Across North America thousands of churches are stuck, struggling or spiraling towards death. I recently studied the Annual Church Profiles of the fifty-one churches that make up two local Southern Baptist associations. Here is what I found: Ten of the fifty-one churches reported an increase in attendance from 2016 to 2017. For some it was an increase of two people. But it was an increase. However, none of these “growing” churches showed any signs of evangelistic growth. And eleven of the fifty-one churches reported a decrease in attendance of more than 10%.
Please don’t misunderstand. These are wonderful churches with godly pastors. I know some of them personally. They love the Lord. They love the church. But the truth is that most of our churches are in trouble. They are not heading for trouble. They are in trouble.
The good news is that help is available. The North American Mission Board has committed tremendous resources to help dying churches. And this week Thom Rainer launched the Revitalization Network to empower churches to greater health. Rainer’s network is looking to do on a national and international scale what I am seeking to do on a more regional basis. Help is available.
Last week I received an email from an associational director of missions who said, “It’s hard to get churches in the rural south to consider revitalization.” I don’t think we have ever had more need for revitalization than we do right now. And we have never had more resources targeted to help stuck, struggling and spiraling churches than we do right now. So why do churches refuse to revitalize? Here are five reasons churches refuse to revitalize:
1. Church members don’t see the problem.
The decline may be slow and unnoticed. I have shared before that the last church I served was in a fifty-plus-year decline from an average attendance of 504 in 1963 to 205 in 2016. That is a 59% decrease! How can you not notice that much decline? It’s easy to miss. Attendance did not drop by 299 people in one year. In fact, the average annual decrease was only 5.6 people, a 1.1% decrease per year. When I presented this data to a group of leaders, one man actually called me a liar. The church was dying a slow death, and very few members even saw that there was a problem.
Of course, declining attendance is not the only indicator that a church is stuck, struggling or spiraling towards death. You can find other signs that a church is heading for trouble in this POST.
2. Church members don’t want to rock the boat.
The boat may be sinking, but no one wants to rock it! Even when someone sees the problem and has a desire to fix it, they fear being labeled a troublemaker. I saw this a few weeks ago when I asked this question on a Facebook poll: Does the church you lead or attend need revitalization? Almost immediately I got an inbox message from someone who said “I think a lot of people would love to answer this question but not openly on Facebook. Can you imagine the phone calls and texts between church members that would result from a yes? My answer is yes, but I would never invite the controversy.” The boat is sinking, but members don’t want to create controversy.
3. Church members think a new pastor will fix their problems.
A friend of mine compared this to the head coaching mentality in sports. Even at the high school level, the coach is hired to win ballgames. And if he doesn’t win, they fire him and find someone else. Churches that take this approach get into a cycle of short-term pastors. It’s like changing the head on a mannequin. And the churches never take the time to figure out the real problems, let alone address them.
I am aware of a church that is presently in this kind of cycle. Their last pastor resigned under pressure after a short term pastorate. The pastor before him left under pressure after a short term pastorate. And the pastor before him… Well, you get the picture. This church would have done well to call a transitional interim pastor to help them begin the process of revitalization BEFORE looking for their next pastor. Instead, their search committee was talking to a prospective pastor three months after their last pastor resigned!
This probably should be first on the list. And pride applies to church members and to pastors. Some pastors do not have the skillset necessary to lead revitalization. They are visionary, but they are not shepherds. Some don’t have what Mark Clifton calls tactical patience. Some pastors have been so beaten up in the past that they don’t have the emotional energy to lead. But the one thing that will keep them from leading the church to experience revitalization is PRIDE. They lack the humility to reach out for help. They don’t want to appear weak to their peers.
Church members also exhibit pride that keeps the church from experiencing revitalization. I have known church members who are more concerned about what other churches think than about what Jesus thinks. So they spend their time rearranging the metaphorical chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the church spirals closer and closer to death.
5. The pain of death is less than the pain of change.
Like number four, this one can apply to church members and to pastors. Some pastors are not willing to endure the pain they will experience if they lead the church to change. It’s easier to become the preaching chaplain who leads the church to death with dignity. To be fair, I have known pastors who became chaplains because they did not have anyone in the church who was willing to endure the pain of change with them.
It is my hope and prayer that churches who are stuck, struggling and spiraling towards death will reach out to get the help they need before it’s too late.