reflections-church-consulting

By Chuck Lawless

I love the local church. It’s God’s church, despite its flaws. For ten years, I’ve had the privilege of consulting with churches seeking to grow. Here are my reflections of those years – one reflection for each year.

If you’re a pastor in a struggling church, be sure to read to the end.  I think you’ll find hope there.

  1. Churches often wait too long to address decline. Some churches don’t do regular checkups, and thus they have no means of knowing they’re sick. Others recognize the symptoms but choose to ignore them. By the time they admit decline, the pattern is so entrenched that reversing the trend is not easy.
  2. Statistics really are helpful. I realize that numbers can become an idol—and that we must fight against—but numbers do tell us something. Most often, they tell us to ask more “why” questions. Why has the church declined in attendance for five years? Why did the church reach 50 people last year, but attendance grew by only fifteen? Why has worship attendance in the second service plateaued?
  3. Prayer in unhealthy churches is reactive rather than proactive. A problem develops, and then the church members pray. A marriage struggles, and then they pray. A young person wanders, and then the church prays. Prayer in an unhealthy congregation is often a response of desperation rather than a marker of the DNA of the church.
  4. Churches often settle for numerical growth rather than life transformation. Churches may want to grow, but they seldom evaluate the source of the growth. If the church increases in number at all—even if the growth comes only by believers transferring membership from another local church—the church is satisfied. Few churches evaluate how many non-believers are converted through their ministry.
  5. Churches do not know their community. As part of our consultation we would do a demographic study of a church’s ministry area and then ask the leaders to describe their community prior to their seeing the study. Frankly, I’m amazed by how many church leaders were not aware of the demographics of their ministry field. They often lived among a people they do not know.
  6. Most churches aren’t ready for conversion growth if God were to send it. The biblical call to make disciples demands a discipleship strategy (Matt. 28:18-20), but few churches have one. They do not have the “nursery” of discipleship ready for baby Christians. Seemingly, they assume new believers will grow simply by showing up each week.
  7. Sometimes the most obvious suggestions seem the most revolutionary. Church leaders struggling to overcome decline are so close to the situation they often miss the most obvious corrections. Preach the Word with power and enthusiasm. Train members to do evangelism. Minister in the community. Pray for neighbors and co-workers.  Develop a mentoring discipleship program. Do worship well. Going back to the basics is often a first step toward renewed church health.
  8. The leader in the pulpit matters. Never have I seen a church reverse a decline when led by a pastor uncommitted to the hard work of turning around a congregation. If he has already mentally and emotionally “checked out,” he won’t fool the church for long. On the other hand, a broken pastor who longs and prays for God to move mightily can see a congregation change.
  9. In most churches, somebody wants the congregation to make an eternal difference. I’ve never seen a church so unhealthy that nobody was seeking God and His power. The good news here is that just a few people can ignite a renewal fire in a local church. Somebody sees in faith what God might do, and he/she can be a significant support for the pastor.
  10. God is still growing His church. I’ve worked with churches that, to be frank, I thought would never grow. Churches so divided that their communities know them as a combat zone seldom give you hope for Great Commission growth. Nevertheless, I’ve seen God work miracles by restoring unity, strengthening and refocusing leaders, and sending members into the community to share the gospel.

Only God can turn around a church. He has in the past, and He may well do so in your church today.


Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Steve Drake says

    Dr. Lawless, Thanks for this enlightening post. I am speaking today with pastors in Texas and will encourage them to go to ThomRainer.com to read this very helpful post.

  2. Mark Rogers says

    Thanks for this, Dr. Lawless. I was excited to see you are teaching at Southeastern now. I still go back to things I learned in your Intro to Evangelism and Church Growth class.

  3. says

    I absolutely love this post!

    #1 is something I’ve seen a ton in my lifetime. Churches are so hesitant to deal with decline because dealing with acknowledges that you have it. The thing is, when a pastor stands up and says the church is going the wrong way, there is usually a sizable portion of the congregation that already sees it.

    #5 is another one that is happening a lot. Over the past 20 years most neighborhoods have gone through some type of reformation, it is good for churches to take stock of those changes and adjust.

    #8 also stood out to me because so many churches of my stripe (independent Baptist) seem to focus solely on the doctrine of the man they call (which is obviously important) and they ignore everything else e.g. work ethic, drive, desire for souls, compassion etc.

    Over all this is a great list, and thank you, Dr. Rainer for sharing this article with us.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, Tom. About #8 — the leader’s doctrine, lifestyle, etc. are critical. But if he lacks a commitment to the church or a passion for the souls in the community, it is quite unlikely he’ll lead his church to turn around. That’s one reason that #1 is critical. If the pastor waits so long to recognize or admit a problem that he’s lost his will to lead, change is unlikely. I wish all pastors had a strong mentor who could help us look honestly not only at ourselves, but also at our ministries and our churches. By the way, pastoral mentoring is the topic of my blog next week.

        • Chuck Lawless says

          Tom, you’re right about the last name. I claim it simply means that I’m filled with grace, but I suspect there’s an outlaw somewhere in my family tree.

  4. Michael says

    It;s funny that with all our training, innovation and myriad of books, blogs, etc. on evangelism, church growth still depends on faith, hard work, love for God, love for people and common sense. Great reflections Dr. Lawless. Excited to read your blogs! Thanks to Dr. Rainer for bringing you to his site.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, Michael. Just wondering — beyond the Bible, is there a single book that has been helpful to you in doing evangelism and leading a church to growth?

      • Michael Cassity says

        Hard to narrow it down to just one contemporary book, though many have been very helpful. But one pastor’s example and book stands out from all books published in my lifetime – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor. May be surprising but true.

  5. Scott Lamb says

    I find each of these points to be spot-on in terms of leading a church revitalization work at a church. Many thanks for your clear writing…and condensing a decade into a single post. Very helpful.

  6. Scott Andrews says

    Great post! Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I am continually amazed at how simple it really is (with specific reference to #7). So many are looking for a “strategy” or a “formula,” when it all boils down to consistent obedience to the Lord’s commission and commands.

  7. Drew Dabbs says

    Drs. Lawless & Rainer, after several years (10-12) of decline, our church is experiencing incremental numerical growth, but I worry (maybe worry is too strong a word) that we are sill failing in numbers 4, 5, & 6. As pastor, I want our church to grow healthier as we grow numerically, and, of course, I want our members to want our church to grow healthier, too. Is there a specific assessment tool (re: #1) either of you would recommend? Perhaps something our deacon body and/or church council could do on an annual, semi-annual, or even quarterly basis?

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Drew,
      Glad to hear the church is experiencing some growth. There are assessment tools available, but most require a certain percentage of church attenders to respond (more than just your deacon body or church council). To be honest, though, you can start to evaluate #4, #5, #6 on your own with these strategies:
      #4 — Compare your church’s growth sources: what % is conversion growth? what % is transfer growth? what % is biological growth (defined as numerical increase by babies born into the church)? what % attendance increase comes from new attenders who simply have not joined yet? The data won’t answer all the questions, but they will give a good look at your growth patterns and lead you to ask significant questions.
      #5 — Consider doing what we do. Order a demographic study of your ministry region, and then ask your church leaders about the community before you show them the study. Compare their perceptions with the study to see how much they understand the demographics. Another option is to lead the church in a study of the community. Talk to community leaders, school leaders, etc., to find out what the needs are in the community. Servant evangelism projects and prayerwalking will also move your folks into the community. You might even do all three of these suggestions.
      #6 — Ask this question: “If a new member were in our church for three years, what do we want him to know, be, and do after three years?” That is, what do you want a disciple to look like? Having described that person, then ask, “What’s our process to get him/her there?” If you don’t have a process–or if you have a process that does not appear to be working–you know you need to review and likely revise what you’re doing.
      All of these suggestions are, of course, only diagnosis rather than prescription — but they do help you to get started with assessment.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Todd, addressing #6 begins with a clear biblical look at what a disciple ought to be (see my response to Drew above for a way to begin this discussion). Then, we address the issue not with a program designed to involve a bunch of people, but with a mentoring program that seeks to transform just a few lives. The issue is not an either/or issue, however; it’s a both/and issue. Invest in a few people whose lives are truly changed, and you can wait patiently and serve fully while the process to change many lives is put in place.

  8. says

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom Chuck! I’ve learned much from your writings and also the teachings you’ve done, especially with the SCC. As a young consultant still early in my calling, I am thankful to learn from wiser consultants, like yourself.

    In regards to #9, we at CDM call those people who are yearning for a move of God, people with “holy discontent” and “spiritual restlessness”. Even when Elijah thought he was the only one still serving the LORD, God told him of the seven thousand in Israel that had not bowed to Baal.

    #5 “Churches do not know their community” always gets me. I don’t get how a church, supposed to be on mission, sent into the world, can become so insular and disconnected with their community.

  9. says

    I would have to say that turning around a dying church is the most difficult task a pastor could have. I pray for the strength and resolution of these guys who are on the front lines in these situations.

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