Sorry, Your Church’s Days Are Numbered—Unless …

Warning: Is your church an endangered species?

What Won’t Save Our Churches

Church Growth—Not every church is destined to become big—not even in large population centers. Because not everyone wants to attend a large church. The answer for my healthy small church is not to become a big church. It’s to become a healthier and smarter small church. As I wrote a while ago, “Big Cities Need Great Small Churches, Too.”

Teaching on Tithing—People don’t tithe like they used to. Some of it is lack of teaching. But much of it, as we saw in point #2 above, is because we’re not showing people that the church is a cause worth giving to. We can teach them to tithe until we’re hoarse, but they won’t do it if we’re not showing them good stewardship of what they’re giving. They may be more right on this than we are. Poor tithing by church congregations may be a lesser sin than poor stewardship by church leaders.

Being Relevant—There are more “cool” churches now than there ever have been. And I’m OK with that. There’s nothing righteous about being dowdy, slow and out-of-touch. But “cool” is overrated. We don’t need churches to be more relevant. We need them to be more real, more contextual and—dare I say it—more countercultural.

None of the above tactics are bad. But relying on them will not bring the long-term results we really need.

What Might Save Our Churches

Pay the Mortgage!—Churches with debt will not last. The sad demise of The Crystal Cathedral is only the most obvious recent case of that. Extravagant buildings and programs must give way to practical methods under strong, budgetary stewardship.

Proactive Change—Churches that wait too long to react will die. Churches that thoughtfully and prayerfully anticipate, adapt and lead a changing culture will be healthier and more valuable to people and to the kingdom of God than ever.

Bivocational Pastoring—The Apostle Paul was bivocational. Most pastors in history and throughout the world today are bivocational. But they’re still looked at as not-quite-pastors to a lot of us. That has to change. Fewer churches will be able to afford the luxury of the full-time pastor. For more about this, check out Hugh Halter’s book BiVo.

Partnering With Other Churches—The go-it-alone church won’t make it any more. No, this is not about denominations. Many churches within denominations are still going it alone, while many nondenominational churches have healthy, robust partnerships with like-minded churches. Check out Hope Church in San Diego and the book Churches Partnering Together by Chris Bruno and Matt Dirks for a couple ideas on how to do this better.

Don’t Panic, But Start Acting—Now

It’s not all bad news. So if your church looks like mine, or if you’re reading this and you actually attend my church, don’t panic.

First, whether or not our churches survive in their current form or a new one, the church will always thrive.

Second, churches that see the writing on the wall and make the necessary adaptations, including those listed above, will not just survive, but thrive. No, they won’t look the same in 20 years. But the way we look today isn’t how we looked 20 years ago, either. It’s not a matter of whether or not we change. It’s a matter of how we change and who’s in charge of the change.

Third, the coming trends may actually force the church back toward a more sustainable, possibly even more biblical, model. One where there’s less dependence on buildings, structures and professional clergy—and more dependence on genuine community, discipleship and direct reliance on God.

(For the best information on these trends that I know of, plus some real-life hopeful answers, check out The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson.)

So what do you think? What does your church need to do to survive and thrive?

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Karl Vaters
Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.