Spiritual Entropy: Part One

Dr. William F. Harrell

*This post was taken from Dr. Harrell’s website and is used by permission.

Note: I am well aware that others have recognized the problem addressed by this essay and have written about it. But, this article is drawn from personal observations over the past three years and beyond as I have preached in many of the kind of churches which are the subject of this piece. It is my hope that, coming from personal experience and observation, it will add a sense of urgency as we deal with the effects discussed.

Without trying to sound intellectual, I enjoy reading about quantum theory or quantum physics. It is very instructive and highly interesting. There is a spiritual side to all of this information which helps one better understand the omniscience and omnipresence of God as well as the other attributes we know about Him. One of the things one discovers when reading this kind of material is how intricately God has formed the universe even down to the super small components of atoms. The deeper we delve into this world the more we find that Someone had to design it. We know that Someone is God. There is no way that all we discover in the super small world of quantum physics could have just happened. It had to be intricately designed.

There are three laws of thermodynamics. Without lengthening this article by discussing all three laws, I want to focus on the second law of thermodynamics. This law is called the law of entropy. Entropy means, a process of degradation or running down or trend to disorder. This world and all that is in it will not last forever in its present state. This is due to entropy. God is going to change everything one day in order for it to last forever. The new heavens and the new earth will not be subject to entropy therefore it will be equipped to last forever. Entropy is not only a physical law. It can be seen in action in personal dynamics and human organizations which tend to “have their day” and then decline sometimes even into oblivion. So, personal relations are also subject to the law of entropy. Note the number of civic organizations that were once so big and powerful and in a few years they decline to the point of ineffectiveness. The same is true of churches. It has been observable that some very large and great churches have “had their day” and are now only a shadow of what they once were with every indicator diminishing. For the sake of this article, I want to focus on the spiritual organism we call the church and the larger “church” we call the Southern Baptist Convention made up, of course, by the state conventions and our entities.

It has long been noted that the majority of the churches in the SBC are not the larger ones which always get all the attention. The SBC is primarily made up of small churches with fewer than one hundred in attendance on Sunday. In fact, such churches make up approximately half of our forty-four thousand churches.

For the past three years I have had the privilege of preaching in a variety of churches made up of small and larger congregations. During this time I have been evaluating what was in store for the SBC if the law of entropy has its way. I have discovered something that our convention needs to recognize and make plans for if it is to remain effective in its scope and ministries. These smaller, mostly rural churches are declining rapidly due to two primary things. First, the society in which they once thrived is no longer primarily an agricultural society. In earlier days, these churches were located in certain areas of the rural setting for the convenience of the farmers in the area. The farm families in those days were large. The parents needed large families to help run the farm and harvest the crops. Therefore, the rural churches were populated in larger numbers as the parents brought their large families to church. These young people were the future of the church and the rural churches remained strong as they came to worship with the family. As the society shifted from an agricultural one to a more urban influence, those young people left the farm, went to college and prepared for a life in an urban setting which was anything but agricultural. In addition, the farm family became smaller because of the invention of farm machinery which made the larger family unnecessary for the operation of the agricultural process. This left the small rural church with a declining participation which grew smaller as the society shifted more and more away from agriculture and large rural families. As I have observed these churches, I have noticed that there are very few people in attendance which are younger than forty-five. They are there but their numbers are small. The majority of the people present are sixty-five and older. I’ve seen more grey and blue hair in the last three years than I ever imagined I would. If these churches are not inspired to reach out to others and witness to them, then they will continue to decline. As the congregation continues to age, there is less and less magnetic enthusiasm which is brought to a church with the energy of younger people. But, if I were a younger person, I would not find it encouraging to attend most of these churches because they are dead as a door nail. The energy has been consumed with the living of life. They have settled down into a dry, repetitive form of worship which leaves one unfulfilled and yearning for something more.

7 Comments

Andrew Barker 05-09-2016, 05:40

A brave title since many science graduates (I include myself) have to do a double take when talking/thinking about entropy! ;-) I’m not so sure that entropy is best applied to spiritual things since there is no running down of the available energy in the system. Whether or not the new heaven and new earth will be based upon different fundamental ‘laws’ of the universe …. your guess is probably as good as mine. But whatever decision you come to, I think it will at best still be a guess. Will we need to eat in heaven? Yet it is described in terms of a banquet! What purpose would food server? And what happens to the food, you know after we eat it?? Will we need ‘energy’ from food? There’s your entropy connection! There’s no ‘need’ of the sun (or moon) is there as the light comes from God. Sounds all too confusing to my mind. I’m left with accepting that it’s going to be different from what we expect and a whole lot better too. :-)

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norm 05-09-2016, 07:27

Cain demonstrated spiritual entropy; it’s nothing new. That young people are leaving rural areas is not an evidence of spiritual entropy, necessarily. As noted, larger commercial farms have contributed to the flight of young people into the cities. Other interests and industries draw them, too. So, older folks remaining in rural churches is still not necessarily a sign of spiritual entropy. And with fewer and fewer prospects for the gospel in such regions, then the flight of young people into the cities should not to be considered the spiritual entropy or evangelistic laziness of their parents and grandparents.

Now, if we want to rail against the kind of greed that has all but supplanted the small family farm, preach on. If we want to diagnose why young people are fleeing the church, then preach on.

It may very well be that the rural small churches will be closing their doors. That’s sad to think about. But the challenge is for Christ followers to adapt. It may be part of the natural life cycle of an organism such as the church to have it’s “days in the sun” followed by the gloominess of decline. But the gospel lives on.

For the past three months I have been preaching in just such a church as described in this post. The challenge for me is to motivate those in the fall and winter of their lives to be interested in the springtime of planting gospel seeds. Once in a thriving agricultural community, the church now finds itself amid a diminished local populace. Many of these members have not the energy to go door-knocking. But I believe that God is not near finished with them. It may be that we will establish a prayer ministry. Such is easily within the reach of those whose mobility and stamina are in short supply.

Spiritual entropy is no respecter of persons. It is a problem even in the most thriving churches one may know. It is an individual spiritual issue, but becomes a corporate church issue as it gains a foothold among increasing numbers of members. For whatever reasons our rural churches are declining, let us pray for them as we also pray for wisdom and creativity in getting the gospel to those who have left its roots back home. The fields are still white unto harvest.

Thank you, Dr, Harrell. I appreciate you and your ministry.

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Max 05-09-2016, 08:55

“It may be that we will establish a prayer ministry.”

Do it! SBC’s greatest need in this desperate hour is for a spirit of prayer – genuine intercession – to flow through its churches.

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Max 05-09-2016, 08:30

Before you can have spiritual entropy, you need “spirit.” As a 60+ year Southern Baptist, I haven’t witnessed much spirit in SBC life. In many churches, there’s not enough spiritual power to blow the dust off a peanut. Prayerless and powerless they are. We can explain much of what we see by the efforts of flesh and blood hammering out the teachings and traditions of men, rather than a life-giving spiritual atmosphere. Many reasons have been given for SBC decline – and the rural church dilemma is real – but when a people relegate the Holy Spirit to the back pew, crumbling and collapse should be expected. Without a leadership to usher in genuine revival, SBC will be populated with churches – small and large – with its members having an outward shell of faith, but starving for spiritual reality.

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JIm Poulos 05-09-2016, 09:47

SBC needs to own up to it’s own personal cultural conditioning. If not Baptists will become more and more isolated. This world is getting smaller and smaller by the minute. Spending what little energy it has on protecting its culture will end up holding nothing.

In the 4th chapter of Acts the believers prayed for courage not escape.

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Steve 05-09-2016, 10:47

My entire pastoral experience (1981-present) has been in the small churches you describe. While I agree with your assessment, I am also encouraged by what I am experiencing in my small (average attendance: 50-60) church in a small town (approx 6,000 people) in Southern Oregon. While the majority of our members are older adults, they are excited about serving younger families. I could give gruesome detail about the poverty, drug abuse, and family breakdown in our area, but our older adults serve 30 or more children in AWANA’s every week, around 70 or so children during our annual VBS, and for the past four years we have served our community with World Changers (having served over 70 families and community organizations). So, don’t give up hope. I pray regularly for the future of our ministry (I just turned 60 and have served this community/congregation for 25 years). But I am confident that God is raising up those that He will use to press on in the kind of community I serve. Thanks for your article, and I am looking forward to more of what you have to say.
Steve

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Ken 05-09-2016, 10:53

As a SBC Church that is over 108 years old, my interest in this topic is that as long as GOD desires a Church to remain in its present location – it will remain. The point of entropy is that in the natural world the law exists…but in the Supernatural world – the Holy Spirit can intervene at any time. I have, over the course of thirty years, seen Churches that have been revitalized through a concerted effort of those whom remained in the membership (no matter what age), and a focused leader who knew the difference between maintaining a Church and Restarting a Church. We, as SBC leaders need to consider that we often don’t communicate our expectation early enough, opting for, ‘Go therefore and make FRIENDS/CHURCHGOERS…’ rather than Disciples, thinking that more people, younger people, will solve the ‘problem.’ Given that for the entire duration of the SBC, there have been the majority of ‘small’ Churches, this should give us pause as to their effectiveness in reaching people for Christ.
Should we consider the depth of Power available to even small, older Churches, we have the opportunity and challenge – not a Problem, to make again, an impact in our neighborhoods, no matter the size or age of the Church.

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