Declining, Plateaued, and Growing Churches

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We need to be concerned with declining churches, not as concerned with plateaued churches, and careful not to read too much into growing churches.

In my coaching practice I have a number of clients who pastor churches that are in decline and have been declining for quite some time. I believe this is a cause of genuine concern. It is rare that you find a healthy church that is in decline. The exception to this is when a church has been unhealthy and the people who have contributed to this lack of health leave the church. When this happens there will be an initial decline. Once the results of this decline level off and stabilize (assuming that they do) the opportunity for health returns. The lessons from this?

1. If a church has been in decline it is essential for the pastor to help their leaders admit that the church is in trouble. Typically, admitting this will be met with great resistance. Unless the church can admit they are headed in the wrong direction and be willing to embrace significant change, they will, and I say this with very little doubt, dwindle and dwindle until they, and often times the pastor, will lack viability. My experience has been that a church lacks viability long before they recognize the lack of viability and by the time they do it is often too late to turn things around.

2. If there are people in your church that are contributing to an unhealthy environment let them leave, or in some cases, invite them to leave. I know that some of these types represent money and volunteers. Their departure will leave holes but the holes they leave behind will be smaller than the wholeness their presence is preventing.

We need to be concerned with declining churches, not as concerned with plateaued churches, and careful not to read too much into growing churches.

I’m not too concerned with plateaued churches. I know plenty of healthy churches that have plateaued. There can be all kinds of reasons why a church plateaus, most of which have nothing to do with a lack of health. We’ve been told that “All healthy things grow and reproduce.” but this is not always true. We’ve been told that there are ‘growth-barriers’ that need to be broken. This is a carryover from the old ‘Church Growth Movement’ days that conditioned so many pastors to believe that their church should be expected to grow and grow and grow. Why is it that denominations rush in to help smaller churches that have plateaued but ignore larger churches that have plateaued? The lesson from this?

1. If your church has plateaued this may or may not reflect a problem. Don’t assume that you have a problem if you don’t. I suggest that you bring in a consultant like myself (shameless self-promotion), to help you and your leaders objectively analyze the possible reasons and responses to the plateau.

2. Educate your leaders so that they will understand that just because our church isn’t growing does not necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong.

We need to be concerned with declining churches, not as concerned with plateaued churches, and careful not to read too much into growing churches.

I love to hear that churches are growing but I try to not read too much into their climbing numbers. Remember, the only thing that numbers on Sunday morning really tells us is how many were there on Sunday morning. Numbers do not automatically tell us the spiritual depth of our people or the degree in which they are devoted followers of Jesus. Believe it or not, a church can be growing but still not be healthy. The lesson from this?

1. If your church is growing rejoice, but don’t assume that your numbers represent disciples. A false sense of security can result from growth.

2. Numbers can reflect health. For example, a higher percentage of people serving than the year before. A higher percentage of of people sharing their faith and inviting people to church than the year before. A higher percentage of people praying, volunteering, giving, leading than the year before. These are the type of rising numbers that indicate health.

So, we need to be concerned with declining churches, not as concerned with plateaued churches, and careful not to read too much into growing churches.

What are your thoughts?