Turning around a declining church is not easy. Most won’t make the change. And, that should not surprise us. Sick people and sick institutions don’t naturally change by themselves. They need others to help.
The Potential of Learning Community
What if more churches and church leaders decided to get real with each other and challenge each other to make a kingdom difference? What if even 20-25% of churches that are plateaued and declining in North America (most churches) decided that they were willing to do whatever it takes to see God turn their church around? What if a group of pastors decided that business as usual wasn’t going to cut it–they were going to join together to impact the lostness in their communities?
For that to happen, pastors and churches are going to have to be willing to enlarge their thinking, network with other church leaders, and begin to establish some intentional learning relationships. Change is possible. Churches can make a comeback, but they are often going to have to look outside of their immediate church context for help. Left alone, we choose death over change, with others help we can make better choices.
Expanding Your Ministry Worldview
Often, one of the reasons that churches get caught in the trap of plateau and decline is that we are only looking at things in their own little fish bowl. We become comfortable in our own little environment, watching each other swim around in circles. As far as activity goes, things look OK. But, no new fish are entering the bowl.
To see a better future, we often need to “jump out of our fish bowl.” If things are stuck or stagnant in your ministry, start looking around at what God is doing in some other churches and ministries in your community that are growing through conversion growth. They don’t have to be churches from your denomination or group (really, you will survive if you build a few friendships with some other gospel-centered, like-minded churches). It would be good to look for some churches that fit fairly close to your theological beliefs and philosophy of ministry. And learn from them.
Create Leading Relationship with Other Pastors/Ministries
Then, here comes the tough part. Admit you need a little help and ask for it. In the book that I co-authored with Mike Dodson called Comeback Churches, we talk about the need for intentional, strategic leadership as a vital key for making a comeback. So, find some other pastors that are demonstrating that kind of leadership in other churches and ask them to give you some pointers.
Maybe part of the problem is that you are not a great leader, BUT that does not mean that you can’t become a better one with some good coaching from a strong leader, or even some peer coaching from others on the same journey. Every pastor can improve leadership behavior and skills, and we often do that by observing others farther along than we are. I am not a natural born leader, but I am a better leader because I have let others speak into my life.
If you don’t make the effort to step out of your fish bowl, it is not likely that anything will ever change. There is no shame in being plateaued or in decline. The shame would be in knowing that is where you are and doing nothing about it.
Build Accountability Into Your Relationships
No one really likes to hear this verse, but it’s true–“No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11, CSB). If you can, build an intentional, accountable network of pastors who would like to see some things change in their lives and ministries. The only way that will happen is through being more disciplined.
One key to having a group like that make a difference is to have at least one pastor involved who has displayed strong, intentional, strategic leadership. Ask that pastor to guide the process by suggesting what issues to address and what books to read. Get real with these pastors and pray hard for each other. Maybe you need to start encouraging each other and holding each other accountable to be witnesses and share the gospel.
Where from Here?
It’s crucial that you network with other local, like-minded churches and pastors. Find someone else who can help you get unstuck. Remember, your best thinking got you where you are.
So, if change is going to happen, it will probably not come from you, or at least you alone. It will come more readily when you and your church learn from others and thrive on the counsel of others. “Plans fail when there is no counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22, CSB).
One way that I have been trying to help with this is with my new course from Mission Group: Breaking the 200 Barrier. Session 1 for free. If you purchase the course, you have an opportunity to get conference calls with me. More info here.