Part of my ministry involves working with other churches. Sometimes when I hear from a church, they have been plateaued or in a season of decline for several years. They are often looking for answers about how they can turn around.
I love helping churches, but there truly are no standard answers. It’s unique for every church and every situation. I do know, however, that if a local church never adds new people … eventually it will cease to exist. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
The hardest lesson a church needs to learn in a period of decline, however, is not what they should do … but what they shouldn’t. I’ve seen churches make, what appears to me, to be an abundance of wrong decisions toward growing again. The purpose of this post is to help churches who may find themselves in a declining period avoid mistakes I’ve seen some churches make.
Here are seven suggestions of what NOT to do when in decline:
1. Blame others. It’s easy to blame the decline on a former pastor, or one of the deacons, or one of the seniors, or even on the culture. But the reality is, when you are in decline, this matters less than what you are going to do about it. And as long as you are blaming someone or something, you won’t address the real issues.
2. Make excuses. There are multiple reasons we could probably discover … many of them true … of why a church begins to decline. You should know them, but at some point, excuses only cloud our ability to move forward. We tend to live in them rather than move past them.
3. Pretend. I’ve seen so many churches pretend there isn’t a problem when everyone knows there is one (or many). If you want to grow again, you’ll have to admit there is a problem that needs addressing. (And this is the subject of another post, but in full disclosure, just so you know, that may involve implementing some change. No, that’s not full disclosure. It WILL involve some change.)
4. Lower expectations. It seems natural when the church is in decline to expect less, but that never works. You are trying to attract new people. You need more excellence, not more mediocrity to do that. You may need to lower some of the programs you offer, but never lower expectations of the ones you do.
5. Cut expenses. This one has dual meanings, of course, because reducing expenses may be exactly what you need to do. The point here is to make sure you lower the right expenses. Don’t cut the things that got you where you are or will get you where you need to go.
Don’t cut promotional or community investment dollars, for example, just because they are intangibles or an easy decision to make. The fact here is that, many times, the expenses you may need to cut are difficult decisions … unpopular decisions. So we often avoid them and cut the things that we should be doing to spur growth.
6. Overreact. Too much change during a period of decline can be deadly. Too little change can be equally damaging. Panic of leadership almost always leads to panic in people trying to follow. Strive not to react too strongly either way. Don’t change everything and don’t clamp down and refuse to change anything. Renew the vision God called you to … set good, clear goals and objectives to chart a course forward, and then trust that God will see you through this period.
7. Give up. There may be a time to quit. The fact is, the church, as in the Body of Christ, is here to stay. Jesus promised that. That promise isn’t made to every local church. Local churches close every year. But before you give up, or before you resolve that church growth is for other churches … but not this one … make sure you haven’t given up too soon.
In my experience, we often quit just before the breakthrough. Do all you know to do, then stay close to the heart of God, waiting for Him to bring the increase again or lead you in making harder decisions.
In a future post, I’ll share seven suggestions a church should do in a period of decline.
(Let me address the pushback I often receive on posts like this, many times from well-meaning people who think I’m too strategic to be biblical. God is in charge. He sets the rules and adds the increase. But that does not leave us without responsibility. Read the parable of the talents, or the story of Nehemiah, or multiple others. God has given us minds to be used for His glory.)