Merging Churches? Can We Really Do That?

This question seems to be the reaction I receive every time I bring up the idea of churches merging. I do not hear the same reaction when I bring up the subject of churches splitting or closing their doors. What does the unchurched in the community think when they see churches fight and split, only to start or join another church around the corner? What do they think when they see another decaying church building because it closed its doors? The usual discussion turns to opinions of what someone else did that was wrong leading to what that person would have done differently to solve all the problems. The reality I have known in nearly three decades of ministry is that the root issue is the same everywhere and the solution to all the problems is still found in scripture. What happens is that people fail to see the root issue and, therefore, never find the solution in scripture.  

The extent of no churches in your area or churches on every other corner is often determined based on where you live in the country. Areas of our country that lack churches in their towns and cities can trace back to whether there ever was a church there or if the church or churches died long ago. For those of us who have lived most of our lives in the “Bible Belt,” we do not always comprehend that there are towns and cities here in the United States that have no churches. Most churches I know have little to no money designated to plant churches here in the USA. Truth be told, they refuse to bring on “missionaries” who stay in the states. They make statements like “missions is for other countries” or “we don’t need any more churches here in the USA.” Yet, these same people become angry at their church, leave, and start a new church around the corner so they can have church their way.

Through years of ministry, I have uncovered a phenomenon of church growth and decline. I have learned that the community of churches in an area goes through growth and decline in a cyclical fashion. While one church is in decline another church in the same area sees numerical growth. Over time, these churches seem to flip roles. These ebbs and flows show a consistent, curious statistic. If we look at the total number attending all the churches in the area going back 30 years, 20 years, 10 years, and the total number now, we note a net loss of church members. We found that every time there was a “church split” there was a net loss of members for the overall community. We all know churches have lived and grown off the back of other church’s members. The old pew hopping routine was in full swing. Many walk away from church altogether. Now, we have multiple churches near each other who are struggling to stay alive. Why, then, not merge?

I want to help us see God’s vision of the church. Churches say they want a New Testament church like the early church. They have even ensured the church name is connected to the early church to represent themselves as a true biblical, New Testament church. When we look at the early church, we see that almost nothing of what we are today looks like the early church. The Jews had synagogues that the early church availed themselves for use as a meeting place when possible, but they did not have a place of their own. Instead of buying or building a large meeting place, the early church met in houses. This is not to say that having a building today and not meeting in houses is unbiblical. It simply means that the early church had no concept or, in many cases, ability to have such a place.

The Bible describes the early church as “the church of Jerusalem,” “the church of Antioch,” “the church of….” Although they met in different houses, what we learn is that all believers in a local area were considered all one church. They always saw themselves as one church meeting in many houses. We do not need to duplicate this model. They had no choice; we do. We meet today in what some call “the house of God” or “house of worship.” Could it not still be said that all those who live in proximity, who hold to the truth of the scriptures on salvation are not all in the same local church but meeting in different houses? (At this time, I am prepared for the loud and long critics to wax eloquent on the reasons this is not true.)

“The church on the other side of the street doesn’t agree with us on important issues like which hymn book to use or, worse yet, they do not use a hymn book.” “The church on the other corner doesn’t even have a Sunday night service.” “The church on the next block doesn’t have Sunday school they have…life classes.” How could we ever fellowship with those places when they are obviously wrong in Bible teaching?

The truth is that if a person is biblically saved, is meeting with others in a local body or church who are biblically saved and is reaching others with the true Bible salvation message, then they are a part of the body of Christ. Therefore, the early church would have considered them a part of the entire local body or church. Over the last 2000 years there are those who call themselves churches but have completely turned from the truth of scripture and are not the true church. I am not speaking of them but of those who at least claim to believe the exact same truth of the gospel.

What has separated us is preferences of practice (methods) not principles of pure doctrine. The cause of most “church splits” is over preferences, not principles. If we then have two churches near each other to say they believe the same truth of scripture and both are struggling to keep the doors open, then why have they not merged? Usually because the members, including pastors, want to continue doing what they have always been doing expecting to change the results.

Often members of a congregation have established leaders, practices, and traditions that, in their words, cannot change. “This is our church. We will never move.” “They don’t do things the way we do.” “I know those people over at that other church. You should hear what I know.” “They are going liberal over there.” “They are strict to the point of legalism.” “I don’t like their music.” “I left there years ago because I didn’t like the way the pastor was leading the church.” These statements go on and on.

The bottom line is that churches do not merge because of pride. (Read that again.)

Churches are splitting. Churches are closing. The lost are dying and going to hell while we keep our four tiny churches on each corner alive on life support. As Bible believers and born-again followers of Christ, we need to take a serious look at what is happening around us.

Do we truly believe what we say we believe? In any community I can find two or more churches whose doctrinal statements, though phrasing may be different, are completely identical in beliefs. Yet, somehow, these churches cannot fellowship or work together. Too often they are churches with a history of beginning after splitting with the other church. They did not split on doctrine as their statements show they believe the exact same thing. They split over preferences that more than likely do not even pertain to today.

Some suppose that it may not be God’s will for churches to merge. It is God who established the church and called it a body. In 1 Corinthians 12 we see that God put the body together complete with all the parts desiring no part be missing. It is never God’s will for a section of the body to act independently from the entire body expecting to do the task of a whole body. Churches are limping on one leg, or trying to serve with no arms, or asking questions but unable to hear because there are no ears. Unfortunately, many church bodies are being kept alive by artificial means hoping no one pulls the plug. It is absolutely God’s will for churches to merge if for no other reason than that they are already biblically supposed to be a part of the whole local church body God intended it to be. We have parts of bodies spread-out all over town. We need the Great Physician to perform grafting surgery to heal the body.

Instead of letting another church die or splitting another church, I propose that churches consider regrouping, rebuilding, then replanting.

What happens when you close one church location to join another church? Don’t you lose ground on reaching the area where the first church was? Assuming you are not talking about churches that are across the street from one another, this is a legitimate question. This is why churches must regroup, rebuild, then replant. The ultimate goal is to replant. If the church doesn’t regroup and rebuild, it will die; thus, the potential for a replant is next to zero.

Churches need to regroup. Again, this is not grouping up with those who do not believe in the fundamental doctrines of scripture, but with those who state clearly that they believe just as we do. Regrouping is illustrated from a military view as shoring up the battle lines. There is no doubt we are in spiritual warfare. What we continue to do is go into the battle with armor off and half the body gone. I believe there comes a point where some church groups are no longer engaged in the battle but are merely meeting weekly because that is what they have always done. When you have multiple groups in an area doing the same thing, the enemy wins. Church members and, even pastors, need to recognize this, put away pride, and seek to regroup.

Regrouping is probably the most difficult of the three steps. Regrouping takes the churches down a long road to merging. After nearly 30 years in ministry, we have developed a process to help churches do just that. I commonly refer to it as the long steps to reach the spot where you ask the 1000 questions to be answered to bring two churches together. The first step is recognizing it is God’s will to do so. Then, they (leaders and congregation alike) must lay aside pride and seek wisdom on God’s leading in leadership responsibility. The pastor of a church is the one who will stand before God and answer for what the church has done. No one else in the church will ever stand before God and answer for the church, except for defying the God-given authority of the man of God holding that role.

If more than one pastor is involved, who will be the pastor? If we look back at the early church as our model of God’s plan, we find that there were multiple Elders or Pastors in a local body. If you will, we do the same today, we just don’t recognize it as such. There are churches all over your town who believe exactly as you do, and they all have a Pastor/Elder. The local church has a plurality of elders. How then is it, unlike the early church that worked together and had all things in common, that today we do not work together? Why is it today that two local groups struggling to stay alive cannot come together to regroup under one roof instead of struggling under two roofs? Step one is to regroup.

Step two is to rebuild. I do not mean rebuild a building or buildings. I do not mean join large numbers to build bigger buildings. Rebuilding does mean that the people will need to choose one location in which to meet. The realization of this choice usually brings about the result of not doing step one of regrouping. If the churches will allow the process to work in step one this will not be an issue in step two. Too many churches have spent more time building the local church with more classes, more programs, and more buildings and failed to train and send. Hoarding members, building bigger ministries leads to the death of a church.

I propose rebuilding the lives of the members thus strengthening and rebuilding a healthy body. Two dying congregations coming together is vital to the health of the whole body. It is the assembling of the body that allows for edification/encouragement. At this step there must be an extensive amount of time emphasizing the spiritual health of the people. Rebuilding the foundations of doctrine provides the foundational truths for stability of the congregation.

Healing is needed as the leadership and members have exhausted themselves holding a church together. Merging is not a quick fix to all problems. Taking the time to heal during the rebuilding process cannot be passed over. Status quo cannot be the play of the day. Long standing programs and schedules need to be paused. Spiritual help and growth of the people is the priority. How long this takes is unknown based upon many things. Regardless of how long it takes, rebuilding the people cannot be overlooked.

Once there is a strong foundation of the body, the church can begin to rebuild and restore broken relationships and fellowships over past wrongs. The church must make right the wrongs of the past and rebuild relationships with those who left church completely. Identify those who have been hurt by the near death of the churches to help bring them back to the flock. Avoid and guard against rebuilding this newly merged church through emptying the pews of another; this is what started this near death to begin with.

As the church rebuilds its own spiritual walks and rebuilds the broken pieces from the past, it will need to rebuild its outreach. The church needs to emphasize reaching the lost and the unchurched. During the rebuilding process the church is creating disciples who will fulfill the commission to go. Classes, services, programs, and activities should all be geared to training members to be prepared to go. But not everyone can go. There is a biblical principle of financial giving so that others can go which is where most churches end in their sending. However, if a church sends no one from their own church family then that church is failing to follow the commission of God and eventually leads to the death of the church. The rebuilding of the church is for only one purpose and that is to go or to replant.

Replanting, the third and final step, can be a way in which a called-out group can go back into the neighborhood of one of the previous churches to become a new work reaching the lost and unchurched of that area, assuming again the original church was not across the street. The focus is that a growing church sends out of its congregation to reach out to “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” “Samaria,” and the uttermost part of the earth. Failure to do this causes the death of the church.

Imagine, instead of churches dying in your community or churches splitting, churches began regrouping, rebuilding, and replanting. Imagine a community where the local church body is united for the cause of Christ. Imagine, if with this church unity in the community, the ongoing church hopping became a thing of the past. What if we were able to strengthen our “Jerusalem” and send disciples to all the other areas?

Merging churches not only can be done, it should be done. Merging churches should begin before another church closes or splits.

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