Spiritual Entropy: Part Two

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.

In order to combat the falling numbers and the lack of spiritual “fire”, many of these churches have adopted the “contemporary” style of worship which has become the “model” for success. They have made the mistake of thinking what will work in one setting will work in all settings. Because of lack of resources, these churches fail terribly at the contemporary model. Nothing is worse than repetitive choruses and its even worse when they are done badly. It’s painful. It kills any hope of having the spiritual atmosphere properly prepared for the preaching of God’s Word.

It’s sad when the preacher sits on the front row and has to pray that God will help him develop some energy in the room as he preaches because everything that has been done has contributed to a dead worship service. The music has sounded like a funeral dirge. The people have come expecting nothing beyond fulfilling the habit of “worship.” Reading their faces and actions, what they really want is for the whole process to be over so they can go about their lives feeling good about having done what they have always done on Sunday. It is all part of the process of spiritual entropy. A winding down which, unless combated will result in the closing of the doors within a few years as the aging congregation dies off with no new blood having been brought into the fellowship.

Each generation can pass along only that which they have learned and experienced. But the succeeding generation will not get all of what they passed along. They will get, say, ninety percent of it. So that ninety percent then becomes the base for passing along information to the third generation which will only get perhaps ninety percent of what was brought to them. So, the third generation only absorbs eighty one percent of what the first generation passed along. It is doubtful if ninety percent is actually absorbed by each succeeding generation so the effect is probably worse than the example I have postulated. This explains the downward turn in society and it is also affecting many of our churches, especially the ones under discussion here. Entropy is taking place. The process of degradation or running down or trending to disorder is occurring. The second law of thermodynamics is clearly observed in the spiritual as well as the practical sense.

It is my opinion that unless the SBC can find a way to help combat this situation, that in fifteen to twenty years we will not have forty-four thousand churches but we will consist of about twenty-five to thirty thousand churches. Most of the existing small churches will cease to exist. They will have to close the doors. Some will combine with other larger more vibrant churches. The little country church buildings will be maintained so that an occasional homecoming or family reunion can be held there. It will be a sentimental place that will be maintained by the monies from the cemetery fund. I know this sounds terribly negative, but I am concerned that this is the kind of situation that is developing. Spiritual Entropy is taking place not only on the local level but, by extension, on the larger convention level as well.

According to the Georgia Baptist Convention statistical office, sixty six percent of GBC churches have fewer than one hundred in church on Sunday. In the SBC, Lifeway says that fifty percent of the churches have between one and one hundred in worship. So, what does this portend? According to my personal observations as well as the observations of a number of experienced church workers, a great percentage of these churches will close within twenty years. So, let’s extrapolate that. If we lose one half (and that is a conservative estimate) of the 66% which are smaller than one hundred, that means we will have 1188 churches close in the next fifteen years. So, in approximately fifteen years our GBC which now has about 3600 will number about 2400 churches. That will have a very negative impact on everything measurable in the convention from SS attendance to Cooperative Program monies received, not to mention a downturn in Baptisms. On the SBC level if we lost one half of the 50% which are smaller than one hundred in worship that would mean a loss of 11.000 churches if we now have forty four thousand churches. The effect on the convention can only be imagined. Certainly baptisms, attendance and Cooperative Program monies would be affected dramatically because these small churches under discussion traditionally give generously to the CP and to special missions like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.

So, this all brings us to the point of dealing with what I believe is inevitable. Our convention leaders and strategists in both the state conventions and the SBC at large should wait no later in starting to design their response to this coming situation. They are faced with having to learn to live within the law of entropy. They have no choice. We must begin now to decide how to allocate funds and resources to deal with a smaller convention, less money and dwindling resources. Anyone who has preached to any degree in the smaller churches under discussion should know that what I have stated is not only possible it is, sadly, probable.

We are dealing with entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. It is a law of the universe that has been defined by God and it will always be in operation until He comes and makes all things new and not subject to this law. We are looking at the law of entropy from a spiritual and practical view and we will be smart to get ahead of the game in dealing with its affects which are developing even now.

8 Comments

Will McRaney 06-09-2016, 07:02

It appears to me that based on the directions and pace of things we are seeing happen among our churches, what you have said really is probable. The pace could actually speed up. Not only are we losing churches, a serious examination of the less than stellar impact of our churches and possible advances forward needs to done. In an upcoming 1 day training conference in metro Orlando on Oct. 6, we will be exploring that matter together. I will be leading a session on “Essential Questions of Church: Asking the Right Questions in Challenging Times” and Pastor Harold Bullock from Ft. Worth will be sharing several sessions on “Rewiring the American Church” from his longer 3 day training on the same topic.

Oct. 6, 2016, if you are interested in thinking and learning about possible responses to this entropy, consider joining us for the conference. Stay just 2 minutes from Disney property at the event hotel. For some initial information you can go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rewiring-the-church-tickets-27414104324 or contact me for more details.

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Mr Torchy 07-09-2016, 07:37

It appears to me that the author of this article totally forgets that Jesus Christ himself animates and empowers churches (local fellowships) regardless of size, median age or worship style.

It appears to me that the author forgets the words “where two or more are gathered in my name”……

A lot of these “dead country churches” have been around longer than the writer of the article and will continue to be around when he’s gone. I’d be very careful about calling “dead” what Jesus has promised to bring to life.

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Tom 06-09-2016, 07:14

This is so sad where the SBC currently is and where it is going.

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Andy 06-09-2016, 07:55

It may be wise to note that the trends describe here not not unique to the SBC, but hold true across all small churches. The smallest, most rural churches are struggling and shrinking.

I live in an semi-rural city (12,000) in a county of 30,000. The churches that are actually in the city seem to be staying about the same size (quite a few between 100-200 average attenders)…the churches farther out in the county seem, for the most part, to be very small (15-40ish). However, know there are many devoted Jesus followers in those churches. For those who can be ministered to in those churches, and can use their church as a platform to minister to those in their community, I say hats off to them!

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Andy 06-09-2016, 07:46

“So, this all brings us to the point of dealing with what I believe is inevitable. Our convention leaders and strategists in both the state conventions and the SBC at large should wait no later in starting to design their response to this coming situation. They are faced with having to learn to live within the law of entropy. They have no choice. We must begin now to decide how to allocate funds and resources to deal with a smaller convention, less money and dwindling resources.”

Dr. Harrell, I realize I have not agreed with several of your recent articles, and hope you can accept that I was simply trying to help us all think through these issues wisely.

But here, I believe you are accurately observing a real trend here, and agree that any church thinking contemporary music will solve its problems is likely mistaken.

My question here is, is there at PART 3? Do you have a solution in mind? Is there a convention-wide strategy that can address these issues, or is it more likely to be a church-by-church solution?

Thanks,
-Andy

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Max 06-09-2016, 09:04

“Reading their faces and actions, what they really want is for the whole process to be over so they can go about their lives feeling good about having done what they have always done on Sunday.”

I believe it was Vance Havner who described SBC congregations this way as he gazed upon the Sunday morning crowds: “They have such melancholy faces. Half of them look like melons; the other half like collies.”

Havner also said that when you come to church you need to be changed after listening to the Word of God; you need to exit the meeting sad, glad or mad, but you don’t need to leave unchanged.

Many SBC churches have slipped into a state of apathy, approaching apostasy. Preach what you want to, but don’t mess with our potlucks! And do we need wonder why younger generations desire to do church differently than their parents or choose to have nothing to do with it all?! We can’t organize our way out of this mess; we need to agonize before the Lord until He returns to the house.

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Mr Torchy 10-09-2016, 10:04

Collective strategies and “programs” will not address spiritual deficiencies.

IMO, the Holy Spirit will uphold and sustain the body of Christ (in its various expressions) regardless of the weaknesses/apostasy/strategizing/politics and culture warring of Christian “leaders”

They come and go and the body of Christ remains….”until such time” Too bad all this lofty finger pointing is directed collectively and primarily at “The Church” as opposed to it’s thoroughly and culturally indoctrinated denominational “leaders”.

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Jim Poulos 10-09-2016, 11:16

Ohhhhhh, brother.

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