Five Options for a Church in Decline

It’s simple and straightforward.

Leaders of declining churches have five choices.

Let me clarify. In theory, the choices are simple. But putting them to practice is not so easy. So when pastors or other church leaders ask me what they can do about their declining church, I ask them to begin at the high level before looking at a lot of details. One of these five choices must be made.

1. DO NOTHING.

Anecdotally, I can tell you the majority of churches make this decision. Such is the reason that two-thirds of the churches are declining or plateaued.

Advantages: You avoid conflict. You may get to keep your job.

Disadvantages: If you do nothing and are declining, you will still decline. You are disobedient to the Great Commission. And leading a declining church is no fun.

2. INCREMENTAL CHANGE.

I wrote about this kind of change many years ago in a book called Eating the Elephant.You attempt to discern a pace that can take as many members as possible with you.

Advantages: Change is taking place, hopefully for the better. You minimize losses of membership and criticisms, but not completely. You probably keep your job.

Disadvantages: Today most churches don’t have the luxury of changing incrementally. The world is so different than just a few years ago. Incremental change may not stop the bleeding.

3. SIGNIFICANT CHANGE.

Leadership recognizes the simple choice is, “change or die.” The church decides to make significant leadership, methodological, organizational, structural, and philosophical changes.

Advantages: The church may reverse the decline and become a gospel influence in the community again. For those who are on board, there can be a sense of radical obedience to the gospel.

Disadvantages: The church almost always loses significant numbers of members. Ironically, the church may not survive the change created for survival. Leadership is inundated with criticisms. You could lose your job.

4. PREPARATION FOR CLOSURE.

Unlike the “do nothing” choice of option one, the church acknowledges it is declining and headed toward death. It makes preparation for an orderly shut down and disposition of property and other resources.

Advantages: This option is one of death with dignity. The church is not scurrying at the last moment to consider options. The process is orderly and well planned.

Disadvantages: The church dies. The gospel presence in the community once represented by this congregation no longer exists.

5. PREPARATION FOR ACQUISITION.

The church seeks to become a campus or site of a healthier congregation. It yields its leadership and gives its resources to the acquiring congregation.

Advantages: There is a continuation of the gospel presence in the community. The acquiring church provides leadership and resources to effect a turnaround. The church does not close.

Disadvantages: The acquired church is not the same congregation. The members of the acquired church often have a false notion that the new church will let things stay fairly constant. They never do

At its basic levels, declining churches really have one of five choices. And if a church makes no choice, it has really decided to choose the “do nothing” option, the worst of the five choices.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
 
— Ken
 

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