A church might lose members because its leaders are burdened with a new direction the people are unwilling to travel. Or, it might lose members because of natural calamities or factory closings. Perhaps the demographics of the community have changed, such as in rural areas where land that once used to be teeming with large families is now controlled by farming conglomerates. But often a church will lose members for less noble reasons.
Some people will tell you to just inaugurate a new evangelism plan to solve your problems. I do think evangelism is vital and have written about it extensively. However, in most cases, church health is more important in the beginning. People leave sick churches. The general rule is this: If you cannot invite people to the church because you just can’t imagine why anyone would really want to be there, church health is the first order of business.
While it is impossible to analyze all the reasons churches lose members, they are often characterized by the following traits. Some of these may describe your church. Let’s look at the negatives first, then consider how they might be overcome.
1. Leaders become increasingly administrative.
When pastors and other leaders no longer have spiritual goals, they fall into the abyss of endless administration. Administration is necessary, but when running an orderly church becomes all that gets your attention, you are drifting toward an ecclesiastical Bermuda Triangle. A leader constantly administrating, but rarely rallying people to godly action and heightened spirituality will lose the people he is attempting to lead. Leadership is also about inspiration.
2. People who become spiritually sick are left unwell.
Do the leaders really know the flock? Untended sheep get into trouble and become weaker by the day. Does your church expend any efforts to pastorally care for the sheep other than the typical public meetings? Sometimes the canker sores of a church have become so deeply infected that nobody is willing to deal with them. Spiritual sickness is the norm, and the church begins to feel like a cholera ward. But nobody is doing anything about it. On the inside the people cry out for spiritual care, but it is the care that will never come. When people sense they are not loved (that is, loved with action on the part of the leaders and the people as a whole), they often leave in order to find brotherly love in other places.
3. No new vision is projected and communication is reduced because there isn’t anything to communicate.
Leaders who are listening to the Lord have a vision to project to the people. They also are genuinely excited about what is happening. Some vision casting is carnal, admittedly, but it does not have to be that way. For instance, pastors may wish to see all their members reading the New Testament through in a given year, or seek to open up a new evangelistic ministry in a needy area of town. Life without vision is unprofitable, and you can hardly blame people for wanting to be in a church where their families will be challenged. Humans are born with ambition. Ambition can be wrongly placed or rightly placed. It is the job of leaders to inspire people to be ambitious for the good, and for the godly, goals. Don’t be surprised when people absent themselves from churches where there is no vision, even when the leaders are good men with right doctrine. People need to be challenged, and they will gravitate toward visionary churches even if their aspirations are not godly.
4. A maintenance mentality takes over.
Similar to the last comment, many churches believe that the highest calling for a church is to maintain the status quo. When budget time comes they say, “What did we do last year?” The phrase, “There is nothing new under the sun” was tailor-made for such churches. If anything new is suggested, it dries up like spit on the hot tarmac.
Ralph Neighbor used to call this church’s battle cry the seven last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” The people and leaders have become so un-animated that nothing excites them anymore. Nothing new seems possible even if it comes straight from the pages of Scripture. Moses could not move such people to advance. But most of the time what they are maintaining is not worth saving. They are holding on to a few trinkets of the past that have little if anything to do with God’s intentions for the church. This is the prevailing mindset of the church loss movement.
In one of my first churches I removed the numbers board from the front of the auditorium. Some of you don’t know what that is, but I hope you will always remember that some of us fought the battle of the boards long before you were born! It was a symbol of the status quo. That’s the board that tells you how many members you have and how many people are attending Sunday School, how many brought their Bibles, plus a few other facts. It rests beside the choir loft usually on the right side, producing either pride or dismay. I removed it. One woman almost fainted in consternation. She was also the one who insisted that all of us fill out the “Eight point record system.” That’s about checking off if you attended, were on time, brought your Bible, completed a “study course,” and did other things. I didn’t fill one out, nor did most of the people. But she was so committed to it that she filled mine out for me every Sunday. Though I was the pastor and she didn’t give me 100% many Sundays! Status quo churches care about trivial things like this. Thankfully, other churches I’ve led were addicted to finding God’s best and doing it. Beware when all you do is maintain the same ol’ same ol’.
5. Pastors are focused on the disgruntled people.
In a diminishing church, people are often disgruntled, though they do not fully know why. Like the poor, disgruntled people will always be with us. But even in a good church there is no shortage of analysis going on. Husbands and wives are talking to each other on the way home from the church meeting saying, “I think the problem is . . . .” At first this may not be mean-spirited, but loving analysis can turn to critical bickering, and eventually disloyalty.
Upset people take lots of the leader’s time. Hours are spent in consideration of people’s words and behavior. Sometimes confrontation has to take place. And much time in prayer is also required. Not a few leaders waste additional time by worrying over these people. Some pastors spend all their time in this mode. There is hardly time to breathe, much less advance the cause of Christ through the church. The problem people use up all the leader’s worry capital.
Certainly pastors need to deal with difficult people, but a leader cannot be stymied from action and from projecting biblical vision for the church by a few blathering souls. They are not the only people in the church. The other people want to move on. But in a problem-centered church, the leadership never rises above dealing with the power brokers and complainers. Because of this, the people who are desirous of doing something more, the best people, will move on to greener pastures.
6. Bitterness is left uncorrected.
While it is true that disgruntled people can take all the energies of some pastors, wrongly so, it is also true that bitter, hurtful people are also often left untended in weakening churches. Feuds lasting scores of years might be evident to guests in a way that the congregation has grown accustomed to. I’ve seen this awful monster eat up all new growth of churches. Angry men or women, especially if they have retained some leadership, kill church health.
You usually hear bitter people first in the business meetings of the church, but next in the Bible Study class or small group meeting. In the smaller group context any gossip underpinned by bitterness may be passed along as long as you say, “bless her heart” or “I don’t mean to talk about him, but . . .” When one woman told me that to her the business meeting was the heart of church life, I knew I had one on my hands. One bitter man squared off with a brother of mine at the end of a church meeting, demanding that he go outside and fight. This was said in front of a brand new Christian college girl who had just been baptized! Another pastor tells of being punched out after one meeting in the front of the building! Now, that’s laying it all on the altar. Others don’t have such bravado, but they can kill people by their tongues. Bitterness is deadly to growing churches and needs to be confronted by leaders.
7. Attrition gradually takes several away, with no replacements. Some leave with a focus on peripheral issues (symptoms).
Attrition is normal, but most churches make up the differences. There are times when even good churches cannot overcome attrition if the reasons for it are outside of the church itself. In a spiritually sick church, people are leaving, but it seems that they leave for less than sound reasons.
Oh, I know there is a good kind of attrition. Though it breaks leaders’ hearts to lose people, some ungodly people walking out might do some good. But when good people leave and they cannot express why they are leaving, look deeply within yourselves to try to figure out why. Maybe God is showing you something important that could be changed. Sometimes the changes are about more than the leader. Deeper alterations need to take place, and that takes the entire church’s cooperation. The truth is, the church is just not meeting needs well though those leaving may never tell you what actually bothers them.
8. The church has become a small static group, with little vitality. People remember the “good ol’ days.”
That faithful knot of long term members remains, even in the worst of situations. Because most churches have buildings, dead churches will go on forever, even when the cause of Christ could be better served by closing the doors. This faithful group (who are sometimes to be commended for their sticking power) often look back to the “good ol’ days,” usually when they were young and in leadership. Often they project that the failures of the church are due to not doing the same programs that used to be done. “If we would just knock on doors on Tuesday nights like we used to, people would come.” “If we would have revival meetings, things would be different.” “If we would sing the good old hymns, people would not leave us.”
It is hard to move a group like this to action. I’m not saying that these people are necessarily ungodly, but they could use some of Caleb’s spirit. Instead, they are always looking back. Who wants to be part of a church of retro Christians?
9. The building slowly deteriorates for lack of interest.
Typically the sign in front of the church building says it all. It hasn’t been freshened up in years. Paint is chipping off the building. There is no longer any care taken for the grounds. The nursery smells of ground-in crackers and old diaper pails, and looks like the 50s. The pastor’s office has a metal desk, some ancient wooden chairs, brown indoor/outdoor carpet, and a shelf with some old hymnals and a few study course books on it (if you don’t know what those are, look there to find one). The kitchen has a tiny “ice box” and some formica covered counters. The church people don’t notice anymore, but the guests do. The member’s inattention to their property says, “We don’t really care anymore.”
10. Pastors leave too soon having no sense of fulfillment in their work or hope of affecting any change.
If the church continues, it will do so with a variety of short-term pastors. While it can be good for student pastors to have a place to try their craft, there is no long-term commitment pastorally anymore, unless a settled older man retires in the community and is willing to offer help. While this scenario might come about for unavoidable reasons, it is characteristic of all shrinking churches. If the regime changes every year or two, pastors will hardly make an impact on the community, so as to engender growth. Newcomers say, “Something must be wrong because they change pastors every two years.”
What Can Be Done?
I feel for the pastors who have entered in to a church that is on the downward slide for any of the reasons mentioned above. You might have inherited more than any normal person can handle. But some leaders only continue the problem. What, if anything, can be done?
1. First, pray.
I don’t say this in jest; prayer is the way to unleash the God who specializes in the impossible. I once knew a praying church out in the country, ten miles down a lonely road to nowhere. If I remember correctly, the road was graveled. It grew and grew to several hundred people from its struggling original state. I might have said that the church had no hope. But I was wrong. Anything can happen.
2. Then, get with hospitality.
Loving people is always the right place to start to meet problems. If I were a pastor in a shrinking church, I would divide the congregation up alphabetically (A-E on Monday night, F-J on Tuesday night, etc.) and open up my home first thing to every person in the church. I don’t want anyone saying they had not been invited to my home. Within a couple of weeks, all the saints would have been inside my house. Next, I would plan on having some families over each week, one evening plus Sundays for lunch. I might even do it by asking them to share the food preparation. Then I would ask God to give me some other hospitality people who will help out by inviting people over. I would have regular covered dish meals, every Sunday if possible. This would be an eating, fellowshipping kind of place. I know that can happen in any church with a little work.
One church I led became legendary for its hospitality. Many were converted through the witness of this church, and scores of people joined. But we didn’t have any plan of evangelism except loving people. Often guests would tell me that they had been invited to lunch two or three times the first time they visited. Any church can do this with a little work. It’s a wonderful goal. Love is the best witness to the world that Jesus can make a difference, and it melts the hearts of the skeptical. You might not be known for being great at anything else, but if your church can love, you will attract the best of people.
3. Leaders should disciple men.
Next, pastors should meet with men to study Scripture. This can take place in two ways: First, all the men may be invited to a weekly study. Second, men that the leaders desire to be with get special mentoring. Jesus chose “those He Himself wanted.” These mentored men may not be the leaders that are already in place. Pastors may wish to devote special mentoring time to young men, or quiet men, or new men, rather than the old guard. Don’t worry if people squawk. This is the right thing to do. You don’t have to announce it.
There are many reasons why I say to work with the men. Among them is this important idea: If all goes south, and people won’t follow a good leader, it is important for that leader to have the heart of most of the men. This will secure that he will be able to hang on and not be removed prematurely no matter how difficult times get.
4. Leaders should prioritize the needs of the church.
First, just list what it might take to become healthy. Maybe your list would include items like this: restore church discipline, secure a regenerate membership, improve the way the church worships, begin cell groups, chose a true plurality of elders, make deacons servant “do-ers” instead of “deciders,” initiate true evangelism, establish a church covenant that is really used, and so on. Then prayerfully decide what is the first major issue you believe God wants you to face.
5. Do biblical study with the men of the church on the issue.
The men need to discover God’s will for the church for themselves as a group. Leaders should not pontificate on hard transitional issues, but carefully lead the men to discover what the Bible has to say. This creates ownership. Then, when it is time to make the move on that issue, these men will, more than likely, be behind you. Admittedly, there can be surprises. I recently heard of a cranky deacon who violently objected to the direction the pastor was leading by saying, “I’m tired of the word ‘biblical’.” He eventually ousted this good pastor. Now he doesn’t have to worry about being biblical anymore. Not much you can do about people like that. But it is generally so that if the men see it in Scripture, they will be able to provide the momentum in the right direction. This is how it should be. Take your time and be thorough in your study. Try your best to write out a statement of belief about the issue together. Get it worded just right. Work on the wording so that everyone has a part. You can use this to present the issue to the whole church.
6. Lead the church to commit to the new plan.
Each church has its own ways to make decisions. But if the men have come to consensus,then the rest should be easier. Communicate well. If necessary, meet in small groups with the church, discussing the issue that the men have already hashed out from the Bible. Then, when ready, make the decision. Even if you have elders, the decision should include the input of the people, that is, if you want ownership. That may or may not mean a formal vote, depending on your views.
7. Give some space, then move on to another need of the church in the same way.
God will guide you, and the men closest to you will provide counsel. God wants the church to be better even more than you do. So, leaders must patiently pay the price and move the church on down the line toward spiritual vitality and biblical conformity.
Well, there are details that could be added, but this is a general pattern that good leaders can work with.
At the end of this discussion, I want to say that not every church will grow, and some are going to be stubbornly unhealthy despite the best efforts of godly people. Some areas of the world are much harder than others. Some churches live under the shadow of larger, active churches that attract the whole town. Going might be tough. I feel for many pastors who struggle with past mistakes and current issues with very little help. But whining about it doesn’t accomplish much. At least you should die trying. The church ought to be better this year than last.
While I am sympathetic to the thought that we should be patient with changes in churches, changes that must happen for the church to become healthy, I want to caution about waiting too long to act. As soon as pastors have a substantial base of relationship with the men of the church, and a context of loving hospitality, they should begin to implement change. Again, God will have to lead you toward what should be done first.
The job of a pastor is not to make the church a haven for unconverted people who dominate the activity of the church for years to come. God is really not pleased with that. Some churches have been ruled by cantankerous leaders for so many years that they believe there is no hope for escape from their legal and deadening grasp. But the issues must be faced, or you run the danger of being more concerned about pleasing the ungodly than following the Lord. The righteous rejoice in a godly leader who does what is right, even if the ungodly bicker and bully. Leaders, don’t be afraid to move on to create the best church possible. Don’t do it in a cavalier way, but out of a huge heart of love and prayer. You must really love the people.
Then, if the powers that be are too strong for you, and remove you who are pastors and spiritually-minded members from your posts, you have at least sought to follow Christ with your whole heart. Remember that Jesus loved people more than you ever could, but they put Him on the cross. You may have done good for that church, for the kingdom, and for the remnant that may come out, in ways that you will not understand in this life.
Our CCW team is always happy to talk with you if you have specific questions. We’re not experts on everything, but have at least done most things wrongly at one time or another. We know some things not to do. We’ve also experienced some measurable blessing in reaching people and growing healthy churches. Let us know if we can help.