Through the years I have consulted or worked with dozens of churches that needed revitalization. A few of them were facing death. They were not heading for trouble. They were in trouble. Most of the churches needing revitalization were not facing eminent death. Indeed, many of them did not even realize they were heading for trouble. They appeared healthy. A few of them were even growing. Most of them had a lot of activity and plenty of money. But all of them needed church revitalization.
A friend recently asked me how he could know if his church needed revitalization. I struggled to give a definitive answer. So I compiled a list of signs that indicate a church is heading for trouble and needs revitalization. Some of these come from churches I have consulted or worked with over the years. Others come from conversations with colleagues in ministry. In order to make the final list, the sign had to have been present in multiple churches.
Here are eight signs that your church is heading for trouble:
1. Plateaued or declining attendance – This should be the most obvious indicator. Sometimes it is not. I am aware of one church that had experienced a fifty-year decline in attendance. Because the decline had come a little bit at the time, most members didn’t notice it. Some leaders refused to believe it, even when confronted with the data.
2. Lack of evangelistic fruit – Among my denominational tribe we measure evangelistic fruit by baptisms. When I look at baptism numbers I want to know more than just how many total baptisms. I want to know how many are adults. I want to know how many are children of adult church members. We celebrate every baptism, but without evangelistic fruit from the community a church is heading for trouble.
3. Church does not reflect the community – Without evangelistic fruit from the community there will come a day when the church no longer reflects the community. That is a major sign of impending trouble. God has placed each church in its community for such a time as this. The church should reflect the community ethnically, generationally, culturally, and economically.
4. Missing generations in attendance and/or leadership – In the past six months I have worked with four different churches that had no participating adults under the age of 50. In other churches where only one generation is missing, the situation may be less dramatic but no less significant. It is important for these churches to seek an honest answer to the question, “Why?” and take the necessary steps to fix the problem.
5. Idealized vision of the past – Often when a church is heading for or experiencing trouble, the members will be struck with extreme cases of nostalgia. Believing their best days are in the past, they will long for the good old days. The healthy church will see its past through the eyes of Jesus. There will be celebration of past victories. There will be repentance for past corporate sin. And there will be hope for the future. I grew up hearing my mother reminisce about the good old days when she was a child. My mother was born on October 29, 1929 – the day the stock market crashed. She grew up in the Great Depression. The past is rarely as glamorous as we remember it!
6. Preoccupation with other churches – This indicator is most prominent in churches who may have been “The First Baptist Church of What’s Happening Now” in the past but some other church has taken their place. I have seen this so many times. Rather than celebrating the kingdom impact, the members are jealous of the sister church’s success. They may be exceedingly critical. Or they may inundate their own leadership with statements like, “Why can’t we do what they are doing?” When a church is overly focused on what other churches are doing it is heading for trouble.
7. Competing agendas within the church – Competing agendas make a pastor feel like he is playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. He is constantly having to intervene and redirect. This member wants the church to have contemporary worship services. This member laments that the church no longer uses the handbell choir in worship. This church member wants more money spent on the members instead of sending it off to the missionaries. Everyone wants to do what is right in their own eyes. Too often the loudest voice or the voice with the most support wins the day and sends the church heading for trouble.
8. Allowing a person or group to exercise power and control – Bullies exist in churches. I have seen churches where someone attempted to be a bully or a group acted as a cabal, but the church stood up to the bully and confronted the cabal. But I have also seen churches where members stood by wringing their collective hands. They allowed the bully to exercise power. They allowed the cabal to be in control. Those churches were heading for trouble. Some sooner than later.
Last spring I started having pain in my left knee when I ran. At first I shook it off and kept running. No pain. No gain. Right? That lasted for about a week. Then the warning signs began to increase. In addition to the pain, I had swelling and stiffness. It was time to get help.
If your church is showing any of the signs of heading for trouble, don’t wait. Church revitalization is possible. You can have a healthy church.