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How do you know whether your church’s best days are behind it?

It’s a question that all leaders should ask—even leaders of growing churches.

As with almost everything in life, there are subtle signs your peak may be near or you may be cresting past it.

Other times, the signs of death are evident to everyone but the leaders.

If you recognize the signs early enough, you can reverse the trend, regain your energy and momentum and run with enthusiasm into a new season.

Let the signs go unattended long enough, and things could be very different.

A few weeks ago I talked to a good friend who had just finished dozens of meetings with leaders of small, struggling churches. Like me, his most recent context has been a larger church. I asked him what he discovered.

He told me of meeting after meeting of well-intentioned, Christ-loving people who were now in their 70s leading churches with just a few dozen remaining attenders. Time and again, my friend said, these leaders would tell him they never intended to take their church down this road.

It just happened.

So how do you know your church is dying?

What are the earliest warning signs?

Here are 7 I’ve seen and watch for constantly in our church.

1. The passion of key leaders is waning

Passion is a rare and beautiful thing.

It’s often so easy to come by in your first years of leadership, but so hard to sustain for a life time.

Yet passion is so vital to leadership because the passion of a church will rarely exceed the passion of its leaders.

How hot is your passion? Here are 5 signs it’s white hot.

2. Innovation is rare

In the early days, most churches innovate.

You have to.

But as churches grow larger and more effective, it’s easy to let innovation wane.

Do this, and the innovators will eventually leave your church, having grown bored. They’ll throw their energy behind a church that will experiment.

Down the road, that will leave you in a place where—even when you want to innovate—you can’t innovate, because all the ideas people have abandoned ship.

When was the last time you did something truly new? If you can’t answer that question, beware.

3. Management is beginning to replace leadership

The start-up phase of any church is leadership intensive, and, frankly, there’s not much to manage.

As your church grows, that will change. You will need to manage what you’ve built.

I found great management became a major need for us at Connexus Church, where I serve, when we were between the 800-1000 attendance mark. Without great systems and organization, you will never be able to sustain something that size, let alone steward it well.

The trap here is that once you start managing, you may stop building anything of value. Instead, you simply manage what you’ve already built.

If all you do is manage what you’ve already built, you won’t have much left to manage in the future.

The key is to manage well but keep leading—keep innovating, keep changing, keep experimenting and keep figuring out new ways to accomplish your mission.

4. Maintenance is beginning to trump mission

When I meet leaders of dying churches, they are almost always in what I call ‘maintenance mode’—maintaining the organization they’ve built has become more important than the mission that got them started.

In fact, when you drill down, very few can articulate or agree on what the mission is. They just agree they need to maintain what they’ve got.

As long as the mission is central (especially in the church), you will have a bright future.

When maintenance begins to trumps mission, the end is near.

5. Your church has become fixated on being…your church

Effective churches get noticed. Especially these days when they’re rarer than before.

How you respond when you receive attention is critical.

We’ve all seen celebrities who become obsessed with being famous. Whether it’s Kanye or the Kardashians, you can make an industry these days out of simply being you.

If your church is getting a reputation (even in your small denomination or community), don’t let it distract you.

Help other leaders for sure.

But stay on mission. Be more obsessed with the mission than you are with anything else.

What got you there (the mission) will keep you there long term AND force you to reinvent.

6. You criticize younger, upstart leaders

Every leader is a young leader at some point.

Young leaders bring innovation, ideas and strategies to the table. In fact, they likely got your church to where it is today. Which is amazing.

But no one stays young forever.

After a decade in leadership, you’ll find yourself surrounded by younger leaders with different ideas.

Rather than deciding to learn from them, leaders of dying churches resist them, dismiss them and sometimes ridicule them.

That’s a critical mistake.

When you find yourself sitting around a table criticizing the ideas of young leaders, get nervous.

Someone used to dismiss you, and look what happened to them.

7. Your relationship with God has gone flat

Every leader has ups and downs in their relationship with God.

I do. You do.

Over a prolonged period of time, you cannot let your personal relationship with God go flat. Yet it does for so many leaders.

When your relationship with Christ goes flat, sound the alarm:

Get on your knees

Go see a counsellor

Tell a friend

Take a vacation

Buy a new bible

Get whatever help you need

Behind every vibrant church you find leaders with a vibrant faith.

When you’re recruiting new leaders to your team, find leaders whose passion for Jesus and the mission burns white hot.

If you’re surrounded by passionate people, you will almost automatically become more passionate.

What Have You Noticed?

I outline other issues facing the church in my latest book, Lasting Impact, 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. You can get a copy for you and your team or even read a free chapter here if you want more.

Thom Rainer and I also talk about why churches die in this episode of my leadership podcast. Subscribe for free and listen on iTunes or listen right here:

I’d love to hear from you.

What are some subtle signs of a dying church you’ve seen?

In addition to serving as Lead Pastor at Connexus Community Church north of Toronto Canada, Carey Nieuwhof speaks at conferences and churches throughout North America on leadership, family, parenting and personal renewal.

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