The text message read, “I think we have hit bottom. There is nowhere but up now.” The person sending the text is a member of a church that is in serious trouble. Serious. Trouble. After a long period of slow decline they have begun spiraling quickly towards death. Their attendance is down nearly 30% over the previous year. It is the largest one-year decline in the church’s history.
Unfortunately, I fear the person sending the text is wrong. They have not hit bottom. And here is why…
It’s hard to save a sinking ship.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. Certainly Jesus could intervene. If he can bring dead people back to life, he can certainly restore life to a dying church. But this church, and many more like it, are fast approaching a point of no return. They are already stretched financially. They have more building than they need. And certainly more building than they can afford. Like many churches in their situation, their building is more than 50 years old. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are spending more than 50% of their budget on maintaining the buildings. That leaves little financial resources to pay staff and do ministry.
They continue to pick up the pieces.
This is a church with a history of conflict. Conflict among the members. Conflict between members and staff leadership. Not healthy conflict. Extremely unhealthy conflict. Their former pastor said “I pleaded with them to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In fact he preached a series of messages from Ephesians 4 urging them to do the hard work of maintaining unity. He pointed out that unity in the church is not unlike unity in a marriage relationship. It requires humility, gentleness and patience. It requires a commitment to do the hard work of staying together. But this is a church that is quick to force leaders out. They fired that pastor two months after he finished the Ephesians 4 series. They would rather pick up the pieces after the fact than do the hard work of maintaining unity. The problem is they have fewer and fewer pieces to pick up.
They are looking for a quick fix.
They think the next pastor is the answer. I know their last three pastors. And while none of them are perfect, the church wouldn’t follow any of them. Why should anyone think they will follow the next one?
If you know me then you know that I love college football. Because I am an Alabama fan, it is normal for me to have an aversion to all things orange. Consequently, I do not get upset when Tennessee loses a football game. Tennessee has a new coach. He has coached four games. Now, Tennessee is not good. In fact, they are bad. But after four games fans are already calling for a change at head coach. Four games! One reason Tennessee is in this position is that they have had four coaches in the last nine years.
It takes time to fix a broken football team. It takes more time to fix a broken church. Until the church is willing to call a pastor, support him and follow his leadership, they will continue to decline.
They have abandoned the mission of God.
This is one of the more common traits of a declining church. And it is prevalent in this church. They were once involved in church planting. Now they are focused on church maintenance. They were once committed to supporting missions. Now they are struggling to pay the bills. This is a dangerous trend for a declining church. As Mark Clifton and Richard Blackaby have said, God is under no obligation to bless your plans for his church. But he will spare nothing to carry out his plans for his church. Simply put. You cannot save a dying church by abandoning God’s plan for his church. And God’s plan has always been for the church to make disciples of all nations. That means evangelism. That means missions.
The future looks bleak for this church. I am praying for them. I am encouraging several friends who are members. But unless they stop doing the things that got them to this point, they will continue to decline.
Here is my message to them and to so many other churches like them…
First, get help. Be willing to bring in someone to give an honest evaluation. You need a trained and skillful interventionist. I wish you would call a transitional pastor who could give you the wisdom of a consultant with the heart of a shepherd.
Second, pursue the mission of God. Serve your community. Love your neighbors. Share the gospel. Make disciples who make disciples. Support missions. Participate in missions. Seek first the Kingdom of God.
Third, support your leadership. When you find a pastor recognize that he is God’s man to lead your church. He is not there to make you happy. He is there to make God happy. Be willing to have his back by standing up to bullies and cabals.
Fourth, be patient. You didn’t get where you are overnight. You aren’t going to turn it around quickly. Be willing to redefine what success looks like. You are probably not going to go from death’s door to growth in 3-5 years. In fact, even once you start the road to recovery, it will likely get worse before it gets better. Stay the course.