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FIRST PERSON: Waking the church

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–New Year’s celebrations are supposed to mark new beginnings, new opportunities and renewed hope. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

But rather than celebrating the new year, the members of Van Buren Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., held a wake. Mind you, it wasn’t your normal kind of wake. There were no flowers. No guestbook to sign. No funeral director standing discreetly by to offer his assistance. However, there was a body — the church body. On Jan. 2, 2005, we laid a church to rest.

Like cancer, the death of a church is a long, painful process. For months, years even, you feel like something is not quite right but you can’t put your finger on it. You try to lose weight. You start exercising and eating right. When those things don’t work, you buy the latest self-help book, hoping that you can find an answer to all that ails you. Next, you call in an expert. You carefully examine every area of your life, trying to identify the malady. And, then, comes the news and it’s all bad. The church is dying and there’s little hope.

That’s the way it was for Van Buren. They had once been healthy and vibrant. But something happened. It’s hard to say what it was. It probably wasn’t any one thing but a laundry list of little things, seemingly innocuous at the time. The church realized something wasn’t right. Old members were leaving or dying and new members weren’t coming. They tried all the right things: expository preaching, outreach events, Vacation Bible School, community picnics and, of course, a healthy dose of prayer.

During one Christmas they even gave every family in the community, 400 homes, a Bible trying to reach out to their neighbors. But, in the end, it wasn’t to be. The diagnosis was dark, the disease fatal. The church died.

Like the doctor who delivers the somber news and stands by the patient until the end, I had the distinction of being their pastor in the end. I led the meeting where we discussed the prospects for the future. I encouraged them to face the facts. The church they loved — and some had nourished from its birth 40 years earlier — was sick and needed help. In the end, they bravely faced the news, evaluated the situation, and determined they did not have the resources — financial and human — to carry on beyond 2004 unless God supernaturally remedied the situation. He sovereignly chose not to do so, and so they bowed out gracefully, singing of God’s glory, finding hope in Paul’s confidence that God’s work in their lives was not finished (Philippians 1:6). They closed their doors with an emotional rendition of “Without Him.”

Experts warn us that around 70 percent of all Southern Baptist churches have plateaued or are declining. That means that approximately 28,700 congregations are showing the same signs of decline or disease as Van Buren. The causes may be different but the prognosis is the same. Unless, by the grace of God, we turn our churches around, I won’t be the only pastor to deliver a eulogy for his church this year.

Take it from a survivor, you don’t want to go through this valley. But, be warned. If you’re slow in waking from your ecclesiastical slumber, it may be too late. You may wake up to your own church’s wake.

Rest in peace, Van Buren Baptist Church.
Peter Beck is a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he serves as the director of marketing. The seminary is located in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Peter Beck