Five Keys to Reviving a Dying Church
Dying churches are a reality in North America. Recent research and anecdotal stories point to church decline. Studies from the Pew Research Center, Barna Group and Thom Rainer consistently demonstrate at least three things: (1) Church attendance overall is on a downward trend; (2) The vast majority of congregations are in decline; and (3) A small number of churches are doing well or growing. You can look up statistics, but they all point to a reality you know well: You're most likely in a dying congregation. Whether you work for, lead, or are part of a church, the odds are high that your church isn't what it used to be. You might have legitimate doubts about the future viability of your congregation.
There may be hope for revival. No, your church will almost certainly not be the next megachurch. Some churches have to die, allowing its members to use their talents and resources elsewhere. Many churches, however, still have life in them. The odds aren't high, but it's possible that your church can once again be a thriving community that oozes vibrancy and life.
How can you give it a chance? Here are five simple places to start.
1. Make Your Church a Place for the Living, Not the Dead
During a church's mature years, it's common to place memorial plaques and in memorium monuments around the church property. There's nothing wrong with such a practice in and of itself. These items commemorate beloved people. They keep alive the memory of individuals who died tragically or whose legacy carries forward.
Once a church begins to decline, however, those memorials start to send the wrong message. They subtly communicate that the past is more important to this group of people than the present or future. Sometimes these messages aren't so subtle. One preacher of a declining church told me, "We have no trouble getting volunteers to tend our memorial garden, but no one wants to work in the nursery." Are your church members there for the living or the dead? The answer to that question helps reveal whether or not your church has a future.
2. Remove the Albatross from Your Neck
Almost every declining church has an albatross or two around its neck. It could be a number of things that no longer serve a helpful purpose. It could be the long-lived ministry that has outlived its helpfulness. It could be the much-loved staff member who has moved from position to position in his long tenure but who no longer has a clearly defined role. Or it might be a building constructed for another era which now presents financial burdens to a much smaller church.
I know a church with a long-standing commitment to a major work overseas. Despite the church's decline, church leaders and many members believed their commitment was part of the church's prestige. They didn't want to cut it even though they had to set aside an ever-increasing share of their declining resources. This kind of ongoing commitment to an albatross—no matter how prestigious—drains your church of valuable energy, making your church sluggish and unable to flex in new ways that can help break free from decline.
3. Recognize and Empower Leadership Wherever You See It
Church leaders often define roles and expectations for new leaders too narrowly. Some fixate on the "qualifications" for leaders. Others try to recruit, convince, arm-twist or beg members to fill long-determined roles regardless of people’s skill sets. Thriving churches may have the luxury of behaving this way, but declining churches need more flexibility.
Leadership, often unrecognized, typically exists in all quadrants of a group, but you have to learn to think more creatively about leadership in order to see it. Instead of only looking for "a husband of one wife," you need to instead look for those who exercise positive influence. Instead of just searching for a person to coordinate communion servers, you have to tap into new interests and skills that may not fit preexisting organizational schemes.
4. Start Measuring a New Set of Metrics
One symptom of church decline is becoming too inwardly focused. As numbers dwindle, remaining members feel increasingly betrayed and deserted. Rather than turning outward to seek new people, the natural tendency is to turn inward and console one another. This produces a "guilt-trip mindset" that tries to stamp out any more backsliding. But instead of creating positive energy that encourages growth, this creates fear and hand-wringing as members increasingly follow attendance and giving data.
To reverse this trend, you need to encourage new kinds of measurements—things you can track that will build up the church. A leader can challenge the church, "Let's see how many non-Christians we can eat with next month," and then encourage folks to host neighborhood barbecues and go to workplace lunches. Tally the number and praise God for your church's potential reach. These are the kinds of creative measurements necessary to break the grip of fear caused by decline.
5. Pray for the Lord to Raise up Workers
At the heart of most dying churches are the aging and death of key, long-time workers. Those who formerly drove the church no longer have the energy to do so. What can you do about this loss?
At the end of the day, you have to recognize that this is not a human institution. The church is not yours. It is the Lord's. You have work to do, but you can only do so much. Ask the Lord of the harvest to bring forth workers into his harvest. Once you realize there still is a harvest, the most important thing to do may be to beseech God for help. Isn't turning to God what church work is supposed to be about?