Ron Edmondson says addressing decline promptly and honestly is difficult but critical work for congregations in a slump. Objectively evaluating problems, avoiding blame, and charting a clear way forward are some of the steps he recommends.
What should you do when a church is in decline? I get asked that question a lot. It should be noted there are no cookie-cutter solutions for reversing a church in decline. Churches have unique characteristics, because they have different people. There are different reasons which cause decline. And, ultimately, God is in control of all of this.
I would be considered arrogant and even hurtful to pretend to have all the answers for a church I do not know. But there are a few suggestions that come from working with churches in decline.
What is going wrong? Why are fewer people attending and new people are not? Ask the hard questions. Is it programmatic, a people problem, or a Biblical issue? Don’t be afraid to admit if your church is just plain boring. If nothing has changed in the last 10 years in the programs you offer, you may already have your answer. But ask questions. Ask for inside and outside opinions. This takes guts but is critically necessary. Ask visitors. Recruit a “secret shopper” attendee to give you an objective look at the church. Evaluate even if you are afraid to know the answers. You can’t address problems until you know them.
2. Own it
The problems are real. Don’t pretend they are not. At this step, cause or blame is not as important. They were important in the first step, because they may alter your response, but now the problems are yours. They are not going away without intentionality. Quit denying. Start owning the issues. I see too many churches avoid the issues because they are difficult — or unpopular — to address. Find a Bible story where people of God were called to do something that didn’t involve a certain level if risk, hard work, fear, or the necessity of faith.
3. Address major, obvious Issues
This is hard. Perhaps the hardest one. If the church has “forgotten your first love” — repent. When the church holds on to bitterness and anger from the past — forgive. Sometimes walking by faith has been replaced by an abundance of structure. In these times, you may need to step out boldly into a new area of ministry. If the church is in disunity, it must come together first. When the church loves the traditions of men more than the commands of God, it must turn from sin. And, if the problems involve people, you can’t be a people pleaser. (I told you this is hard.)
4. Find alignment
Where does the church best find unity? What will everyone get excited about doing? Many times, it is a vision or a moment in history that was special to everyone, a common thread within the DNA. Find it and focus attention on it. In my experience, God will not bless a church in disunity, but churches have an issue, cause, or program that everyone can get excited about and support. Church leaders must be working together to build enthusiasm, momentum, and unity.
At some point, regardless of how drained you feel from the decline, you’ve got to come to a strategy of what to do next. You need a roadmap of where you are going in the next season. (It is Biblical to think ahead. Consider Luke 14:28.) I’ve never personally been able to plan in great detail more than 12 months out (sometimes, especially in times of less clarity, only a few months), but you need a plan. Start with your overall vision and explore ideas of how to accomplish it again. Put some measurable goals in place to mark progress — things you’ll do next week, next month, and in a few months down the road. It will hold you accountable if you have an action-oriented strategy and build momentum as people have something to look forward to doing.
Put your energy and resources where it matters most. This often involves getting back to the basics of what it takes to achieve your vision. If you are a church with a heart for missions, for example, amp up your mission efforts. When special events are the church’s wheelhouse, then do them. It may mean not doing things that aren’t working or things that tend to drain energy and resources. Look for what is working or has the potential to work again (the fastest) and begin to stir energy around that program or ministry. You need quick wins so the church can feel a sense of progress again.
There will be wins. You may have to look for them some days but celebrate when they occur. Remind people that God is still moving among you. Now, it should be noted, for the overly celebratory types, that you can’t celebrate everything. If everything is wonderful or amazing, then wonderful and amazing is really average. They need to be legitimate wins. If you celebrate mediocrity, you’ll set a precedent of mediocrity. But, when you see signs of heading in the right direction, make a big deal out of it.
If you want to see the church growing again, if the church yearns for health again, I strongly encourage you to be intentional. Be willing to ask for help. Raise the white flag and invite honest dialogue.
The harvest is ready. The workers are few. We need you! We are losing too many churches and not planting and reviving enough. Do the hard work. Pray without ceasing. And trust your labor will not be in vain.
This article originally appeared on RonEdmondson.com. Used by permission.
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