Zombie Churches

I recently read a wonderful post by church-planter Joel Littlefield: Aren’t There Already Enough Churches?  He asks and answers “one of the most common questions a new church planter might hear…  ‘Aren’t there already enough churches in this town?’” Not all church planters or denominations engage in that level of reflection before going into a place where a vibrant Christian community already exists — they just get the call, parachute in, and get on with the work. Others simply want to live the ministry dream and don’t consider the impact their vocational choice may have on a wider community of Christians.

Joel’s is a succinct and thoughtful post — a response that demonstrates the heart of a Gospel-saturated pastor/planter who wants to see people meet Jesus in a city where there are existing churches — among huge fields to harvest. I know a little something about that city and the planter — I agree that there probably aren’t already enough churches there. I’m confident that New City Church will grow among and not from the other churches in a spirit of familial cooperation.

Joel’s post moved me to consider that question, which I’ve done many times over the past four decades, but from a different angle this time around. I thought I’d entertain the notion that there may be some places that not only have enough churches but too many if that’s possible!

Given my background, the places I’ve traveled to, the communities we’ve lived in, the churches and plants we’ve been involved with, I think there are communities that could probably benefit by losing some churches. That may sound a bit arrogant  — after all, it’s not my church — the Church belongs to Jesus. In the next post, we’ll see that Jesus has something to say about churches that have lost their way. Only He knows which ones need to go, but His will is often done through the actions of people and I’ll discuss how that might take place. I will speak in tentative language because you and I can’t know, ultimately, when a church has crossed the line that Jesus draws before a church needs to disappear.

I would argue there may be churches that are positively harmful and would do well to disband and set their members free to serve Jesus with other Christians who are on mission with Jesus and not for other questionable motives. I would call these groups zombie churches. These are not churches full of zombie Christians, but churches that display zombie tendencies, feeding off an existing vibrant and healthy Christian community, squandering gifted people and resources, while lurching about in a directionless direction. Weak or ineffectual leadership can settle into an institutional mode where energy, resources, and people are fed into group survival or maintaining the status quo, regardless the personal cost to some. A church that is hardening into an institution or a sort of perpetual motion machine will gradually lose its effectiveness in carrying forward the original mission and turn increasingly inward until it turns on itself and others — it becomes a zombie church.

So, what do zombie churches look like — how would I characterize them? In popular lore:

  • Zombies are dead or mostly dead while appearing to be alive — they are the walking dead
  • At the same time, they remain resistant to total decay
  • The walking dead move about, display intelligence and infect others
  • Zombies are unaffected by injuries that would normally prove fatal unless they sustain a catastrophic injury to the brain — the control center
  • They prey on the living and become aroused from a dormant state when living beings stumble into their lair
  • These cold-bodies are unemotional and devour their victims without mercy

I think there are churches manifesting zombie-like characteristics and you probably have at least one in mind as you’re reading this. In the next couple posts, we’ll discuss how to spot a zombie church and what to do when we encounter one. I’ll be drawing upon the Bible, church history, leadership resources, observation, and the experiences of pastors. When I present a real-life situation or example, I’ll lead off with the ambiguous phrase, I know a pastor… or something similar1 In that way, we can keep our eye on the zombies and not get sidetracked by personalities, finger-pointing or axe-grinding.

I’ll start with this example: I know a pastor who served in a church within a few miles from another church within the same denomination. This leader was explaining that the other church had been searching for a minister for years, without success. You see, the church had earned a reputation: “Jesus couldn’t pastor that church.” A cold, unloving church that will not respect or follow a pastor, an under-shepherd of Jesus, may be a zombie church. That kind of church may accomplish more for the kingdom by shutting their doors and doing less damage in the name of Jesus.  If they will not repent, they will need to go. Is that merely my opinion? I think there’s good reason to believe some churches should be shuttered and Jesus does, too. I’ll talk about that in my next post: How can you spot a zombie church?

  1. that pastor could be me, someone I know, a leader I know of or an author/speaker []

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