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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.