‘There’s Not a Jar Left’ . . . the Epitaph of Many Churches
By Tim Harlow
Erwin McManus says turning a church around is really just a matter of killing one church and opening a new one, and I’d have to agree.
“Because of your faith, it will happen” (Matthew 9:29, New Living Translation).
When I came to this 40-year-old church, it really took us 7 to 10 years to transition it to the place where we could start doing what we knew God wanted us to do. The upside was we had some people and some money and a building. But the downside was many of the people had a different vision that didn’t really include the actual mission of the church. I was criticized by an elder for “front-loading” the church with too many new believers. (I’m sure someone told Peter that on the Day of Pentecost too. Talk about front-loading!)
I must admit to being very envious of my friends and partners over at Community Christian Church in Napierville, Illinois, who launched a new church in a high school with a small but dedicated team and some money they raised from people who believed in the mission.
Commitment to the Mission
So why is it easier to start new than to simply keep the doors open at the existing? I don’t think it’s about new versus old. I think it’s about commitment to the mission. I think it’s about the “older brother” syndrome (I deserve to be here and he doesn’t). And I think it’s about the jars.
“When all the jars were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another one.’ But he replied, ‘There is not a jar left.’ Then the oil stopped flowing” (2 Kings 4:6).
The oil stopped flowing.
Through the prophet Elisha, God promised a faithful widow that if she was willing to sacrifice from her small amount of oil, he would replace her oil with as much as she could handle. But she had to have a place to put it.
“Elisha said, ‘Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few’” (2 Kings 4:3).
Picture going to Costco and buying one of those giant bottles of cooking oil, walking into the kitchen, and then dropping it and causing a small crack in the bottom. What will you do with the oil?
The prophet promised that the oil would not stop flowing until she ran out of places to put it.
So go find jars! Don’t ask for just a few! Because the only limit you have is the one you set yourself.
So she went and got jars. We have no idea how many, but it sounds like she got a lot of jars . . . a lot of places with room for the blessing of God.
“She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring” (2 Kings 4:5).
God’s supply was unlimited, and she was very blessed because she evidently was able to gather plenty of jars, but at some point she reached the last jar and the oil stopped flowing.
That is the epitaph to many dead churches. The oil stopped flowing. Why? Because the supply of jars ran out.
At one time the churches were committed to making room for new people. At one time they had two-week revivals, sometimes twice a year. At one time they had a killer VBS program. Maybe they tried a bus ministry. Maybe even puppets. (Oh the memories!)
But times changed and no one really trusted some church to come and pick up their kids in a bus anymore. Two-week revivals were shortened to one, then to a weekend. And in the 21st century, kids are not very mesmerized by someone whose hands are shoved in a stuffed animal.
Instead of trying new ideas and creating new jars, many churches just bemoan today’s culture and the “post-Christian” era we live in, and then they give up.
I understand there is a time and season for every church, and every organization reaches the end of its shelf life. All of the New Testament churches have passed away, even the great ones. Jesus said the church—but not a specific regional church—would stand against the gates of Hell.
However, the reason many churches die is because they run out of jars.
Again, this is not really about “new versus old.” It’s about how many jars the people are willing to provide. A new church is an automatic empty jar. But lots of new churches don’t last long because they have the same jar problem.
Let me give you some examples/generalizations:
• Many start with more than one service.
• The people are generous with outreach.
• Services are designed for the unreached.
• It’s hard to convince people to add a service because they are comfortable.
• The people see no need, or they get comfortable with a small percentage given to missionaries in foreign fields.
• Services are for us—we’ve always done it this way.
We recently added a sixth weekend service at one of our campuses (two Saturday, three Sunday morning, one Sunday night—all the same) and just launched our fifth capital campaign to raise funds for new church plants and another campus. Those are jars.
Few churches will take it that far. Why did we? Because we realized we had run out of jars. And by that I don’t just mean seats and parking. We were getting comfortable. We needed to continue to stretch our faith so the oil wouldn’t stop.
In my analogy, there is no guarantee an empty jar will be the answer for your oil problem, but I guarantee when you stop trying to find jars, the oil will dry up.
I know how hard it is to get the oil started again. Been there, done that. I will NOT be a last-jar guy.
“Don’t ask for just a few” (2 Kings 4:3).
Tim Harlow is senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois, and author of Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World.