leader. Both are charismatic men with personalities that drip with enthusiasm. Both have the capacity to excite the church and draw them closer to God.”

Brunson and Caner fully expect such a church will grow. “Yet what if the pastor does not really feed the people the Word of God but preaches sermons filled with clichés and positive thinking? What if he uses illustrations that cause people to weep and laugh, even though they may not be biblical? What if the worship pastor leads each worship service to a crescendo of emotion and feeling?” they ask.

Even then the church often keeps growing, they predict. “Sadly, this is often the picture of the modern church. It is a mile wide — and about an inch deep.” Brunson and Caner warn such leaders, “What it takes to get them there, it will take to keep them there” as people search for a new place that equals the emotional plateaus to which they were drawn initially.”

In the closing chapter Brunson and Caner admit that the solutions offered in their brief study are neither simple nor easy. Reminding readers “there is a right way to do things, a right time to do things and a right spirit in which they must be enacted,” the authors say skipping any of these factors can be as dangerous as the disease itself.

Having “tested” their analysis on many pastors, staff members and members of local churches, their reviewers shared similar experiences that sparked further discussion.

“They would share stories of heartbreak, firings and seemingly incurable churches where pastors and members alike were equally afflicted,” Brunson and Caner wrote. “They told of small lesions that became big ulcers in their churches. They spoke of the devastating effects one member, one leader or one teacher can have on a fellowship that otherwise would be a warm and godly community of believers.”

By returning to Paul’s emphasis on familial support in the local church, Brunson and Caner relate how churches recover from devastating spiritual toxins to realize their calling in Christ. “As long as we are alive and he postpones his coming, our purpose is clear: We are called to be his ambassadors,” the authors state.

“As ambassadors, we do not have a right to fight over our particular embassies or argue over which liaison we like best. We are to carry out the wishes of our regent who established us as a pilgrim band.”
“Why Churches Die: Diagnosing Lethal Poisons in the Body of Christ” is available online at www.LifeWayStores.com

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter