What you can do when your church is in decline

September 14, 2021

Facing reality in churches can be tough. When a faithful, dedicated church member of many years sees the church losing ground as the neighborhood around the congregation changes, painful feelings emerge and uncertainty abounds.

This feeling is exacerbated when one’s age puts them in the Builder Generation (1929-1945) who survived World War II and the Great Depression. They value dedication, frugality, and hanging on to what is noble, right and good. Bottom line, for this generation and for many who follow, “quitting is not an option.”

Paramount is finding a way that the Lord Jesus will be continually lifted up in their church and surrounding community and a gospel presence maintained.

While the church that Jesus established endures, local expressions of the church change. Like our bodies, there is a predictable life cycle. A church begins with a dream, builds upon beliefs and values, sets attainable goals and develops structures, systems and processes to attain them. At its peak, full ministry takes place.

But sometimes the greatest enemy of success is success itself. The church tends to get comfortable when it reaches its peak, continuing to do what guided the church to its effectiveness, but failing to continue to dream, redream and retool as the community where God has placed the church grows and changes.

Thus, while almost every church claims to be a loving church, typically the people in a declining church have become adept at loving each other to the neglect of the surrounding community. The result is a journey of frustration and decline.

Church decline is revealed in observable ways. It begins with nostalgia, where congregants can be heard regularly reflecting on the past. As decline continues, there come questions, such as, “Are we on the right path, do we have the right people in place, are these the right ministries for our church?”

These conversations may include surprising doubt, frustration, irritability and anger. If revisioning and revitalization do not take place, it becomes more and more difficult to reverse the decline. Closure may be near.

Further and more rapid decline will yield polarization, taking sides, “we versus they” and broken relationships. More people choose to depart the church for greener pastures of mission and spiritual growth, and death of that local church body is imminent.

It’s a sad day. But, there is hope!

While the church that Jesus established endures, local expressions of the church change. Like our bodies, there is a predictable life cycle.

There are several positive pathways toward a preferred future for a church finding itself in decline.

Internal revitalization
Internal revitalization is utilized when a church has the willingness, ability and people to do the hard work of change. These course adjustments may range from minor tweaking to major overhaul of systems and structures in the church. The goal of revitalization is to see God glorified as churches return to their mission of impacting lostness by making disciples.

Church fostering
Church fostering is for churches who are on a severe decline and no longer have the essential resources for revitalization but want to retain church autonomy. This partnership occurs when the church establishes a strong relationship with an effective, healthy church to provide help for a specific period of time. The stronger church may provide staff and resources and the church needing revitalization must be willing to follow the leadership of the stronger church.

Sharing space
Sharing space is used when a church opens its doors to a new church or another congregation to reach a different segment of the local population. Such an approach can help to revitalize a sense of mission in the host church.

Merger
Merger occurs when two churches become one, combining resources and people to carry out a unified vision. This approach is risky if both churches are in survival mode rather than missionally engaged.

Adoption
Adoption transpires when a declining church yields property and leadership to a “leading church” to become a new church start, multi-site venue, satellite campus or home for the leading church.

Restart
Restart takes place when the church, working with local leaders in the association, network or state convention, disbands so that a new mission, based upon the local and present context, can be launched at the current location.

There is hope, and there are significant pathways toward a preferred future on mission for Christ. Does the Spirit quicken your heart toward any of these pathways? The Baptist state convention or your local associational mission strategist is here to serve you.


by Mark Gray 
/  Legacy Church Consultant  /  Baptist State Convention of North Carolina

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