Six Recent Lessons I Learned from Turnaround Churches

I love hearing stories of hope. Instead of waiting for the stories to come to me, I recently interviewed 19 pastors whose churches had moved from struggling to breakout. All of the pastors had been in the church at least four years, and all of them had reached points of frustrations.

Then their churches began to reverse their declines and stagnations.

None of the pastors I interviewed were new at their churches. None of the churches had relocated in recent years. And none of the communities in which the churches were located had grown dramatically.

So what happened at these churches?

All of the pastors were careful to give glory to God. Most of them articulated that their stories were not ones of mere methodological devices. But they did have six common themes worth noting.

  1. They led the church to become highly intentional about starting new groups. The fewest groups started by any one of the churches were four in a one-year period. These churches were serious about new groups, and most of them saw that, at least from a human perspective, as the primary source of turnaround growth.
  2. They led the church to a culture of inviting people. These pastors expressed amazement at how many people started coming to their churches simply because they were invited. To be clear, this type of invitation was personal, from a member to someone else. It was not some type of major commercial marketing initiative. Some of the churches had a big event, “invite-a-friend-day,” to kickoff this new culture of inviting.
  3. They began new member classes. These classes set the tone for new members. They established the expectations for new members. After a few months of these classes, many of the pastors begin to notice an attitudinal change toward the positive among the members.
  4. They began a major community ministry. Some of the churches “adopted” local schools. Some of the leaders made appointments with key civic leaders to find out how their churches could best help the community. In all cases, church members got out of the comfort of the church buildings and went into the community to serve others.
  5. They began to pray for the lost and unchurched by name. For many of the churches, this type of praying was a first. Most of them attested that it seemed awkward at first, but it later became a part of their Great Commission culture.
  6. The leaders began to focus less on negative people and circumstances and more on God’s possibilities. The leaders became, in God’s power, people of faith instead of people of fear. This spirit of faith became pervasive in the churches. Many of the churches saw a negative and unbelieving church culture become a positive and faith-believing culture.

Nine out of ten churches in America are either declining or growing more slowly than the communities in which they are located. In other words, most churches are losing ground in their communities.

But, in the midst of all the bad news about churches, we do see more and more beacons of light. I was delighted and encouraged to hear these stories of turnaround churches and what they are doing. I plan to report on other churches in the future.

So what do you think of these turnaround factors? Have you seen them at work in other churches? Do you have any similar stories from your church? What is God using most effectively in your church to reach people with the love and the power of the gospel?


  1. says

    This is encouraging! I’m at a church I was called to come lead in turnaround 5.5 years ago. We have been doing these very things and beginning to see a little fruit. Thanks so much for posting this!

      • Collin Figueroa says

        Hello Dr. Rainer:

        I am the Associate Pastor at Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Chruch in Columbia Maryland. We are purchasing your book for our Adult Vacation Bible Study Class. I would like permission to use the material in your Book “I am a Chruch Member” in my Keynote/Powerpoint slide deck as class material. We will not coping or distribution or selling any of the sides. If this in not the proper means to make this request please provide the best avenue. I love the book and thanks for letting God use you in this way. Blessing to you and the family.

        Collin L. Figueroa

        • says

          Dan, I would hope Dr Rainer would not mind your using his material for the purpose of futhering the Kingdom, as long as you are not selling this material. We allow people to copy and distribute our studies free as long as they do not alter the material and the way it is presented. We allow them to copy our DVDs and distribute them as long as they do not sell or alter them in any way. It is God’s kingdom and his word we are promoting. Just our thoughts.

  2. Samuel says

    “Nine out of ten churches are declining or growing slower than the community they’re in..” That’s an alarming statistic…where did you get that?

      • Brian says

        You may want to include that. Something along the lines of: “of the 557 churches we have studied,…”

        You cannot accurately assert a statistical evaluation of all U. S. churches based on such a limited sample size. With an conservative estimate of 300,000 Christian churches in the United States…your sample size only accounts for 0.1% of U.S. churches.

        While the statement could even wind up being true, making broad statements can be misleading.

        • Thom Rainer says

          Brian –

          The study had a margin of error of +/- 4.5%.

          Using small samples is normative in statistical analysis. In the most recent presidential election 120 million people voted. Most of the polls interviewed 500 to 1,000 voters to predict accurately the outcome.


        • Lynn Traylor says

          Brian may argue against the statistical sample, but the reality in every demographic I’ve seen, State Convention, County, Census, NAMB, is supportive of this data…more churches are in decline than are growing…our Baptist Association has been tracking the “growth” of our 22 churches in the two counties we are located in, the population growth of the past 10 years has far outpaced the growth in church membership…there’s no doubt or argument about it…the majority of churches are in decline…many didn’t even record a baptism in the previous year. If Brian’s experience is different, he should be grateful for the exception to what is happening.

  3. Drew Dabbs says

    Great post, Dr. Rainer. I actually wanted to relate a little story about my having shared your “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” with a key leader in our church.

    We are growing. Not by leaps and bounds. But we are growing. Good things are happening. Not each and every day. But they are happening. The overall tone in our church right now is upbeat and positive. There are a few nay-sayers. But they exist in every church.

    When I shared your blog post with a key leader in the church, he and I agreed that to share the article, as is, might actually dampen the spirits of otherwise positive people. Said differently, we felt that it might introduce a bit of negativity, by suggesting, somehow, that our church is on the same path as the deceased church was on for those years.

    He and I also agreed that the lessons you brought forth were beneficial and needed to be presented at some point, in some way.

    Do you have any suggestion(s) regarding how I might re-frame the points you made, so that they come across more positively than negatively? The last thing I want to do as pastor is to have the long-time leadership of the church thinking, “Hey, our pastor thinks our church is dying.” To be clear, we are experiencing a turnaround. It has been and will continue to be three steps forward and two steps back for years to come. I simply feel that strongly about the points you shared in the “Autopsy” piece and feel they are vital points to consider for any church experiencing or looking to experience a turnaround.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Drew –

      I love your spirit! Readers like you make me so thankful for this blog.

      This blog will become a book in 2014. We too are looking for a way to frame it positively. We will likely have a subtitle similar to “Lessons for Churches While They Are Still Healthy.” You can let your congregation know that many healthy churches are already using this post for preventive “health care.”

      Bless you friend.

    • says

      we actually restarted our church from the foundation of death and resurrection. We gave the diagnosis and then gave the awesome prognosis. That our church was in the hand of the one who was dead and is alive forevermore.

  4. says

    Thanks for the encouragement, Thom. I’ve been at this ministry
    for 13 years and have started some of these. I’ve been moving this
    way and your encouragement reenforces my
    my recent course of action.


  5. says

    Thom: Thanks for this good, concise summation of traits of ‘turnaround churches’. We are trying to start new units this fall and looking to make ‘in-rounds’ to an unreached neighborhood in our community!

    I heard you speak at the AL State convention last fall – very encouraged.


  6. says

    Dr. Rainer, I am honored to pastor a “turn around church” from 35 to 350 in six years. It’s so amazing and such a movement of God it is hard to even express my joy with mere words. There are many factors, but I’m convinced of three more factors for us:
    1. Unity. There is just not one faction in our congregation. We talk about peace a lot and foster a church of love in many ways. We also refuse to tolerate those who are in any way destructive. We deal with them lovingly but swiftly.
    2. Strong leaders and many of them! We created an “intentional discipleship process” to launch leaders as quickly as possible. More that 60 people are in our leadership development ministry. These are now core who live out our mission statement.
    3. Finally, mission work. We try to foster a sense of faith in our people by placing them on the front lines of quite difficult mission endeavors. This teaches them to rely on the Holy Spirit and in turn, they becoming more missional at home. When the church focuses on building the Kingdom, The Lord grows the local church in supernatural ways.

    Excellent article. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Pastor, FBC La Grange Tx

    • Thom Rainer says

      Jonathan –

      What an incredible word about an incredible church! People like me could learn much from you and your congregation. Thanks for sharing. I know many readers benefitted.

    • Rev. KLR says

      I’d like to know more about how you deal lovingly and swiftly with those who might be destructive….


      Rev. KLR

  7. Christopher M. Webb says

    Dr. Rainer, once again thanks so much for another great post. I would like to share a thought. I have been in the ministry now a little over fifteen years. Over 12 years has been in pastoral ministry. So to say the least, I’m still learning and have a long ways to go. I’m finding that churches expreience “turnaround” when there is a total commitment and consistency of preaching, teaching, and living the Word of God. I believe pastors/teachers who stand to share the word of God Sunday after Sunday without compromise fosters growth and development in the lives of believers. By doing so, this helps a church “turnaround.”

    • Thom Rainer says

      Totally agree Christopher. It’s a bit cliche, but still true: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

  8. Laurence Edgar says

    Thanks for all the posts, information and ideas it’s very enlightening. my question is, how do you maintain small groups in a small church. The church I attend has around 40/50 members.

  9. Ralph says

    What were the size of the congregations and demographic of the communities? I pastor in a rural community and struggle with ideas for community service. Churches in urban areas or even small-medium cities have more options. Any ideas?

  10. says

    Hey, Thom. Josh Carmichael here, your old friend Van’s son. Thank you for this report. I am 1 1/2 years into a ministry not unlike the one’s you describe. We have implemented a few of those items so far and though we are not yet growing numerically, we are growing spiritually. Thank you for a helpful study and report. I am encouraged to press on!

  11. Calvin Naylor says

    Dr. Rainer all of your post are good and informative, but this one really resonated. I am planning on using this list as a goal/check list. Thanks for you sharing.

  12. says

    Thanks Dr. Rainer!

    I used this article to stimulate a great discussion at our monthly Board meeting last evening. We began work on several of these months ago, and your observation is encouragement to us to stay at it.

  13. Lynn says

    40% of all American adults are single. That’s waaaay above the typical 10% “tipping point” (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same title). It’s beyond a “Microtrend” (see book by Mark J. Penn). 40% is a sea change. Churches still cater principally to married couples — primarily married couples with children. This traditional model will eat the church. Communities will watch their dying churches arm-wrestling each other to the death to get the last remaining nuclear family in a 50-mile radius, while the majority-unchurched single population looks on with amusement. If your church isn’t 40% or more singles, ask yourself why not, and how can you fix it before it’s too late.

  14. Dominic Lawrence says

    Thanks Thom, The church i am pastoring now needed a turn around from a state of plateau. We started applying some of these principles and people started attending our servicesin an encouraging number. However, we relaxed the tempo and it seems there is reduction in the inflow. your post is given me and the church a wake up call and perseverance.

  15. Gordon Loop says

    I am the pastor of a small Baptist church right outside of Boston, MA. I was curious if any of these turn around churches exist up in the northeast? We can sure use the help. Thanks for the article.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Gordon –

      None from the small sampling I used. I will look for others though. Blessings friend.

  16. says

    Thanks for the pointers, but for a lone church planter with only one baptized mom, whose husband constantly threatens to divorce her and another brother over 80, I need to start with myself first.

  17. says

    I really appreciate you, Doc! Before I planted a church, I pastored a traditional church and saw much spiritual fruit. I’ve been at our church plant for more than 6 years and it’s been nearly a disaster. It’s going to take the power of the gospel, through the Holy Spirit, to turn us around (I guess that’s a good place to be). More than a few times I have been discouraged and nearly defeated. Your encouragement is a blessing. This article is a blessing. I’m on it, sir! Great, practical help! Thank you!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Rich –

      I am blessed by your words. And I am pausing to pray for you and your church right now.

  18. says

    Hi Thom:

    Thanks for your insights in this article. I’ve been praying about the idea of small groups in our small church and would appreciate your thoughts on where to start, what materials to use, etc. BTW – I’ve used many of your articles as the basis for our Wednesday night discussions and had very good feedback from them.

    God’s blessings,


    • Thom Rainer says

      Terry –

      Thanks for your encouraging words. I am biased in that I love LifeWay’s different small group offerings. Go to LifeWay.com to see the choices. I would recommend you take a close look at Bible Studies for Life.


  19. kristi says

    I go to a spirit filled church we only have s’not 15 MEMBERS but have an offering of 3 to 7 thousand dollars a month our church gives and even people who don’t go to our small church give. When the word is spoken God is there. When you tell the bible more want the word we invite people all the time some

  20. says

    Dr. Rainer,

    I am Dr. Philip Riegel, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Stockton, Texas.

    Thanks a million for your “six lessons” article. A friend of mine placed it on my Facebook page. As I read it, I laughed with joy and praised Jesus for how He is working in the lives of our members to make so many of these exciting changes take place here. I have been in ministry since 1983 and I have been a pastor since 1986. I have always asked the Lord to allow me to pastor a church that will follow Jesus rather than old, dead, outdated traditions. I praise Jesus every day that He has allowed me to pastor a “turn around” church that adores Jesus, follows Jesus and is not afraid of positive changes! When a few negative members in the recent past have said to our church leadership “I just don’t like the new changes,” those leaders have replied “Can’t you see that the changes are working and Jesus is blessing our church with many new members?!!!” I have been here just since last October and my wife (who is our worship leader) and I have to pinch ourselves sometimes to make sure we are not dreaming! Your article brings us both added joy and faith that as we implement more and more new ideas and ministries, Jesus will continue to bless with more and more growth. Thank you for inviting pastors and ministers to write their comments. They have been very enlightening and helpful as well. I have written down many of their ideas and plan to continue to implement them as Jesus leads.

    The changes that have helped our church grow the most are:
    1. We constantly remind our church to love Jesus as closest companion.
    2. We constantly remind members to take our “Know Jesus” tract in their pocket and purse, give them to people they meet and invite people to Jesus and to church wherever they go. Many have visited and joined as a result of receiving one of our tracts.
    3. As we receive ten new members we begin a new Bible study class or cell group.
    4. As we receive new mature Christians, we mentor them to become church leaders (youth minister, Bible study teacher, sound board operator, church grounds keeper, etc.). Some have joined our staff and some are serving as volunteer lay ministers.
    5. We pray for the lost and inactive church members by name and many have become active members!!!
    6. We address church conflict lovingly and swiftly. Everyone knows that everyone will be accountable to Jesus and church leadership. This is not a dictatorship but a Lordship of Jesus and HIS will in HIS church.
    7. We have agreed to intentionally be known as a church who: loves Jesus as first love, loves all people, ministers to all people equally (no favoritism), teaches and preaches God’s Word as Truth, speaks the Truth in love without compromise and prays in faith for Jesus to draw many people closer to Him, change lives, bless lives and use us as His instruments every day and all day to meet needs as we go!
    8. We set dates just to have fun as church family (church movie night, church concert night, church praise service, etc.). This keeps us close as family. As we grow we will encourage the different groups to do the same.
    9. We make sure all we do is top quality (beautiful church interior and grounds, contemporary church music, literature, teaching, etc). New members see this and they appreciate this.
    10. We remain excited and full of joy and faith about how Jesus is about to bless the plans He has led us to implement.

    I want to encourage every minister of Jesus reading this to please hang in there. Find those you know you can trust to share your frustrations and pray for you (fellow ministers of other area churches have become my best friends and trusted prayer partners). Your church and ministry is just as important to Jesus as the mega church. If you win one person to Jesus a year you have a very successful ministry!!! Remain 100% faithful and simply trust Jesus to have the results and future victories!!! These words have encouraged me many times in my past when I pastored very small churches.

    Dr. Rainer, your excellent article inspired me as pastor to encourage our church to do more to reach out to key community leaders and offer our help as a church. We are believing Jesus to continue to help us to grow larger than our church has ever experienced for His glory alone. I appreciate your ministry so very much. By reading the above comments, it is very clear that you have encouraged many who had become very discouraged as I have been many times in my past. I praise Jesus for how He is using you to pastor pastors.

    May Jesus continue to abundantly bless your ministry. Please pray for our church ministry as we pray for your ministry.

    In Jesus,

    Pastor Philip

    • Thom Rainer says

      Pastor Philip –

      What an incredibly and informative comment! People like you makes this site a total joy. Thanks for taking time to share with us and encourage us about how God is working at your church.

  21. Keith says

    Can we find a better word than “unchurched” for those not yet connected to the body of Christ? Most are actually “De-churched” having been burnt, judged, shunned or otherwise pushed away by the “church.” Is it possible the word church carries baggage we have given it that actually creates barriers for those who came, who were abused/refused and have the t-shirt?

  22. dwaine says

    I really enjoy reading your blogs, I have been pastoring a church that has been in the community for 40 years. We came here 2 years ago with 8 in attendance, and have grew to 40 in attendance over the last year, we have actually done 5 of these 6 things….. a couple things im doing is…. 1. i am coaching 7 men & women… 2. 3 of the men im sending one on one time with. What i have witnessed through coaching is that they are growing much closer to God through spending time with. we do this on a weekly basis. thanks

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