Gradually, And Then All of a Sudden

This consultation was indeed a challenge. We told the church leaders that they should not look at our consultation team as a silver bullet for the woes of their church. They said they didn’t. 

But they did. 

In the course of a consultation, we typically interview a representative sampling of the congregation. The older lady I interviewed was a 32-year member of the church. She saw a lot of changes over the years. 

I asked her about the decline in the church. Our numbers indicated that average worship attendance declined from 432 to 167 over 20 years. On the one hand, the decline seems massive. That would be a fair estimate if you consider a 61% decline to be massive. 

On the other hand, If you were a member of this church who attended regularly, the decline may not seem massive. From your perspective, the decline in attendance was only one person per month. On the inside, the slide was imperceptible. From our outsider view, it was massive.

The Telling Comment

The lady loved her church. She now saw the decline in its enormity. Her eyes were open. And her comment was telling. She told us that the decline in the church came “gradually, and then all of a sudden.” 

The phrase “gradually, then all of a sudden” describes a process or change that occurs slowly and incrementally over time, often without noticeable impact initially, but then reaches a tipping point where the change becomes rapid and dramatic. This concept can be applied to various contexts, such as personal experiences, societal changes, technological advancements, or economic events. 

And to churches. Unfortunately, too many churches today.

Earlier Wake Up Calls

Three common “gradually, but then all of a sudden” moments occur in churches every week in increasing numbers. The first of these wake-up calls was simply the decline in attendance. The pandemic exacerbated the numerical declines, but it did not cause them. A church with 432 attending wakes up, and over half the congregation is gone.

Second, related to the attendance decline is a financial decline. Fewer attendees are directly correlated to lower giving. For a season, many of the higher givers can keep the church financially afloat, but when they leave or die, the church’s financial health deteriorates rapidly.

It is the second “gradually, then all of a sudden” wake-up call.

The third of these moments relates to the physical facility of churches. It is common for churches to neglect the upkeep of the buildings and grounds. When money is tight, reserve funding for capital needs gets neglected first. The building deteriorates gradually, but then, suddenly, a part of the roof collapses. Or the HVAC system shuts down. Or the parking lot has so many potholes that it is unsafe for vehicles and those walking to and from their cars.

The Next “Gradually, and Then All of the Sudden” Issue

Some churches know what’s next. As finances decline, the ability to afford the staffing levels of past years is gone. Somebody has to go. Somebody has to take a pay cut. Many churches do not see it coming, and many staff members do not either. But it is a real and present threat.

Churches should prepare for this reality. What will you do when you can no longer afford the staff you currently have?

With this wake-up call, though, comes new opportunities. For sure, we can’t staff our churches as we’ve done in recent years. But we can be ready for new paradigms. We can embrace and welcome the new world of co-vocational ministry. Perhaps we can even make giant strides toward equipping our church members to do the work of ministry. It’s not a novel idea. It’s a biblical mandate.

In the midst of all the gloom and doom about the state of churches, I remain an obnoxious optimist. I believe we will soon see new models for staffing and equipping that can help our churches become healthier and more Great Commission focused.

This area of the church’s future is one we will be exploring and resourcing robustly.

I believe it is beyond a cliché. The best is truly yet to come.

I can’t wait to see what God will do.

Posted on May 27, 2024


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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