Most churches go thru four stages of existence. The first is the planting or outpost stage of existence. When a church is first planted it is in the process of establishing disciples in the community. It’s future existence depends on reaching out to the community with the love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once it is sufficiently large enough, through the giving of the disciples, a peace of property is purchased and a building is built. The church then moves from the outpost or planting stage to the fort stage.
In the fort stage of existence the focus turns from the community to the fort itself. Defenses are built, programs and methods are developed for efficiency, and multiple pastors become necessary for the care and over site of the disciples. Most of the energy and resources, people and materials, are spent on maintenance of the buildings and the programs, and somewhere along the way the community outside is largely forgotten. Sure, there are evangelism programs and community pastors in place but you can think of those things as occasional forays outside the safety of the fort and only the evangelically gifted special forces dare engage in such activity. The safety of the fort is debilitating because faith and risk go hand in hand. That is why believer’s under persecution (without a physical fort) in times past and in the current majority world situations tend to grow so much faster and deeper than the average North American believer. Safety is a faith killer and forts breed safety.
Once a church moves to the fort stage, the next stage, the bunker stage, is almost inevitable. A church is a bunker when a riggormortise like rigidity sets into the leadership and congregation alike and change becomes difficult, painful, and nearly impossible. The content of the teaching is lowered through necessity because people who are not at risk are not living by faith and due to lack of spiritual exercise their souls are weakened and dulled. The gospel begins to be seen as an end rather than a beginning. Intimate community becomes impossible because believers not living in faith are not safe to be intimate with for the same reasons they can no longer endure rich spiritual food, their souls are not used to the exercise, it hurts to be known. In the bunker stage the church begins to age because it loses it’s children to the world. Desperate for something, anything, the children of bunker churches escape through every, and any means possible. Bunkers don’t have any hope, they are full of fear, and are places filled with hypocrisy. This is the stage I believe most North American churches are in currently.
The final stage of existence is the ruin stage. A church can have a full parking lot on Sunday morning and still be a ruin. Many large evangelical denominations are ruins. A ruin is a monument of the past. A ruin is something that still maintains most of the physical shape of the original building but all life is gone out of it. A church enters the ruin stage when it sells it’s soul to maintain it’s existence. When it lays aside the truth in order to keep the form. Except by the power of God, through whom all things are possible, a church that becomes a ruin almost never is revived. As evidence of this I would point to the state of the evangelical church in Europe, or what is left of it. Churches in the ruin state are closing by the day and being converted to mosques and pubs. I believe that what we are seeing in Europe right now is the future of the North American evangelical church if we do not make some drastic changes in our philosophies of ministry.