From Leader to Leader – Help, my church is dying!

Putting an end to a life is not easy. Putting an end to a beloved “organism” is very painful, yet sometimes inevitable.  When the Bible speaks of the church, it does so in terms of an organism not an organization, “27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27). “22And He put all things under His feet and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:22-23).  Thus, when Jesus dies, He does so, not to redeem buildings, policies or even doctrines; rather, He sacrifices His life for living organisms—human beings. His priority was never the religious establishment, nor was it the grandiose temple. His compassion was not directed towards the rabbinic schools or the infinite Jewish religious regulations and protocols. His compassion was always directed to people.

When a church begins to show signs of feebleness, ineffectiveness, maladaptive attitudes and practices and its kingdom-building mission is all but eroded, it is time to react and do something. In his article, “Subtle signs your church is dying” Carey Nieuwwhof 1 explains that there are seven unequivocal signs you can identify in a church that is dying, 1) the passion of key leaders is waning; 2) innovation is rare; 3) management is beginning to replace leadership; 4) maintenance is beginning to trump mission; 5) your church has become fixated on being. . . your church; 6) you criticize younger, upstart leaders; 7) your relationship with God has gone flat.

I want to challenge you with the idea that Christ’s body cannot die.  Can it? If He is the source of life and abundant living, His body cannot die.  It can be insignificant numerically, it can contain mostly Golden-aged sheep, the building may be humble or they may not have building at all; however, if His sheep reflect God’s character manifested through unconditional love and care for each other—including the next generation, and their surrounding unsaved communities, the church cannot die. 

So how can we turn declining churches into growing ones? Some, in their search for a good answer, get stuck in the symptoms that are plaguing their churches: a lack of funding, declining attendance, low youth attendance and participation, members unwilling to accept volunteer responsibilities, etc.  The reality is that all churches go through a life-cycle and unless some very strategic and intentional efforts are made, every church will face the possibility of sliding into dying church mode.   Most churches begin as launched groups which experienced steady growth, then move into the strategic growth phase, and arrive at the sustained growth level.  If the church body isn’t intentional about maintaining strategic growth, if the members begin to feel content with their church size and ministry output, they will begin a sure descent into maintenance mode, and eventually into the preservation and life support stages.

I attended a very informative and eye-opening seminar with six church boards and their pastors in our territory this month.  As the seminar began, these six congregations, all seated in their respective groups, were asked to identify whether their congregation was in growth mode, plateau mode or whether it was in dying church mode.  It was interesting to witness each church board wrestling to evaluate their church’s actual condition. I must say that it was very evident that the Holy Spirit was present. One by one, some of the congregations soberly faced the undeniable reality that their church was in dying church mode.   The presenter, pastor Bill McClendon, then shared a quote from sister White:  “Why has the history of the work of the disciples, as they labored with holy zeal, animated and vitalized by the Holy Spirit, been recorded, if it is not that from this record the Lord’s people today are to gain an inspiration to work earnestly for Him?  What the Lord did for His people in that time, it is just as essential, and more so, that He do for His people today.  All that the apostles did, every church member today is to do.  And we are to work with as much more fervor, to be accompanied by the Holy Spirit in as much greater measure, as the increase of wickedness demands a more decided call to repentance.” (Testimonies, Vol. 7, p.33).  After reading and considering this thought, the attendees were asked, “do you believe your church can grow?”  This question was repeated twice and finally the ripple of responses began to be heard, “Yes, we believe our church can grow”. 

This uplifting seminar covered eight steps that are necessary to turn a church into a growing and vibrant church, including amongst others, an analysis of the disciple’s work through the anointing of the Spirit, the type of “church leadership attitude” needed for a church to grow, the externally focused nature of a growing church, and a commitment to follow the “Natural Church Development” program. By the end of the seminar, it was evident that the participants had captured a new vision and left with a brighter gleam of hope on their faces.

Lee Kricher, pastor of the Amplified Church in Pittsburg, realized in 2003 that his church was in trouble, his attendance was dwindling, the age of most of his members was over fifty, well above the median age of the community they served.  He decided that he needed to do something to revitalize his church; and in spite of the fact that the idea of church planting was very attractive, he decided not to take the easy road and instead, chose to undergo the painful and challenging work of revitalizing his dying church. In the first year of the process, he lost one third of his congregation, the exiting group of congregants had decided that the Amplified Church was no longer a place for them. As a result of the revitalization process, Kricher wrote the book, “For a New Generation: A practical guide for revitalizing your church”, where he states that church revitalization requires going through the following five components:  1) Adopt a new mindset; 2) Identify the essentials; 3) Reduce the distractions; 4) Elevate your standards; 5) Build a Mentoring Culture. In two years, his church had doubled the attendance; in five years it had five hundred members, and now more than twelve years later, the church has over fifteen hundred members.

Recently, I visited an Adventist church I had never visited before.  The church building was beautiful; the interior was even more stunning. I was intrigued to know more about the DNA of this church, which obviously was made up of—at least in part—affluent members. When the eleven o’clock service began, the church was at least 80% filled to capacity.  I asked myself what made this church so different from others I have visited. I wondered what motivated these members to attend in such high numbers and what kept this church growing.  I had to wait until the end of the sermon to get my answer. The youngish pastor—after preaching a resurrection sermon—said: “The Lord has inspired me this morning to make an altar call.” “An altar call?” I thought to myself, “In an affluent Caucasian SDA church?  You’ve got to be kidding!”  Right there and then, I discovered that one of the factors for the growth and vibrancy of this particular congregation was that their pastor was evangelistically oriented; and in most cases, when a pastor is evangelistically oriented, his church will follow.   Gospel sharing churches cannot die!  “Christ has given to the church a sacred charge.  Every member should be a channel through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ.  There is nothing that the Savior desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and His character.  There is nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Savior’s love. . .” White, AA, 600

Evangelistic churches grow. Socioeconomic demographics, the beauty or size of the church building, the age of the sheep. . . these don’t really matter! If the body of Christ is made up of “channels through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His Grace,” the body of Christ will impact and influence the next generation and their surrounding community, and it will grow!

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  1. 7 Subtle Signs Your Church is Dying
  2. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 600

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