In what seems to be the middle of nowhere stamped on a weathered concrete structure are the words “Abandoned in Place.” It means leave it like it is. It is all that remains of a vast multi-million-dollar tower. Standing in front of the sign printed in simple letters on the side of the structure, one can’t help but look back with memories that bring a sense of sadness to all that remember that fateful day in 1967. The date was January 27, the time 7:31:04 p.m. CST. Roger calmly said “Hey.” Three seconds later at 7:31:07, he reported: “Fire, I smell fire!” At 7:31:09 Ed is heard in the background, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Fifteen seconds later at 7:31:19 a moments cry of pain screams over headsets, and the pressure forces a gap in the seal and flames come rushing out. By 7:31:21 there was nothing but silence from the cockpit. The crew of Apollo 1 had become the first Americans to die in a spacecraft.

Now, sitting in this secluded part of Cape Canaveral stands the remains of that day in history, a concrete structure, “Abandoned in Place,” with a plaque telling of that fateful day as a remembrance of one of the failures and disasters as mankind reached for the stars. The program would be set back, of course, but would survive and become successful with other failures and disasters along the way. But to many of us, we will remember forever the night of January 27, 1967. The night Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee sat atop a massive Saturn 1B rocket facing heavenward.

Today as you drive through the country-sides and many cities you will see many structures whose paint is peeling away from the weather-worn wood siding with cracked and broken window panes. Shingles will be sliding down the slopes of the roof, and the weeds will growing knee-high, covering the once walked upon sidewalks. Some may have for sale signs in front while others seem to be “abandoned in place” much like the launch pad in Florida.

If you look closely, you may see a faded white sign with black letters peeling away, the faded letters and flaking paint of a “church” that once upon a time met in this place. It’s a sad sight, wondering what happened to the group that grew up here, baptized their children and looked heavenward as they served the Lord and sat on its now quiet pews worshiping Him so fervently on a Sunday morning so many years ago.

Did the town die away? Did their children move off? Was it the lack of good preaching or proper leadership? What causes churches to die? What gets them to the point that they must close their doors and move on, abandoning their buildings and their works or at least finding it necessary to join up with others because they have dwindled in attendance?

Not long ago a church leadership group commissioned a study on church attendance. Where Gallop and other polls said that 40 percent of Americans attend worship every Sunday, the more scientific study was somewhat different. In a poll, people tend to have a “halo effect” and to overstate things to make themselves look better. So, what did the actual study come up with concerning church attendance?

  • Only about 20 percent of Americans attend worship on any given Sunday.
  • Church attendance is on the decline, especially in mid-size congregations
  • Texas, in the “Bible Belt,” has an average attendance of 18%.
  • Where the same number of people attend, the percentage is decreasing because church growth is not keeping up with population growth.
  • The number of new churches is only one-fourth of what it takes to keep up with the population.
  • By 2050, with the current trend, only 11.7 percent of the population will be attending a worship assembly on Sunday morning.

There are things of course over which we have no control, declining population, people moving off and economic hardships. On the other hand, there are things that we can control that when done poorly can “kill” a congregation.

The Apollo 1 disaster did not have to happen. An overaggressive plan in reaching the moon and taking short cuts put the program in a situation where disaster was going to happen somewhere and sometime. Primarily there was the failure to pay attention to important details and make wise decisions which in the end cost lives.

So, what can we do as today’s church to make sure that we don’t die as a congregation? There are two things that Jesus said that are the key to a healthy, growing congregation. One is the “great commission,” and the other is the “great commandment.” Both are of equal importance. If they weren’t, then Jesus would not have stressed them.

Jesus said to “Go.” We are to preach the gospel. As a minister, I think this is the primary goal to be achieved. Ministry is taking the gospel, but more importantly in the training and preparing of the members to become active in bringing others to Christ, to be evangelistic. That’s a word we don’t like to use anymore for some reason, but it tells us we are as ministers to teach others how to teach others.

As leaders in a congregation, the role is different. As Jesus sat talking with Peter, he asked him three times if he loved him. Peter answered yes three times, but the part we often skip over is what Jesus said in response to Peter, and that’s the most important part. Peter if you love me you will, “feed my lambs,” “take care of my sheep” and “feed my sheep.”  The great commandment is to “love one another.” As Jesus said, “By this, men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” When someone is saved, they should be brought into a community of love where there are those that constantly care for them and their needs.

When churches fail to develop both areas of Christ’s kingdom, it will eventually die. Failure to take the gospel will keep a congregation from growing by adding to the kingdom. Failure to love and care for members will cause a congregation to slip away.

Standing lonely at Cape Canaveral is a monument, “Abandoned in Place” as a reminder of what can happen. It serves as a memorial to the lost, but also a constant symbol of what can go wrong.

In many a town, there stands another building, “Abandoned in Place.” It is a memorial to a once active congregation serving the Lord faithfully. It is also a constant symbol of what can go wrong when we forget the things that Jesus has asked us to do.

Each of us as followers of Christ should never forget the most important tasks that are given to us and not get caught up in the little things that take our attention away from the people. As we walk out the doors of our buildings may we never look back and see the words taped across our entries, “Abandoned in Place.”

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.–1 Peter 2:9

Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ

One comment

  • Amen Danny. Jesus did say, “Many are called but few are chosen.” He was straight forward with this but continued His mission. We too must persevere in sharing our walk. Witnessing, caring and nurturing those who are placed in our midst. Let’s do this together in harmony.


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