“In the past, I’ve been able to lead churches to growth. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
A pastor shared those sentences with me just three days ago.
He was frustrated. He was confused. He was exhausted.
And he is not alone.
With some exceptions, it is indeed more difficult to lead churches to growth. Such is a reality that is about 15 years in the making. The obvious question is “Why?” Allow me to articulate five of those reasons.
- Cultural Christianity is declining rapidly. It is really a misnomer to call it “cultural Christianity,” since it’s not true faith in Christ. In the past, many people felt it was culturally, economically, or politically advantageous to be a part of a congregation, even if they weren’t true believers in Christ. These attending non-believers padded our numbers. Or to say it another way, the pool of willing attenders has diminished greatly.
- The exit of the Builder generation. The Builder generation has kept many churches alive, even if the congregations are on life support. This generation, born before 1946, is fiercely loyal to institutions, including local churches. They stuck with congregations in good and bad times. But, in 2015, there were only 28 million Builders left. Another 13,000 Builders die every week. The loyal generation is few in number and will soon be no more.
- Migration from rural areas and small towns to the cities. In 1790, only 5% of Americans lived in cities. By the 1960s, the percentage of Americans in cities skyrocketed to 65%. Today over 80% of Americans are city dwellers. Rural and small-town churches held on tenaciously to their members for over two centuries. But the population base for those tenacious churches has dwindled dramatically.
- Faster church transfers. Those who are transferring from one church to another are concentrating in fewer churches. Simply stated, a few churches are getting bigger at the expense of smaller churches. While that phenomenon has been in play for quite a while, it is now accelerating. The old barrier that held people in specific churches – family connections, denominational loyalty, and loyalty to a specific congregation – are no longer barriers today. People move with great freedom from church to church.
- Slow response to change as change accelerates all around us. Many churches are incredibly slow to change. For most of our American history, the pace of cultural and technological change was sufficiently paced for churches to lag only five to ten years. Now churches are lagging 20 and 30 years as the pace of change increases dramatically. To many attendees and members, the church thus seems increasingly irrelevant. To be clear, I am speaking about issues of style, methodology, and awareness, not changing doctrine or biblical truths. A church guest I recently interviewed said it clearly: “I stuck with my parents’ church as long as I could. But when we had a big blow up over projection screens in the worship center, I had enough. I wanted to go to a church where matters of minutia were not issues to fight over.”
If you think it is more difficult to lead a church to growth, you are right. If you have noticed the decline in your church is greater, you are probably right as well. And if you are to the point of realization that your church may die in the next few years, it may come sooner than that.
In a future post, I will address how smaller churches can deal with these challenges. Warning: the solutions are simple but not easy.
Posted on September 14, 2016
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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