A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting across the table from a pastor who had closed the doors on his church.
Basically, his church had slipped into decline, they couldn’t stop the process and fast-forward the story, his church is no more.
It was heartbreaking to hear his story. He had moved cross-country to pursue his dream of starting a thriving church.
We’ve all seen this. Some of us have been a part of this. Maybe, this is what you are experiencing in your church right now.
Here’s the question:
How do you turn things around? How do you revive a dying church?
I’m not sure I have the answers to this question, but I do have four ideas.
Let’s start with the essential ingredient for turnaround.
Humility. If this character trait is missing or lacking in your key leadership, there will be no turnaround.
Because ground zero of revitalization is this honest declaration:
We need to change
I’m not saying change your core.
I’m not saying change your message.
I’m simply saying that if everything was as it should be, the church wouldn’t be dying.
Something has to change.
Humility is required to admit this and seek course correction.
Churches that die out often blame:
- It’s culture’s fault
- Millennials are the worst
- It’s the previous pastor’s fault
- It’s leadership’s fault
Churches that turnaround ask:
- What are we doing wrong?
- What needs to change?
- What do they want?
- Who do we need to talk to?
Churches that die out are closed-minded
- This is how we do church
- We’re not here to make people happy
- This is how we’ve always done it
Churches that turnaround are open-minded.
It’s called humility.
Humility is critical if you want to revive a dying church. It starts with key leadership.
A few years ago, my church found itself in a season of decline.
Attendance was down, giving was down, and some of us were starting to panic.
Not long after discovering that we were in decline, we scheduled a strategic off-site meeting with key leadership.
What was the purpose of the meeting?
To uncover a revolutionary idea to turn things around? To start a contemporary service?
We set aside three entire days to remember who God called us to be as a church.
When things aren’t going well, our first reaction is often to do something to fix the problem.
“Millennials aren’t coming to our church? Ok. Let’s start a college and career ministry.”
“We’re aging? Let’s build a student center.”
“People are leaving for the church down the street? Let’s add funny videos to our service.”
I would argue that responding to a problem with activity is usually the wrong reaction.
Because activity, without strategy, is just noise.
Our approach was to get back to the basics of who God called us to be as a church.
What we needed was clarity around our calling. We didn’t add activity, in fact we put a hold on adding activity.
We clarified our vision.
Then, and only then, did we create strategy around our vision.
We have a saying:
Compelling vision. Comprehensive strategy. Relentless implementation.
The solution to a slowly dying church isn’t more it’s less—less that is focused and strategic.
If you believe your church is slowly dying, I would encourage you to get back to the basics of what God is calling you to as a church.
After clarifying this mission, focus on strategies that help achieve this mission.
Once you create clarity around your God given vision, it’s time to narrow your focus.
By this I mean, it’s time to ask a church-saving question:
Does this help us accomplish our mission?
If you want to turn around a dying church, it is essential that you do only what’s essential.
What is your God-given mission? Do that and get rid of everything else.
And yes, this means some programs and possibly even some staff will have to go.
We have to be clear about something here.
Reviving a dying church will require making some tough decisions.
Not everyone will love these decisions.
Some people will leave.
But, focus is critical and a turnaround leader must have grit.
If you want to revive a dying church, narrow the focus around what is essential to your calling.
Something I appreciate about the leadership of my church is our willingness to ask for help.
During our season of decline, we took a staff survey that revealed a pretty nasty reality.
Our morale was low.
Vision was unclear.
Trust was in decline.
Our teams were silos.
It wasn’t awesome.
One of the first things we did was ask for help.
We pursued conversations with leaders from other churches who had turned things around.
We hired an organization to help us understand what needed to change.
More recently, we realized that although our staff and congregation desires to be more diverse, we really don’t know how.
Again, we hired a specialist who understands how to pursue racial diversity.
And, we joined a Fuller Youth Institute Growing Young cohort in an effort to pursue age diversity.
When we feel stuck, we are quick to ask. We regularly pursue outside help and it has led to great results for us.
Turning around a dying church is incredibly difficult work.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
From what I have observed and experienced, churches who have turned the tide on decline are exceptionally humble.
They understand exactly what God has called them to as a church and they focus almost exclusively on that mission.
Lastly, they ask for help.
There is obviously far more to say on this topic.
We’d love to hear from you—from your bad experiences and your good ones. Thanks for reading.