by Bill Easum, 21st Century Strategies
All of us know that 80% of the churches in the U.S. are either in decline or on a plateau, with the congregation getting older each year. This trend has been going on since the mid 1960's in every denomination with nothing in site to suggest it will change. At this pace traditional Christianity is on course to become a minor spiritual player in the West within the next two or three decades.
At the same time every denomination I know has spent tons of money on trying to revitalize the church. But that is part of the problem ? you can't revitalize a corpse. You have to resurrect it!
My twenty-four years as a consultant have taught me there are two kinds of declining and/or stalled churches- "Spiritually dead" or "Not-Yet-Dead but Not-Yet Alive"- with the vast majority of the 80% of declining or stalled churches being in the "Spiritually dead" category. That is why I wrote the book A Second Resurrection. If your church isn't growing, you probably ought to get a copy and see which category your church fits into because the way transformation takes place is different for both categories.
What I've also learned is that these categories have nothing to do with the size of a church. Let me share two examples. I'll start by describing the "spiritually dead" church.
Several years ago I consulted with a 5,000 member congregation that was spiritually dead. It had:
- A two million dollar budget, 80% of which was spent on the congregation; 800 in worship
- Worship that had declined for more than 20 years but membership was still growing
- Not one adult baptism in more than ten years. Leaders who were mildly concerned about the decline of the church but not the fact that it wasn't fulfilling the Great Commission. They felt secure in the fact that they had 5,000 members even though they literally couldn't find two-thirds of them.
Now let's look at a "Not Yet Dead but Not-Yet alive church.
I had the privilege several years ago of working with a small church of 200 members. It had:
- A 90,000 budget, 85% of which was spent on the congregation.
- 140 in worship.
- Worship that had been stalled out for decades. The sanctuary was over a hundred years old with outdoor plumbing.
- Not one adult baptism in twenty years. Leaders began to worry about the future and dreamed of better things. Over the next few years the church became multi-site and now runs well over a thousand in worship.
80% of Church Consultations Fail
One of the reasons most church consultations fail is because the leaders and or the consultant underestimates the seriousness of the condition. They may feel something is wrong, but it's really not fatal. So they try to revitalize the church instead of resurrecting it. Failure to accurately asset the reality is usually fatal because the two different realities require two different approaches to transformation.
How to determine the difference?
One of the reasons I wrote the book A Second Resurrection was to give leaders a way to determine the difference. Let me share a few "reality testers" with you.
Here are some of the usual responses to reality in the Spiritually Dead church.
- When faced with a decision our leaders always ask can we pay for it rather than will it introduce more people to Jesus Christ?"
- Our leaders care more for the survival of their church than the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
- Our leaders get more satisfaction over a balanced budget than the baptism of one person.
- If our denomination wanted to plant a church down the street from our church, we would feel threatened and try to stop it rather than rejoice and ask how to help.
- Our leaders think it's the duty of the pastor to visit everyone in the hospital.
- This is my church and don't you try to change it or move it!
- Our people seldom consider the lost when designing a program.
- If we add a second worship service we won't know everyone anymore.
- Shouldn't we take better care of who we've got instead of going after new people?
- We want more young people as long as they act like old people.
Now let's contrast those reality testers to the Not-Yet-Dead but Not-Yet-Alive church.
- When faced with a decision our leaders usually ask if it will grow the church rather than fulfill the Great Commission.
- Our leaders know the church needs to grow and change as long as it doesn't affect them.
- Our leaders feel good but not ecstatic when a person is baptized.
- If our denomination wanted to plant a church down the street from our church, we would feel threatened but would not try to stop it.
- We know the pastor has a lot to do and we think we should help out by doing some of the hospital visitation.
- We know we need to reach out but they are so different than we are.We still think of the church as a place.
- We know we need this new worship service but we do want to stay connected.
As you can see from the responses, neither type of church is on fire for the Great Commission but one is spiritually dead and the other not-yet-dead but not-yet-alive.
How Does Church Transformation Different in Both Realities?
Spiritually dead churches must be resurrected and require that:
- Everything must be new - programs, leaders, worship, budget, ministries, everything.
- A radical break from the past. As Albert Einstein said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
- No tinkering is allowed in any area of the church.
- The pastor must become the turnaround.
- Most, if not all, structure should be eliminated immediately.
- Spend as much money as it takes over a two year period to increase the number of first time visitors even if you have to gut the budget and postpone mortgage payments and let some staff go.
- You show the controllers the door.
Not-Yet-Dead churches must be revived. To accomplish this you:
- Work with the dreamers and ignore the whiners.
- Change things incrementally and grandfather old ways into the new ways.
- Drop structure as soon as t becomes possible.
- Evaluate present staff to see if they are the problem.
- Spend as much money on increasing the first time guests as you can redirect in the budget.
- Gradually remove the controllers from office.
Keep in mind that church transformation is a combination of doing what is strategically necessary in a timely fashion as well as relying on the miracle of divine intervention. When transformation happens it is because Christians partner with God in becoming faithful to the Great Commission. You can do everything right and the transformation fail because the leaders didn't invite God into the process. So bring your prayer life up to date, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
For more on how to accomplish church transformation see two of my books: Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers and A Second Resurrection