© 2010 John Casimir O'Keefe

the boneyard

What’s a Boneyard?

If you did a Google search on the term boneyard, or bone yard, you see that a boneyard is everything from a XM Radio Show, to a band, to a restaurant.  When I think of a boneyard I think of a place where there are tons of bones, skeletons of past leviathans piled high.  When I picture a boneyard in my mind I picture a mass pile of bones from dinosaurs piled one on top another.  A pile of so many bones it bulges the imagination.  Paleontologists dream of such a find, and a few have even been found.  What caused them?  No one can be 100% certain, but I have always pictured thousands of dinosaurs running for their lives.  But, because of their size and small brains they were unable to outrun the pending disaster.  So, they died – one on top of the other.

Look around, we live in a boneyard.  A land where the bones of dead churches skew the USAmerican landscape and obscure the views of the possibilities.  A land, punctuated by the site of old, dilapidated church buildings falling apart, to show only the bones of a once grand structure.  A land filled with empty shells where once great numbers filled the now empty pews.  I know that seems to be a rather harsh picture, but I believe we need to move past the time of “niceties” and move to the point of being blunt and honest, even if it hurts to admit our faults and misdeeds.  We need to stop sugar coating the reality that churches are closing.  We need to move past pretending the people leaving one church are somehow magically attend another community of faith.  Reality shows us they’re not.  We need to stop pretending that all is fine.  If it were the case, if people were leaving one church to attend another we as a faith would be holding our own, and this is not what is happening.  We need to move past blaming the culture, and start looking at the reflection we project in the mirror.  We need to look deep into our souls and see the collective dysfunction that rules our lives. If we are unable to know where we are, and how we got here we will be unable to move forward on the journey God set before us.  When I was a kid my grandfather told me, “If you point a finger at one person, you need to remember you have three fingers pointing at you.”  Jesus shared this with us when he said, “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly smear on your own[1].” So, let’s look at our face in the mirror and not into the faces of others.  Keep in mind, while we are pointing our fingers at others for the decline in the church, the church still declines and nothing changes.

A few years ago, when I was a younger inexperienced man, I was talking with a City Council Member in Warren County, New Jersey about a closed church in the area.  In that conversation I mentioned it would be nice to see the church reopen, or a new church move in to the building.  Without even missing a beat, he whipped his head around and looking rather upset said, “I hope not, we should see about selling the old church building to a small business so it can go back on the tax rolls.”  It’s an unfortunate reality, but when you have a “prime” piece of real estate used one, maybe two hours a week by just a select few (the club), and it is off the tax rolls, elected officials are not overly excited.  While some of the old churches have long since become dust in the collective memories of many communities, some have become places of business, quant little antique stores, local attractions in quant bedroom communities where they sell memories of days gone by, like wind chimes make of stained glass and artificially stained crosses used to decorate the your guestroom, at half price.

Here’s a little exercise I think will open your eyes, it did mine.   Type “church buildings for sale” into Google and see what you get.  When I did, I got 234,000 possible sites.[2] In fact, there are realtors who deal exclusively with church buildings[3].  For just $889,000 you can buy a large mainline church called “The Weston Home” in Lake Mills, Wisconsin[4].  If that seems out of your league, you can by a quaint little Baptist church in Spencer Ohio for just $97,000[5].  Church bargains abound on the net in every state you can think of, just check it out

The boneyard is not just the fossilized remains of churches past.  The boneyard is being filled with new churches each and every day.  Some of those churches do not have a physical body to show remains, they are located in schools all over the country.  Their ghosts fill the minds of those involved in the individual churches.  One such church is the Lord of Life, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern California.  Lord of Life joined the boneyard in late 2009 leaving behind a website, a church office and a small amount of equipment that would be snapped-up by other churches hoping that in the scavenger hunt they will stay alive.  Many churches are on the verge of joining Lord of Life in the boneyard, and some are closer than others.  In the book “Working the Angles” Eugene Patterson says that pastors have devolved to a “nation of shopkeepers, keeping the customers satisfied.[6]”  As congregations get smaller and smaller, older and older, the odds of them escaping the boneyard are slim.  As the shop keepers strive hard to keep the shelves stock, they soon realize that are banging their heads against the wall change.  The problem is the product they are selling is a product no one is looking to buy.  While they keep a neat and tidy shop, they offer little else of substance.  Some industrial churches seem to be growing (not many, as the stats show), but even if your church is growing I believe you need to ask yourself some very important and open questions:

  • Is your church growing with new followers, or simply reshuffling the fish to different tanks?
  • How is your church defining what it means to be a new follower of Christ[7]?

Those two simple questions are very important in how we see church growth.  The answers will determine if the industrial church is centered on church growth, or kingdom growth, and there is a difference.  Those industrial churches who count anyone who comes to their church from a tradition outside their own as a “new follower” centers on church growth.  Not too long ago I was given the opportunity to speak with a group of Evangelical Lutherans on the topic of creative worship and change.  The church is Grace Lutheran in Rancho Cordova CA.  Steve Krogh, the pastor of the church, is a good friend and he asked me to talk with his worship committee about creative worship.  I agreed because I like the church and I believe they are striving to become something God is leading them to be, and that is exciting.  In our conversation one of the ladies mentioned something I found very interesting, here is what she shared:

“My daughter moved to another area of the county and started to go to another church, a Baptist church.  She likes the church, the music and all the church does in the community.  When she decided to join, she was told that for her to join the church she would have to be re-baptized.  They told her because she was baptized as an infant it did not count.  When we talked about this I was hurt, how can they say that?  How can they say our baptism does not count because we were baptized as infants?  It’s like they are telling us we are not real Christians because we baptize infants.  She told me they introduced her to the church as a new believer, why?  I mean she has been going to church all her life and reads the bible all the time.  She lives a very good Christian life, but they said she was a new believer.  I just can’t get over that.  It’s an insult to everything I believe.”

With that, you can have one of two responses; first you can say “I agree, that is wrong and we should not do this” or we can say, “Well, infant baptism does not count.  You need to be baptized as an adult confessed believer.  It’s too bad, but I do not care if it insults another tradition it is what the bible teaches.”  How you respond to that situation shows if you are into church growth, or kingdom growth.

If you response is one of “Infant baptism does not count” you are centered on church growth.  You have fallen into the trap of church growth.  Your center point is found in growing your church.  You are focused on ways to get people to come to your church usually from other traditions.  You see, by counting people from other traditions as “new believers” you are able to show how your church is reaching out to the community and how your church is meeting their needs.  So, to count them as simply being people who are coming from other traditions, and are already a follower, you show less church growth.  Now, if your response is “not cool” than you are concerned with kingdom growth.  You see the reality that moving from one tradition to another does not make you a new follower.  You tend to think that the kingdom is the focus and not the individual church.  In that response you care about reaching those who are not following Christ, they become your focus.  Kingdom growth thinkers think in terms of unity, church growth thinkers think in terms of disunity.  Church growth centers on growing the institutional church while kingdom growth centers on the growth of the body of Christ.

How are we showing Christian unity when we act that way?  When we tell someone that they are not a “real” Christian because of their baptism, we are showing the world that we are not one faith, worshiping one God and declaring the realty of one Savior.  All we do is inflate the numbers, so pastors can have a phallic symbol to speak about at denominational meeting.  Counting the way we do does not hide the reality that the church needs to change.

[1] Matthew 7:3 (MGS)

[2]http://www.google.com/#hl=en&source=hp&q=%E2%80%9Cchurch+buildings+for+sale%E2%80%9D+&btnG=Google+Search&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&fp=c26c79a56c95bda8 Accessed 2/24/10

[3] For example, “Church Wanted” http://www.churchwanted.com/ Accessed 2/24/10

[4] http://www.cynthiaweston.com/ Accessed on 2/10/10

[5] http://www.churchpropertylocator.com/# Accessed on 2/10/10

[6] Patterson, Eugene.  Working the Angles; The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.  Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI.  1987.  Page 2

[7] This is an important question because it centers on how we as faith communities support each other and if your church is truly growing.  I know most Baptist Churches, and all “non-denominational” Christian churches count people who come from other Christian faith communities as “new followers” because they are not a “baptized believer” in their tradition.  So, any person coming from another faith community is viewed as a “non-Christian.”


  1. Posted 2010/08/31 at 3:32 am | #

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  2. Posted 2010/09/01 at 9:06 am | #

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