Why Does an Assembly Die?
Donald L. Norbie, Greeley, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Some proclaim that all is well in Christendom by pointing to the growth of mega churches. But the truth is that mega churches often grow by pulling people away from smaller churches. People may be attracted to a larger church by the more professional music programme, the elaborate facilities and the many special activities offered. And smaller churches continue to die out. It is reported that assemblies in the UK have declined in large numbers during the last fifty years, and the health of some assemblies in the USA and Canada is precarious. It is a struggle for a church to maintain spiritual health and vigour year after year, century after century. The Lord warned the church in Ephesus. ‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lamp stand from its place - unless you repent’, Rev. 2. 5. Today, the light of the gospel is not shining in areas where once it shone brightly. The lamp stand has been removed.
What are factors that lead to the death of a testimony?
Division can destroy or cripple a work, ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity, for there the Lord commanded the blessing’, Ps. 133. 1, 3. Division will take the heart out of an assembly; many will leave desiring peace. It may be a mortal wound. Elders must do all they can to preserve love and harmony in the flock. Paul warned the elders of Ephesus, ‘For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves’, Acts 20. 29-30.
Divisions may be caused by a doctrinal dispute. Today, churches often divide over the roles of men and women and over ‘pentecostal’ teaching. Here, elders must take a firm stand and make it known to the congregation. If some insist on women being in leadership or ‘tongues’ as the evidence of the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit,’ they should be encouraged to leave rather than to ferment trouble. These are doctrines that are not just theoretical but affect the functioning of the assembly. Elders may allow for differences in prophetic details and some other doctrines, provided there is not a divisive spirit.
Men desiring power may also cause divisions. John wrote, ‘Diotrephes, who loves to have the pre-eminence among them does not receive us’, 3 John 9. An assembly that once was flourishing in our area no longer exists because of this domineering spirit. An elder should not be self-willed, Titus 1. 7; he must be a team player, working with other men in humility.
Again division may be caused over a moral issue. A case of adultery, fornication, or some other moral sin may come to light. The elders must act and the whole assembly needs to unite behind them, rather than take sides with the offender. The church must stand together to purge out the ‘old leaven’ of sin, 1 Cor. 5. 7.
Another reason an assembly may die is because of the loss of conviction about local church truth. Unless there is a strong belief in the inspiration of scripture its relevance for today may be minimized, 2 Tim. 3. 16-17. Elders must be convinced of the need to obey the teaching concerning the church or else the desire to continue may die. Why struggle to begin and to continue an assembly if you are not different from other evangelical churches? It is much easier just to join one of them. Paul said, concerning his teaching about the church, ‘If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord’, 1 Cor. 14. 37. These are strong words, spoken with the same authority as Moses had at Mt. Sinai. These were not suggestions or opinions but commandments from the living God.
What are some of these distinctive truths which must be maintained? Christ is to be the centre of gathering, not a preacher, Matt. 18. 20; 1 Cor. 1. 12-15; worship is important, centred in the breaking of bread with an open meeting for men to participate, 1 Cor. 11. 23-28, yet emphasizing the priesthood of all, 1 Pet. 2. 5, 9; and the spiritual gifts of all should be encouraged, Rom. 12. 3-8; together with the differing roles of men and women, 1 Tim. 2. 11-14. Leadership should be by elders and not by a hired pastor, Titus 1. 5. Full time workers should live by faith and not with a guaranteed salary as if hired by men, Phil. 4. 15-18. This frees them to be the Lord’s servants, Gal. 1. 10. There are many other doctrines shared with evangelical churches but these are distinctive truths held by assemblies and should be maintained.
A Love of the World
A love of the world will sap spiritual life and destroy an assembly. The Lord said of the Ephesian church,’I have this against you that you have left your first love’, Rev. 2. 4. Another love has come in and captured your affection. A woman will sense it if her husband’s heart is being drawn to another woman. He may go through the outward motions of marriage but his heart is elsewhere. James, with all the fire of a prophet of old, writes, ‘Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?’, Jas. 4. 4. John writes in warning, ‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’, 1 John. 2. 15.
Many things may capture the affection of God’s people. Paul speaks of those who are ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’, 2 Tim. 3. 4. One’s life becomes centred in pleasure; weekends are occupied with skiing, hiking, fishing and other activities. There is little time spent reading the word and in prayer or for being involved in the life of the local church. He may even begin to drink, to gamble, or watch movies which glorify violence and sex, even to secretly watch pornography on the internet. The devil is very clever at breaking down one’s resistance to sin. Paul also speaks of some who are ‘lovers of money’, 2 Tim. 3. 2. One’s job or profession can become an obsession and there is the drive to succeed. Time is sacrificed with family and church to achieve goals and to make money. It is easy to rationalize the move by saying, ‘ W h e n I h a v e achieved my goals and feel financially secure, then I will have time for family and God’. James would call it spiritual adultery. The Holy Spirit is jealous of your love for God, Jas. 4. 5. Come back to your first love is the appeal of the Spirit to our generation.
Lack of Forgiveness
Another thing that will sap the life of an assembly is a lack of forgiveness. We are still imperfect, even though saved. ‘We all stumble in many things’, Jas. 3. 2. In the family of God there must be constant repentance, confession, and unending forgiveness, Matt. 6. 12. To forgive is difficult. One may desire justice, to be vindicated, to see the offender suffer. The initial anger may become sour and bitter in the brine of self-pity and revenge. This will destroy one’s own joy and peace, and bitterness is contagious. Scripture warns us that we must forgive, ‘lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble and by this many become defiled’, Heb. 12. 15. Others begin to take sides and the whole assembly may divide and self-destruct. ‘Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as God in Christ forgave you’, Eph. 4. 31-32. Elders must guard against a spirit of bitterness in any assembly. Counsel, warn, and discipline the offender. If bitterness continues it will destroy the fellowship. One may stop forgiving when God stops forgiving him.
Lack of Evangelism
Lack of evangelism in time will cause an assembly to wither and to die. Rachel cried to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die’, Gen. 30. 1. Her desire for children was so intense that she felt life was not worth living without them. But it is also true that without children her life would not be passed on. An assembly will gradually age and finally die out if there is not ongoing evangelism. Elderly saints are a blessing in an assembly but if all are elderly the assembly will soon die for without new life coming into an assembly its days are numbered. ‘Give us children’ should be our cry! To have children requires desire and effort. God said to Adam and Eve, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, Gen. 1. 28. To the church Christ says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations’, Matt. 28. 19. To evangelize requires compassion for the lost. Hell needs to become a burning reality in our thinking. To evangelize requires deliberate effort. Tracts are to be given out and homes visited. The church may hold a series of gospel meetings but earnest prayer needs to be made such as ‘Grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word’, Acts 4. 29. ‘Is the assembly growing or dying?’ is the question we need to ask. When did you last see sinners saved and baptized? Elders need to be concerned to shepherd the flock and to lead the saints in evangelism. We do well to remember the Lord’s warning or He may come and ‘remove your lamp stand from its place’, Rev. 2. 5.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.