How many churches in this country—in your denomination, of your church-type, in your county or parish or town—have stopped growing? It depends on whom you ask. Go online and you’ll soon have statistics coming out of your ears on this subject. In our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, the most significant number—one that seems to have held steady for over three decades—is that some 70 percent of our churches are either in decline or have plateaued.
Plateau. Funny word to use for a church. One wonders how it came to be in use. Why didn’t they say “mesa,” “plain,” “delta” (ask anyone who lives in the Mississippi Delta—flat, flat, flat!), or even “flatline.” Of course, in the emergency room to “flatline” is to die. No one (to my knowledge) is saying a non-growing church is dead, just that some things are not right.
Healthy churches grow. Non-growing churches are not healthy, at least in some significant ways. If it’s true that seven out of ten pastors in our family of churches lead congregations either in decline or stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed. And to my knowledge, everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.
My single contribution to this discussion is directed toward the shepherd of a stagnant flock: “If your church has plateaued, make sure you haven’t.”
Bill Day, the numbers cruncher and evangelism professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (as well as pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Metairie, LA), gives his definition of growing, declining, and plateauing: The church that increases 10% in a five-year period is growing. Decline 10% in the same five-year period, and your church is decreasing. Plateauing means your church fits neither group.
Here are ten statements to pastors of churches that are either stagnant or are in decline.
1. Some churches are easier to pastor than others.
When Bob began to pastor Easytown First Church, to his amazement and relief, the numbers turned around almost immediately. People loved him, they began responding to his leadership, the pews filled, and soon they were bringing in chairs. Bob was elated.
That’s when he made a mistake. Bob decided the great response was because of his terrific preaching and inspired leadership. And who’s to say he was wrong? After all, had he preached poorly or led haphazardly, the story certainly would have been different.
But Bob became critical of churches that were not growing and pastors who were not leading in dynamic ways. Without knowing it, Bob had become part of the problem. He was discouraging pastors of troubled churches, when what they needed was an encouraging word.
I have pastored both kinds of churches. Serving at Easytown early in your ministry can sure be nice. It can also give the young preacher a heady dose of ego. I’m afraid I pontificated on matters I knew nothing about and criticized denominational leaders for not doing what we were doing. I cringe with embarrassment over some of the statements I made.
Either because of the Lord’s sense of humor or of fair play, He let me get hold of a church that did not respond to my dynamic personality (!) or bag of tricks. At the annual associational meeting, when certificates were handed out to those who led in baptisms (a practice of dubious merit, I must say), I was embarrassed by our small numbers. As if to break me of disparaging even one person coming to Christ, the Lord eventually let me see how it felt for our church not to make that “top-ten” list at all.
Some churches are easy to pastor, some are hard, and all are different. Not all methods work in every church.
2. Some pastors have the gift.
Argue with this all you please, but I will go to my grave believing that preachers like John Bisagno could grow a huge church in the Sahara. They say “Good morning” in a way that makes you look around for an aisle somewhere to walk down.
As the old saying goes, “Some were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.” I’m not saying Bisagno is this way; he has helped more pastors (including me) to become Kingdom-growth-minded than anyone I know. But for some of us, those without the “gift,” turning a church around is hard work.
3. Even if my church has plateaued, I don’t have to join it.
Just because my church is not growing does not mean I have to stop growing. Don’t give in; don’t throw in the towel. Don’t stop learning and growing and looking for ways to make a difference.
4. Some churches should not grow—at least, not yet.
Some churches do not grow for good reason: They are sick. The last thing in the world they need is for a hundred new members to join them next Sunday. They need to get some matters right with God and with their neighbors before the Lord is going to allow them to grow.
I watched as a small congregation tried to self-destruct. The unhappy members ran the pastor off, along with the group which supported him. As pastor of the nearest church, I watched this from the outside and did not understand all the issues, but my personal conclusion was that the pastor was a fine man, and the ones who left would have been excellent members of any church. In fact, several joined my congregation and became just that.
As soon as the pastor left, the disgruntled few looked around, found an unemployed preacher, and made him pastor. The man of God walked in, saw all those empty pews, and decided the church needed to grow. He announced a week of revival services. They printed leaflets and hung posters, then held their meeting. But nothing happened. The community wanted none of what that little group had to offer.
The merciful Lord in Heaven clearly decreed that little bunch would not be allowed to mess up a new crop of young believers. They did not need to grow; they needed to repent.
5. The pastor’s problem is not the church members’ or deacons’ problem.
“We announce visitation, and no one comes.” “I handed out assignments, but none of the deacons made their calls.” “These people are just like the ones following Moses—headstrong, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.”
The people are not the problem, pastor; they are your opportunity. You are your biggest problem, pastor. If you want your people to minister in the community, go minister in the community yourself. If you want your people to visit in homes, go visit in homes yourself. If you want them to take door-to-door surveys or prayer-walk blocks, go do it yourself.
After you’ve done it for six months on a regular basis without telling a soul that you’re doing it, invite the rest of them to join you.
6. The most urgent task is to become a person of intense prayer.
If you love your church and have a burning desire to see it live once again and make a lasting difference in your community, tell the Lord.
The tendency for pastors with a hurting desire to help their churches grow is to look for human saviors—some pastor of a big dynamic church somewhere whose brain they could pick or whose conference they could attend. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s out of order.
It’s prayer time—time to spend concentrated time on your face before the Lord finding out what He wants for His people. Keep reminding yourself (and Him) that these are His people. He died for them, you didn’t, and their welfare and health means far more to Him than it does to you. Seek His face; ask for His will.
The Lord may tell you His entire plan during a two-day prayer retreat. But I’d be surprised if He did. More likely, He’s going to give you some immediate direction for your leadership and sermons, but you’re still going to have to spend quality time on your knees pleading for His intervention.
Expect this to take six months, a year, several years. Some have said if the church has been stagnant for six months, turning it around will take six months. If a year, then one year. If 40 years ... well, surely it won’t take that long! (I’m not sure what I think about this principle.)
7. Go to conferences and read the books on reversing plateaued churches. But do not look for a program for your church; look for a key idea.
There are experts out there who would willingly come into your church (for a fee), take over the show, and rearrange all the furniture to get the church growing again. But then they would leave, and you would be left to deal with the consequences. You don’t need that.
When you sit before pastors with “turnaround” stories, listen in two directions at the same time: to what they are saying, and to the Holy Spirit.
When something is said and all the bells go off inside you, that’s what you came for. The Holy Spirit is fingering this principle, that story, this strategic ministry, that idea.
8. Don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit has you start with small improvements.
Someone in our church called my attention to a needy trailer park. A seminary student in our church wanted to try to reach the people there. We sponsored him. No big deal. At first, it was just an arrangement between the student and me, the pastor.
In time, as leaders came and went, God sent us a young man with a real heart for the families in that park. He began reaching the kids, some of the parents began to respond, and our church members began to get involved.
This became the finest mission experience of any church I ever pastored. Before long, more than 60 members of our church were involved to some degree with the young pastor, his wife, and that trailer park. It’s my observation that this compassionate ministry helped make it a truly healthy congregation.
“Who has despised the day of small things?” asks the prophet in Zechariah 4:10. I think we can answer that. Our spirits despise small things. We want big numbers, big programs, big responses. Anything wrong with 3,000 people coming to Christ in one day? Not a bit. But great results often begin with tiny deeds, such as prayer-walking a neighborhood or putting someone in a leadership position who becomes a key player.
9. Start even smaller than that.
Walk over your campus. Are the restrooms clean? Do the hallways need painting or brightening up? What do the grounds look like? Never, ever pass a piece of trash on your property without picking it up and walking it to a dumpster.
Even if your sanctuary has not changed since the 1950s and looks every bit as dated as it is, and even if you can’t afford a renovation, you can get a bucket of paint and cover the fingerprints on the walls. You can scrub the floors. You can see that wastebaskets are emptied each week.
Schedule a “work day” on a Saturday. Encourage your students to brighten up their rooms. Appoint two or three of the most persnickety matrons to walk through the buildings with one of the men and make a list of improvements to be made. Talk it up, serve breakfast early that day, and make it fun.
Don’t overdo it and don’t over-expect, pastor. Don’t make this an all-day thing. Two hours on a Saturday morning with 20 or 30 adults can make a huge difference. If they uncover more tasks to be done, ask them if they’d like to have another such work day six weeks later. That’s far enough in advance that they’ll agree, but not so distant that they’ll forget about it.
Go for little improvements at first. See that the church sign represents the church well and is changed weekly, even if you have to do it yourself until the Lord raises up a responsible volunteer. If your sanctuary looks bare, ask a florist to lend you some greenery on the weekends, or even rent you some. When the congregation responds enthusiastically, see how people would feel about purchasing the greenery.
Use the word “experiment,” as in, “We’re going to experiment with this.” It won’t sound as threatening or as permanent as, “We’re making this change.”
10. Thank people. Encourage them. Praise them. Send them notes.
You have two choices, pastor. You can harangue the people on Sunday because they are not what a church ought to be, or you can applaud them as they take baby steps in that direction.
I’m in favor of the pastor calling names from the pulpit of people who did well this week. (You’ll want to work hard to not leave someone out who should have been included. If you do, be sure to include him/her the next Sunday and apologize for omitting them.)
Write thank-you notes on the church letterhead. One or two sentences are all that’s required. Tell them how much better the church looks with those new flowers in front and how it is a glorious witness for the Lord. Tell the custodian how pleased you were to hear someone comment on the clean bathrooms last Sunday.
I once wrote a column in the church bulletin thanking our custodian. Andy was not an easy man to work with. He could be curt, and more than once he’d offended some member with a sharp comment on the way she kept her classroom. But when you gave him an assignment, he carried it out well. So I wrote a note of appreciation to let church members know that Andy was responsible for the building looking so impressive on Sundays. A year later, while looking for something in the sanctuary building, I opened a closet. There was my column, taped to the inside of the door. Andy had kept it all this time.
I never forgot that lesson. It matters. As nutrients to flowers and as fertilizer to a crop, so is encouragement to God’s people.
The Lord’s people should be seen as tender plants; if you want them to grow, you must never mistreat them. Instead, handle them with care, treat them lovingly, and keep them in the sunshine with plenty of food and water. Protect them from storms, shield them from careless children, and watch for signs of disease or trouble. They want to grow, and they will—if we do it right.