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FEATURE

Grasping at Growth

Here are three signs signaling your church may be in trouble and in need of revitalization.

BY DANNY W. DAVIS

I’ve spent the majority of my ministry planting local churches. I have an entrepreneurial bent and find the challenge of church planting exhilarating. When God presented me with an opportunity to revitalize an established church, I was a bit apprehensive.

I had heard the horror stories of churches controlled by power-hungry deacons and family groups. I’d also heard about burned-out pastors exhausted from constant and sustained conflict. In prayer, the Holy Spirit assured me He was orchestrating this season of my life. So, with that confidence, I accepted the pastorate of the church, and God has blessed. Since that time, I have given myself to thinking and learning about church revitalization.

Let’s begin with this truth: All churches need revitalizing to some degree. Every pastor sees areas of his or her church in need of help. Perhaps the youth team needs leadership training. Maybe the women’s ministry requires a structural overhaul to sustain its rapid growth. The list of ministry areas in need of constant support is unending. There are times, however, when a church (for reasons we will examine) has lost its way and needs total revitalization.

The obvious outward sign of a church in need of revitalization is a consistent stagnation or decline in membership and evangelistic effectiveness. In reality, decline and ineffectiveness are only the fruits of larger problems. Somewhere in the local church’s history, it drifted from its vision for the community. No one intended for it to happen. The drift was slow and virtually unnoticed by many. Then suddenly the local church found itself in a leadership or financial crash. Fingers point, and feelings are hurt. Sadly, some wash out and never again connect with a local church.

I want to explore three marks signaling a church is in trouble. While there may be more marks, my involvement in and research of churches requiring revitalization has led me to see these three as chief. The ordering of these marks is purposeful. They paint the picture of a church moving away from vision toward decline and death.

The Church Is Led by Crises, Not Vision

A church is a candidate for revitalization when it follows the lead of crises, rather than God-given vision.

All churches — even healthy ones — experience times of crisis. A leading member of the church becomes ill and dies. Unexpected expenses push the limits of an already tight budget. These are among the myriad problems church leaders face. The church’s business is building people. This comes with a certain amount of unpredictability. Unpredictability can cause seasons of crises.

Healthy churches navigate crises through their God-given vision. A sense of mission articulated in their unique vision helps them stay on track. A crisis does not equate with confusion in the healthy church. Because of its vision, a healthy church has systems and policies in place to guide the leadership team. When it encounters situations the current system doesn’t address, vision provides a framework for formulating and implementing new policies. God-given vision becomes a source of stability and comfort when confusion and chaos are at the door.

Unhealthy churches often fail to establish a guiding, God-given, central vision. I am not saying they do not have a vision statement. They may have a beautifully crafted set of words hanging on the wall. There is certainly no shortage of pithy and pleasant statements to borrow and tweak to give the façade of vision. The problem is this: The posted vision statement is peripheral, not central, to the life of the church. The statement has no influence on the culture of the unhealthy church. Instead, the latest crisis creates, sustains, and drives this church’s central vision.

Let me reiterate: Crises come to every church. The difference between the healthy and unhealthy church is what happens during and after a crisis. In the unhealthy church, a crisis provides momentary vision to fill the otherwise visionless vacuum. In a time of crisis, both types of churches may form classes to equip people. Pastors may prepare sermons to encourage the congregation. The church may develop policies for circumventing future problems. But when the unhealthy church comes to the end of a particular crisis, another vacuum develops. Without a central, God-given vision, the only option left is waiting for the next crisis. In no small way, crises become the purpose of the church.

I have been in churches where the above scenario plays out so often it becomes part of the leadership DNA. The congregation views the pastor’s role as a crisis manager, not as a shepherd. This type of culture impacts the church’s ability to have sustained growth. Newcomers may stick around for a while. They may even endure a few crisis moments, thinking they are the exception rather than the rule. Eventually, the roller-coaster motion of crisis-vacuum-crisis leads to nausea, and people leave. The kinds of people who do stay are those who thrive on crises because crisis moments give the people a sense of purpose. This only perpetuates the problem.

A church with no central, God-given vision has no choice but to follow the lead of one crisis after another. The result is a chaotic atmosphere in which most newcomers cannot thrive. Because the church struggles to attract and retain newcomers, it becomes inward focused. In time, the congregation ceases to reflect the community God called it to serve.

The Congregation No Longer Reflects the Community1

The town I live in and pastor has a population of about 5,300 people. It is predominantly white with slightly more women than men. The town has a wide variety of ages, but the median age is 35. The congregation God called me to serve is predominantly white, has more women than men, and has a median age of 60. Recently, a church member came to me and said, “Pastor, our church is only a few funerals away from dead!”

I assured her the situation was not that dire and the leadership team was well aware of what was happening. We engaged in long discussions about how we are and are not reflecting the larger community. We discussed how we are working to find solutions and build a strategy to remedy the disparity. But it was one of the major factors leading to the decision to undergo the process of revitalization.

Whether your church is in a large city or rural village, change is inevitable. People come, and people go. Organizations thrive and die in big cities and small towns. The pace of change differs from one population group to another, but community change is a constant. The shifting sands of our community makeup cannot be ignored for the sake of comfort or tradition.

While serving as a non-Assemblies of God missionary church planter in the Republic of South Africa, I received a request to assist a dying congregation. The church had at one time been a thriving part of the local community. But something happened. An era of deep racial segregation came to an end, and people in the community began to leave. Over the course of a decade, the community underwent dramatic change.

Most whites left, and a whole new ethnically diverse population took their place. This meant the community no longer spoke one language. Instead the streets were filled with a host of languages and colors representing the new South Africa. But the church ignored the change even as its membership rapidly declined.

As I spoke to the 80-year-old pastor, he assured me the community had not changed. He patted me on the hand and explained that everyone in the community would always speak his language. I wanted to cry. The church no longer reflected its community. Sadly, the church had no desire to change so that it might reflect its community. Instead it moved from one crisis moment to another until the pastor died. Because of the church’s poor record keeping, the building was lost to a religious group whose primary concern was money rather than souls.

Though the names and situations are different, this scenario plays out daily in churches around the world. Instead of embracing change and asking God for renewed vision, things plod along as usual. Then one day a dear saint steps up to the pastor and says, “Our church is only a few funerals away from dead.” These words should ring like an alarm clock in the ear of any pastor.

If the pastor and church leadership are prone to crisis management, the reality of death is cause for yet another crisis. Panic ensues, sparking a flurry of research and reading. The goal becomes finding churches with sustained growth and copying these models. Instead of relearning the community and how to serve it, leadership reaches for growth models to implement.

Grasping at Church Growth Models

The logic seems reasonable: What works in one city or town will work in another. But this is not necessarily true. Adoption of a certain model — or a hybrid of several models — offers temporary relief at best. The introduction of a new growth model and a new banner may cause short-term excitement. It is not a long-term solution, however.

I will be the first to admit I am guilty of grasping at models. Like most pastors, I want to see the local church thrive. I attend conferences and read books to further my passion for the local church. Inherent in the good desire for Kingdom expansion is a temptation to grasp at the latest trend or church growth product offered.

A healthy church does not ignore trends and church growth models. The visionary pastor constantly looks for equipping tools to build people. When a particular idea or product seems useful, the pastor and leaders investigate what makes it successful. They also consider whether it will work within the God-given vision of that local church. If the program obviously benefits the central vision, they adapt it to fit the needs of that local context. It is not just a photocopied vision.

The unhealthy church does not ignore trends and church growth models. The pastor reads many of the same books and attends similar conferences as other leaders. The breakdown occurs in how the leader of an unhealthy congregation processes the trends and church growth models. The unhealthy church devotes little time to understanding the principles. The pastor adopts a new slogan, vision, or values statement and presents it to the church with some tweaking. New banners and signs highlight the presentation.

After rolling out the “vision,” the pastor provides church leaders with a notebook. The contents spell out how Church ABC carries out its vision in ABC city. There are sections illustrating how the youth, small groups, and other ministry areas are fulfilling that vision. Leaders catch a glimmer of hope as they see a chance for a better future. The pastor then instructs them to implement this model into their particular ministry. This is where things move toward frustration.

If the pastor did not include church leaders in the visioning process, they may have no idea why he or she chose a particular model. They likely had no time to process the proposed change or ask questions. Implementation takes place on the fly. How-to questions quickly overwhelm the pastor. The whole effort bogs down, and frustration becomes the order of the day.

Weeks into implementation, everyone — including the pastor — has wandered from the new vision. Church leaders have done what they could to accomplish their tasks, but they were unsuccessful. A slow drift back to “what used to be” occurs. In many cases, the answer to the frustration is finding another church growth model to implement. The cycle of frustration continues until church leaders and members lose trust in their pastor.

A strange thing happens at this point. Leaders begin to shield themselves by building silos around their ministry areas. Housed within these ministry silos are multiple — and sometimes conflicting — visions for the church. Tensions rise as ministry leaders compete for an already limited number of resources. Cliques and factions arise from the multitude of visions. Members feel pressured to choose a side. Many simply choose another church. The attempt to bring health to the church results in more dysfunction and decline.

Conclusion

As stated earlier, all churches require some degree of revitalization. The picture I have painted above illustrates a church where drastic change is required if it is to survive. It is a sad picture, but it is not a hopeless one. God intends every local church to be healthy. He has given us the Holy Spirit to empower the fulfillment of His intention. God has also placed within every local church the spiritual and ministry gifts necessary for success. It may not seem like it, but He has.

All churches share the same mission. How each church carries out that mission is the stuff of vision. Every local church deserves a God-given vision. Such vision dares leaders and churches to be creative in developing relevant strategies to reach its community. It creates dissatisfaction for irrelevant, ill-fitting, copycat programs. Vision gives leaders the option to say “no,” because they know exactly what “yes” looks like in their context. God’s vision for a city calls a pastor to take risks. Tearing down silos is not safe. Navigating through the complexity of human emotion tied to programs and people is dangerous. Yet at the risk of sounding cliché, the risk is worth the reward.

Revitalizing a declining church demands pastoral commitment. The pastor carries the responsibility of empowering his or her church to discover its God-given vision. Finding vision is not an easy task. It forces the pastor to look outward and see the reality of the community. It challenges the pastor to look inward to see if the church reflects the community it is rediscovering. Vision also demands the pastor spend time asking the Holy Spirit to search his or her heart. The Spirit’s work in revitalization begins with the God-called leader.

Partnership is vital to turning around a church that is in trouble. A pastor committed to seeing his or her church move from illness to health understands he cannot do it alone. In our situation, we partnered with the Healthy Church Network’s Acts 2 Church Initiative. This partnership challenges our leadership team to discover our unique calling. We are progressively seeing the big picture of how God wants to use us in our community. Together we have faced some tough realities about our church. Having a partner guide us in this journey of discovery has been invaluable.

DANNY W. DAVIS, lead pastor, Odessa First Assembly of God, Odessa, Missouri

NOTE

1.Thom S. Rainer, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned,” Thom S. Rainerblog, Lifeway Christian Resources, http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/24/autopsy-of-a-deceased-church-11-things-i-learned/ (accessed: April 24, 2013).

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