Many churchgoers in the American church can live an entire life and never witness firsthand a church being planted. Thus, many do not know what they are missing. While for me, this is sad, it is a very real a picture of the overall health of the American church. Any church over time that does not actually grow and mature in what it means to make disciples is in danger of atrophy. By growth, I mean there is in the life of the church people coming through the doors, growing and changing to Christlikeness, and then going out to from the church to serve Christ in His Kingdom work. The pinnacle of this is seen in a church starting another church.
The word atrophy means, “A wasting away of the body or of an organ or part, as from defective nutrition or nerve damage; a decrease in size, a wasting away, or deterioration.” If there is no healthy inflow of people and outflow of people with intentionality, over time the church will slowly and often quietly crumble. You won’t even know it is happening until you walk in one day and see only a few people left hanging on for dear life. Atrophy.
There are some very real signs of atrophy.
1) The church seeks merely to survive. This is often motivated by fear. It is paralyzing and will cause both leadership and followship to not make the necessary changes so as not to “rock the boat.” What they don’t realize is the boat is already rocked and needs to be calmed with a clear vision of Christ and His church. The church is divided, unhealthy, and is in the process of atrophy. It’s subtle, but so destructive.
2) The church seeks merely to thrive. This too is often motivated by fear. This is the pendulum swinging the other way. Suddenly, change is the name of the game and change is made in bold ways that are often rushed and not well thought out and thus not really well communicated. Inadvertantly, this can be hurtful to people on many levels. The leadership looks horizontally to methods and personalities that can be somewhat mimicked for success. People who question leadership are often marginalized and thought of as “old fashioned” or “trouble causers” rather than shepherded and cared for. Growth can happen and often does at least numerically. But the good health of inflow and out flow of people and ministry doesn’t happen. Over time, stagnation and atrophy will show itself.
3) The church loses its heart of service to God. In its early form this shows up in people no longer interested in working at the very necessary levels like nurseries, ushers, greeters, etc. People lose the heart to serve others in the realm of the body of believers, so church attendance becomes sporadic, public services are dropped because no one comes and the vision for service for God and others is lost. Ulimately, discipleship and soul care of people wanes and the outflow of people for ministry dries up. Atrophy has the church by the neck and life is being suffocated out of the body.
There is only one remedy for atrophy. One. Through the careful preaching of the written Word of God a rebirth of a bibilcal understanding of the Living Word (Christ) must permeate every area of life in the body. The Gospel is central then to this important view of Christ. His person and His work then is driven home as the Word is preached with fervency and is received with humilty of heart. The result of this is two things: repentance from sin and faith in Christ. The person of Christ begins to flow (Gal 2:20) in the hearts of God’s people, service to God and others is restored, discipleship and soul care become the priority, and people go out with the message of the Gospel on their lips and their lives and impact their world. It’s not hard. The early church did it well with men who only knew how to fish.
Can you sense atrophy setting in? Don’t ignore it.