What To Do When Your Church Is Dying?
You remember the story? “The Emperor Who Wore No Clothes.” It’s a Hans Christian Anderson classic. Let me refresh your memory.
Many years ago there was a king who was obsessed with his fine clothes. His greatest joy was showing them off to his subjects. One day 2 crafty crooks convinced him that they could make him the finest suit of the world’s most beautiful cloth. But there was something “special” about this suit, they said. It was invisible to anyone who was stupid…and some other conditions I forgot.
Well, the tricksters put the invisible suit on the king and he ignored his nakedness because that would prove, of course, that he was stupid. His friends claimed they could see the suit because they didn’t want to be dumb either. The king put on his invisible suit and led a parade through the streets and everyone pretended that they could see a suit that wasn’t there. Because if they didn’t see the suit it would insult the king and worse yet, it would be a sign that they were stupid.
So everyone praised the king for his magnificent suit. Until a little boy looked up and spoke up. “ The King has nothing on!” “The Emperor has no clothes!” “He’s naked as a jaybird” (Actually I made that last one up.) No one wanted to admit the obvious.
Churches can be like that king. The signs of trouble can be everywhere, but the church limps along as if all is well. No two churches are alike but the warning signs are strangely similar.
- Attendance has dropped drastically over the years.
- The average age of the members is way up.
- The neighborhood has drastically changed.
- There is more talk of the past than the future.
- The bills and the building are becoming harder to maintain.
- There are few visitors and even fewer new members
Local churches are the apple of God’s eye and healthy local churches are the hope of community. Let me list some suggestions for churches who are not satisfied with the shape that they are in.
Admit that there is a problem
It’s impossible for God to fix a problem that we don’t face. If you are a local member, have a quiet conversation with your pastor. If you are the pastor, have a conversation with a supportive, long- time member. Just an honest conversation among faithful members who want things to get better.
Determine a time for prayer and fasting. It may be with a small group of interested members or it may be with the church body. Surveys and strategies alone will never solve the problem of a dying church.
Get some “outside eyes.”
There are some things that only an outsider can really see. Churches have the remarkable ability to adapt to difficult situations and that’s a good thing. But you can’t correct what you can’t see. And there are some things that a local pastor just can’t say. It can be seen as self-serving or it may be suicidal. Bring in an objective outsider to help with the process.
Take a careful look at your history
What has happened in your recent or distant past? Some churches started for the wrong reasons. Other churches started at the wrong size. These historical decisions can have an ongoing impact on the condition of the local church. Evaluate the seasons of the church. When were things going well? When did the slide begin?
Take a hard look at the numbers
You don’t want a doctor to give you false figures from your physical. You want the facts because they tell you the real shape that you’re in. Same for the church. Look at the attendance and baptism numbers over a 4 or 5-year span. Look at the trends. Take another look at the financials. Look at the trends.
Take a realistic look at the location
This is one of the most consistent characteristics of struggling churches. The neighborhood has changed. What was once a neighborhood church is now a commuter church. This could actually be a blessing in disguise, but that’s not the question at this point. Does the membership reflect the neighborhood? Why or why not?
Take a loving look at the congregation
Who is actually attending church? What is the average age of the congregation? Are there conflicts that are inhibiting growth? Are there traditions that are limiting growth? Is there corruption that is killing growth? This is sensitive stuff and points up the need for prayer, patience, and wise counsel.
Recast the vision for what is actually there
At some point the church has to make a decision about the future. If the decision is to continue, then a vision for the future needs to be carefully cast. But it must be a realistic vision that doesn’t just look at the future alone, but at the present condition and resources.
You probably won’t attract millennials in large numbers to a church of senior citizens. You probably won’t attract young couples to a church with nothing for their kids. Real vision comes from a real look at real circumstances.
Watch, Work, and Wait.
The church is too precious an organism to rush to any conclusions. After the problems have been determined and solutions suggested, it’s time to go to work. Work, watch and wait. Come back at designated points to monitor progress. Some problems take time to solve. Some solutions take time to develop.
Ok, that’s enough for a blog. What do you think? Next week, “ When Should We Shut A Church Down?”