Just recently, I drove by a long-time established church in my community and saw a "For Sale" sign out in their front yard. This saddened me. It brought up these questions, "What happened to get them to this place?", "When did they realize they were in trouble?", and "What did they do to try to stop it?"
That experience reinforced to me that there are a lot of churches that are struggling. It doesn't take a great rocket scientist to know that we are losing ground in truly reaching people in our communities. Studies have shown that on average, 11 churches a day, close their doors forever. The same studies tell us that on average, only 3 churches a day are started. On top of that, other studies have revealed that half of all church plants fail within the first two years that they start.
The question that we all should be wrestling with is, "Does God want churches to die?" If you're like me, then your answer is NO WAY! So why are so many closing their doors? I don't believe it is intentional. I have never seen a vision statement read, "We are working hard to destroy this church." I have never heard of a pastor that goes into ministry thinking, "Man, I hope my first church closes its doors!" So why do so many seem to be dying?
THE dying CHURCH
A few months ago, I spoke at a conference that was located at a "dying" church. The congregation was in the middle of mourning as they knew this grim reality. So much so, they spread thousands of pictures out on tables in the gymnasium from their church history. It seemed that collecting those pictures was the way they walked through the grieving process.
Every night after or before I spoke, I would pine over those tables because every picture gave insight to their amazing and tragic story. One of the first pictures I found was taken about 100 years ago with a group of 12 people in front of a house labeled, "Our first meeting." They all looked excited and eager to serve God. I saw another picture taken a few years later, now with 40 people in a barn, they even had farm animals in the picture with them. There was a warm and fun feeling about the people in that picture as they out grew their house and had to meet in a barn of all places. I found another picture of them that same year in front of a small newly built church, it looks like there is about 75 people at that time. The label reads, "We finally completed the church!" I continued to see a church full of life as I looked over snapshots of lots people getting baptized in a river, going door to door collecting metal for the war drive, feeding the hungry, and putting on neighborhood Bible clubs. Another picture I found was with the congregation now over one hundred and fifty people breaking ground for a bigger church. You could feel the excitement on the peoples faces as God was moving in their church.
But something subtle happened that would change their church forever. Of course, you cannot obtain a complete understanding of what happened by just looking at some pictures but I could tell something was changed about them. I didn't catch it at first until I came across a picture of the congregation at a church picnic. It looked like the normal bunch of people holding a handmade sign saying, "Church Picnic 1968" But something was missing that caught my eye, there were fewer young families in this picture than there was before. Years went by in that time period as I walked around the table and looked at other pictures. I saw the congregation posing at a mortgage burning night to celebrate them paying off the building, there was only 45 of them by then and very few young people. I found an interesting picture with an attached note on that same table. The picture was a group of 80 people at a dinner and on the back was the words, "Merger Dinner." The note explained how their congregation merged with another small church in the hope to pool resources and finances together as an attempt to prevent them closing their doors. Like a last ditch effort to survive (it reminds me of Sears and Kmart merger for some reason). Looking through the faces of that picture, I only picked out a handful of young families. The note was dated 1987.
As I looked onto the last table of the present day, people looked tired in the photos. It felt like people were moving on as I observed that there were a lot more pictures of funerals and graduations. There were no more photos of baptisms, baby dedications, Bible Clubs, or food drives. I saw a picture of the "celebration" Sunday that honored their last pastor leaving because they couldn't afford him anymore. A month later, I heard that their church finally closed their doors.
For weeks I thought about all those pictures I saw. Very rarely do you get a chance to take a peak into the life of a church from beginning to end. But the question that I still ask is, "What happened to get them to this place and was there anything to stop it?" These questions drove me into a mini-study as I sifted through articles, looked in books, and talked to well-informed friends. There is no way I can go into great detail with what I found in just a blog. But there were several patterns that I observed in which I would like to share. Hopefully these insights will help give a better understanding into this devastating movement that I call, "THE dying CHURCH."
Risk Taking to Risk Management:
The first pattern that I found was that the struggling church often lacks people who are willing to take risks. These types of churches usually see risk as something that needs to be controlled, which can be called risk management. The extreme risk manager will view all risk as something that is harmful to their church and a liability that they cannot afford. Risk takers on the other hand are willing to take on more risk for a greater gain. They see risk as an unavoidable element in growing ministries. But the extreme risk takers can be careless in their actions and take on too much risk too soon.
What I also found is that young churches tend to take more risks. Why? A close pastor friend at a struggling church told me that it is because they have less to lose than a well established church. I don't believe this to be true. I think younger churches are often led by younger people and haven't felt the burn of failure like some well established churches.
It seems to me that a common trend within dying churches is they have made the move from risk taking to risk management. As I looked through those pictures of that struggling church, I saw them slowly change. Over the years, ministries that created an uncomfortable risk as they engaged the community were replaced with safer ingrown programs at the church. The saddest thing to see is someone (a pastor) or a group of someones (a church) quelch the Spirit of God because they are afraid of taking risks.
Another pattern I have found is that certain mindsets have caused unhealthy behaviors within the church. Here are a few of them:
The Train Depot Church. The culture of this church is a feeling of, "Places to see, but nowhere to go!"
This church could be classified as a busy church. There is always something going on at the church. They pride themselves with having something for everyone. This church is often accused of catering too much to the consumer mentality, which isn't too far off. On the outside, this church looks like a thriving church because the church has a lot to offer to people. But in reality, they have no clear direction. Because they have no direction, it is easy for them to just start any ministry that sounds like it could make a difference in peoples lives. They often approve to start something, with great enthusiasm, when someone from their congregation proposes a ministry by saying, "we need this [fill in the ministry]."
The danger in having this mindset as a church is that too much of a good thing, is simply just too much. Think of the horsepower a church would have if they could get everyone heading in the same direction. Developing a clear vision is about getting everyone heading in the direction you feel God is leading your church. There are a lot of good ideas in creating good ministries, but the only great ideas are the ones that can align with one vision of the church.
The Historical Society Church. The common phrase that is heard at this church is, "We must preserve the past, to survive the future!"
This church is often categorized as, "stuck in the past" and with good reason. The people of this church have worked hard to preserve a place that the current members love attending. One of their main fears is that if they change to something that people don't like, they will all leave. They often tell stories about great sacrifices their people have made in the past, or trials that they persevered through from the past.
Because they have put a lot of time and energy in making their church a comfortable place for them, it is hard to try new things or make room for new people. Especially if those new people don't subside to the "Historical Society" standards. The danger with this mentality is that God could be leading them to places outside of the box they created and very rarely do they ever step outside of that box. Celebrating the past is one thing, being controlled by it is something completely different! In the past, the Church was known for using new methods and technologies to reach more people. Things like the printing press, eletricity, flight, etc. I personally feel that it is our flesh that wants to keep us in a consistent comfortable place.
The Rubberband Church. "Control is the tool for success!"
The rubber band mentality often appears in a church with a solo pastor or dual pastorship. This church will see some growth, but because leadership, the church will shrink back down to the size that is manageable to them. It is like a rubber-band is around the growth of the church, it stretches out growth for a while but it always goes back to the place the leaders can handle. This church is usually held back by unsure leaders who find it hard trusting others to do the ministry.
There could be good reasons for these leaders mistrust. I was having coffee with a pastor friend who told me a story about his church that happened 10 years ago when a group of people in his church tried to get him fired. They spread rumors, they sent hateful mail, had private meetings, and even got the associate pastor to lead the charge. I could see the hurt and mistrust in his eyes as he retold that past story. Because those leaders fear losing people by someone making a mistake they will create safeguards to manage growth or change. Their insecurities often lead them to seem close minded to new ministry opportunities or letting people around them with leadership skills take lead.
Sometimes this mentality is created as the result of the pastor or church board hitting their leadership lid. They want to have a healthy growing church, but because of their lack of leadership skills, they are struggling to everyone there. Surrounding yourself with better leaders to mentor you is a great start to help your leadership grow.
Change is hard.
Three months ago, I met a man named Bob who got me on this path of helping struggling churches. We met at an alzheimer's conference. I was working at a booth and he stopped by. As our conversation grew, he found out that I had some experience in working in ministry. Bob then shared what was going on in his church. He was a elder at a church where his pastor retired after 30 years. He expressed wanting to help his church become more relevant to young families but hitting what he called, "brick walls." These were people who didn't want anything to change in his church. One of his last statements to me was something that I will never forget. He said, "It is easier to let the church die than to get it to change."
If this is where you are at, don't give up. Continue to try new things and talk to people who have done this before. Networks are a great way to connect to people who are going through the same things. If you are in need to bounce some ideas off a person, message me! I would love to help in anyway I can.