What is the life span of a church, or of a Christian community? That is a question which it is almost impossible to answer given the mystery of the church’s existence and Spirit-life … but it is decidedly a question, which needs to be asked. In an oblique way, it has been raised from the beginning of the teachings of Jesus, and is replete in the New Testament.

Consider that Jesus, in some of his concluding teachings about the inevitability of the gospel of the Kingdom being preached to every people group in the world before the end comes, also included a comment that: “those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-14).

Or look at the sobering first chapters of the Revelation of John (Rev. 2-3) which is written to the seven churches of Asia Minor only about one generation after their founding, and yet already many were drifting, were forgetful of their calling, were preoccupied with their inner life, were inclusive of false teachings, or pathological personalities, or had forgotten how to love, and so were in danger of ceasing to be churches (or, of having their lamp removed from the lampstand). The lessons of those seven churches should be a continual point of reference to present-day churches as they evaluate their own authenticity.

Then there is the progression of Paul’s awesome letter to the church at Ephesus, in which he lays out the whole eschatological design of the church as the demonstration of the message of Christ and of his New Creation/Kingdom, which is breathtaking. But I am convinced it is no accident that he moves to the conclusion in which he warns that the whole thing could come crashing down on their heads unless they realize that they are in a life and death battle with the prince of darkness and therefore must individually and corporately put on the whole armor of God daily in order to “stand against the wiles of the devil.”

For those of us who live in the post-Christian culture of North America, we have come to look upon all of those institutions or communities that designate themselves to be churches, and assume that somehow they are the church, whether or not they show any evidence of being the incarnation of Christ’s teachings, i.e., if they have a building and clergy and services and members, they must be churches, even if they are diminishing, and even if the light and knowledge of the gospel of Christ burns very dimly.

Churches that are alive make disciples. They grow spontaneously. They produce a second and third generation of disciples (members) who know how to make disciples, who in turn make disciples (those who know and obey and live out the teachings of Jesus).

Whenever any church or Christian community (and its participating members) dilutes, or displaces, or forgets its calling, then it reverts to the darkness. It may be the repository of a form of religion, but it is only marginally or questionably a church.

So, “what is the life span of a church?” is a question that needs to be visited purposefully and regularly by us.


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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