signs-of-hope-declining

By Chuck Lawless

The question didn’t surprise me, but I wasn’t ready with an answer. I was a young church consultant, and the church’s leadership team had several questions. The one for which I had no answer at the time was, “What characteristics have you seen in churches that seemed to be dying, but that experienced growth after a consultation?” After many more years of consulting, here is my answer today.

  1. The leader is preaching the Bible. Numerical growth can occur without preaching the Word, but genuine personal and congregational transformation doesn’t happen apart from the Word. The struggling churches I’ve seen experience healthy change have been led by leaders who preach the Word. They don’t compromise on this task, knowing that the Word still changes lives.
  2. Somebody is praying. Sometimes it’s the leader, and sometimes it’s another church member – but somebody is beseeching God to help the church turn around. I’ve met church members who prayed daily for their church for years, and they never wavered in that commitment. Consistent prayer is a confession we can’t change a church’s direction apart from the power of God.
  3. Leaders are willing to face the truth. Attendance numbers are in decline. Giving is decreasing. The church is not reaching their neighborhood. Signs of congregational decline are everywhere. Never have I seen this kind of church experience new life unless the leaders are willing to admit, “Our future is death if things don’t change.”
  4. The leader takes responsibility for growth. I realize this sign is a controversial one, and I’m not suggesting that leaders can produce growth on their own. Nor am I implying that leaders are solely responsible for a lack of growth. I’m simply reporting what I’ve seen: turnaround church pastors determine, “It’s my responsibility to lead this church out of decline.”
  5. The leader still has a vision for growth. The leader’s vision might be clouded by discouragement, but it’s still there in his heart. Ask him, and he will still talk of people who need to be reached. He still grieves over the unchurched and the undiscipled. His belief that Christ will build His church remains strong, even through a time of church decline.
  6. Somebody is evangelizing. Often, the leader is the primary evangelist in these churches, but not always. Sometimes a layperson whose spiritual fire is burning brightly takes the lead. In one church with whom I worked, that person was a new believer whose passion reignited others in the congregation. As long as someone is excited enough about God and the church to tell the gospel story, hope exists.
  7. The leader is investing in someone else. Congregational decline is at times so emotionally draining that leaders fail in their personal ministry to others. In turnaround churches I’ve seen, though, the leader has continually invested in a few believers. Even in the most difficult times, seeing life change in one person can be encouraging enough to keep pressing forward.
  8. The church is still reaching out to the community. The efforts may not be as strong as they once were, and congregational participation may be less, but somebody is still thinking outwardly. The outreach may be as simple as passing out water on a street corner or passing out tracts in a neighborhood. It takes only a few people obedient to the Great Commission to change a church.
  9. Somebody has a global vision. Years ago, I consulted with a declining church that had international partnerships, but they did little local evangelism. Several of their leaders had a passion for particular people groups around the world. When they learned through our consult that those people groups also lived in their city, the church began to think locally – and turnaround slowly began. A global vision led to local outreach and growth.
  10. Leaders refuse to give up. Frankly, church turnaround is not easy. Honest evaluation is painful. Admitting failure is personal. Change can be draining, and any change may cause even more turmoil. The churches I’ve seen turnaround, however, have leaders that simply do not give up. They believe the church is still God’s church.

Most churches in North America are plateaued or declining. Given that reality, many church leaders need signs of hope today. What signs have you seen that give you hope?


Lifeway_Blog_Ad[1] Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Thomas Marshall says

    I found this very interesting – and logically it makes sense. This is a major issue in America’s churches today – and with prayer and work, we can turn things around. God bless for this encouragement.

  2. NH says

    Could you explain “preach the Word”? There are plenty if preachers/pastors who preach from scripture, but don’t leave people hungry for more, don’t challenge people, or only preach to the head and not the heart?

    • clawless says

      The preachers at these churches prayerfully use the Word as their text, explain it, illustrate it, and help apply it in the lives of their hearers. They engage the head and the heart because the Word does that. Thanks for the question.

      • NH says

        Thanks for the response and clarification. I get the feeling most preachers/ churches claim to “preach the Word.” Its like a church describing themselves as “Bible-believing” aren’t all churches bible believing. I think churches say they preach the Word, when really they are preaching denominational doctrine, personal preferences, traditions, etc.

  3. says

    Chuck:
    Thank you for these encouraging words for the 90% of our churches that are plateaued or declining, Most are, but there is hope! It is exciting to this associational guy to see leaders that “get it” and are serious about serving the churches where God has planted them. Grateful for your leadership and partnership. Question: would it be possible to use this post as one of our LeaderLessons for our Metrolina church leaders? Thanks!

    • clawless says

      Bob, feel free to use this post. Please do include the original source (Dr. Rainer’s blog). Blessings!

  4. says

    Maybe its my small church bias, but how does one measure the impact of a church? Is it specifically numerical growth? I live and minister in a town where the population is in a slow decline- particularly among younger families. In terms of attendance growth our church is plateaued…but does that necessarily equal decline? We are baptizing a half dozen or so each year….but because of the high mobility rate among families (for example our middle school sees about a 20% mobility rate…a significant # of students who begin the year move to another school and a similar # move into the school from other schools) we are struggling to reach new families. We are about to host a World Changers event and are looking for strategic ways to get involved globally…without the ability to invest significant amounts of $ into travel and the like. After 22 years in the same church I am sensitive to these issues because in many ways our church is having a bigger kingdom impact than ever before…but it is not necessarily translating into specific numerical growth.
    Maybe I am just making excuses but I am prayerfully seeking God’s direction for the next 10 years or so of my ministry (likely here in this community now that I am almost 57 yrs old…).

    • clawless says

      Great questions, Steve. I don’t think growth always means attendance numerical growth, especially in contexts of population decline. On the other hand, I would want to know we are still reaching non-believers, are still producing disciples who take the gospel wherever God takes them, and are continually striving to reach others. I get uncomfortable when a pastor has grown complacent with plateau or decline — but I do not hear that from you. I’ll be praying that God will continue to give you an outward, global focus.

  5. Joe La Salandra says

    From 1999 – 2008 In My first and only pastorate I witnessed God transform a dying Church. What joy and encouragement this article brings to my soul. Reading and reflecting on these points He used to transform us. You were one of the people He used to challenge, teach, disciple and encourage me. Now we are in South Asia still being transformed.

  6. says

    These are some great points to remember, even for those pastors who may be heading to serve a small church in the future. Thanks for your thoughts on these points and the encouragement they are to pastors everywhere.

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