By Chuck Lawless
I have never met a church leader who said to me, “I really want my church to die. I’m not that concerned that we haven’t grown in years.” At the same time, though, most churches in North America are plateaued or in decline. Many of those churches have been in that state for years, if not decades—sometimes under the same leadership.
Why do churches wait so long to address decline? Here are twelve reasons I’ve seen in my church consulting work.
- Nobody is counting the numbers. I realize numbers are only one means to evaluate growth, but they are an important means. If no one is keeping a record of growth and attendance patterns, few leaders recognize the first signs of decline. No one is monitoring health, and disease sets in.
- Leaders in “growing” churches don’t always recognize decline. This situation especially occurs when a church is experiencing additions, but the back door is even more wide open. The congregation sees people join often, but they fail to see the greater numbers of people leaving. The decline may be slow, but it’s still real.
- Members live in their own relational bubble. That is, most members have only few persons with whom they build strong relationships. As long as their friends are still present, they don’t get too concerned about others leaving.
- Leaders have given up on growth. Maybe the community is changing. Perhaps the young people have already left. It might be the leaders are just tired after unsuccessfully striving for growth for years. The need for rest trumps the call to reach others.
- Members love their pastor. Sure, they realize the church is declining – but their pastor has been good to them. Their lives are marked by his care and concern. No one would ever want to hurt him. Consequently, they remain loyal to him even as the church dies around him.
- The leaders don’t know what steps to take. They know how to parse verbs and formulate theological positions, but they do not know how to redirect an organization. They are captains who don’t know how to steer the ship into the right channels. Efforts end in failure, and failures become discouragement.
- The church still has a sufficient number to survive. The larger the church was in its heyday, the more likely this situation occurs. The church that averaged 300 five years ago may still appear to be comfortably full at 200 now. The crowds are large enough to ignore the decline, at least for now.
- Leaders over-spiritualize the situation. If you’ve read my posts before, you know how much I care about prayer – but “we’re just praying right now” can be a copout for leaders who fail to strategize. “God’s just reducing us to His remnant” may be true, or it may also be theological jargon to avoid taking responsibility for poor leadership.
- The church has money in the bank. As long as the bills are being paid, lower attendance numbers don’t matter as much. If the church has a strong reserve account, that’s even better.
- The congregation equates activity with life. Programs continue. Somebody gathers in the church building most nights of the week. The weekly bulletin is filled with events. The website carries current announcements. If all of these activities are going on, surely the church cannot be in decline.
- Ministries are siloed in the church. Individual ministries may be doing well. Some small groups really enjoy their fellowship and teaching. The choir or praise team is prepared every Sunday. Members cocoon themselves in a few successful ministries, and few people see the overall church decline.
- Even Christian leaders are filled with pride. That’s a primary reason leaders won’t seek guidance when the churches they lead are declining. “Surely,” the leader thinks, “I can come up with the solution. After all, I’m called. I’m trained.” And, ultimately, he may find himself alone because of his unwillingness to pursue help from others.
What other reasons would you add to this list?