By Chuck Lawless
Jim Collins was correct in his book, Good to Great: stagnant organizations that want to grow must be willing to face the brutal facts. Until leaders admit reality, there is little hope of pressing forward. Denial of the past and present seldom leads to a bright future.
My church consulting experience tells me that many leaders and members of non-growing churches do not recognize the reality of their church’s direction. When our team helps them face reality, the responses are mixed. While these designations are arbitrary, I categorize those responses as either “frustration” or “fortitude.” Look at these descriptions, and see where you are as you face the reality of your congregation.
Church leaders who respond in frustration typically evidence some or all of the following:
- Denial – Maybe you’ve heard these kinds of comments. “I’m not sure you’re looking at the right numbers.” “We see people joining our church almost every Sunday.” “We think numbers can be idolatrous, so we don’t pay much attention to stats.” When the leaders refuse to admit decline, turning the ship around becomes almost impossible.
- Blame – The factors of decline can be many, and it’s easy to cast blame. The community’s changing. A power group is in charge. The people don’t really want to grow. Staff members are not unified. The church down the street is gaining a crowd by loud music and watered-down teaching. Some leaders have even blamed our consultant team: “Your presence is creating division.” As long as leaders take no responsibility for the problems, they’ll likely make little investment in trying to find a solution.
- Seclusion – Some leaders choose to retreat when the news they hear is negative. They close their office door. Lunches with church members become sporadic. Greeting the congregation before and after a service becomes a chore. Recognition of the reality leads to isolation – and isolation is not the type of leadership needed in a time of decline.
- Hopelessness – “What’s the point of trying anymore?” these leaders wonder. They have served faithfully through the years, but still the church is not growing. If the church has declined under their leadership, why should they believe the church will turnaround under their direction?
- Resignation – It happens: a consultation leads to reality, and the leader chooses to step down. The work to revitalize the church will take too much energy for a leader who has already lost his hope. Frankly, our team recognizes that sometimes a pastoral change is the best one – but it’s never our goal.
On the other hand, church leaders who respond in fortitude generally show these characteristics:
- A welcoming spirit – A consultant team does not threaten these leaders; in fact, they welcome other eyes and ears. If outsiders can help them strengthen their church, they are open to advice and correction. They listen, reflect, apply, and learn – all without defensiveness or anger.
- Self-reflection – These leaders willingly take some responsibility for the church’s condition, even it’s painful to do so. They ask, “What role have I played in this decline, and what can I do to correct it?” They love the congregation enough to be willing to grow as needed for the church’s good.
- Humble teachability – These leaders admit they don’t know everything, including how best to lead their church. If correction means the leader must learn to use more application in his sermons, he finds someone to help him do that. If he needs to be more caring toward his congregation, he asks for help and accountability to make that change. These leaders humbly admit their need for help and intentionally seek it.
- Desperate prayer – Sometimes, recognizing reality is agonizing and overwhelming. The only proper response is to pray, “Lord, it’s too big for me. I have no idea how to address these issues. If this church is going to grow, You alone have to make it happen.” Pastors who respond to reality with fortitude pray this way.
- Stretched faith – Faith is believing what we cannot see. It is, in fact, trusting that God has a great future for a church whose history and present might suggest otherwise. These leaders run to the Word of God and live there, knowing that the Word will increase their faith. They refuse to give up.
What are the brutal facts about your church? Perhaps more importantly, what is your response to those facts? Frustration or fortitude? How might we pray for you as you lead your congregation?
I also encourage you to get Dr. Rainer’s video consultation on church revitalization here. It is an incredible resource to help you deal with the brutal facts.