4 Keys To Reversing Church Decline

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Today’s post is written by Tony Morgan, Founder of The UnStuck Group.

It’s surprising, but, based on our data, about 80% of churches today are stuck or in decline.

That’s bad enough, but the real question is, how do churches turn it around? What really needs to happen for a dying church to experience revitalization?

I love that God calls leaders to new places to start new churches to reach new people. But church planting isn’t my passion.

I love helping existing churches get healthy and grow their Kingdom impact.

Even before I was in ministry, back when I worked in city management, I was always drawn to communities in decline.

The ones in need of a turn-around. A fresh start. Revitalization.

Because of that, I wrote a whole book last year on the typical life cycle of a church and the steps a church can take towards sustained health. My team and I also developed a free online tool to help you self-assess where your church sits today in its life cycle.

You can take the Unstuck Church Assessment in 10-15 minutes. It will give you a much clearer insight into the challenges you’re facing on your way to leading your church to sustained health.

I’m going to share the four big shifts I see churches making, but before I do, I should tell you that I’ve NEVER seen a church turn things around without answering three key questions first, and answering them in the right order.

  • Why do we exist as a church?
  • Where is God calling us to go in the future?
  • How do we get there?

In a stuck church, leaders almost always jump to the last question first. They jump to fixing the “how.”

But if you immediately try to change methods without addressing the first two questions, you will unnecessarily create a lot of division in the church. People will coalesce around keeping things the way they are.

It’s understanding the “why” and the “where” that helps people find the willingness to change the “how.”

If you’ve ever tried to lead any kind of change in a church, you know the “how” is where people can get nasty.

It’s where people dig in their heels.

Understanding the “why” and the “where” helps people find the willingness to change the “how”. -@tonymorganlive Click To Tweet

But if you can engage your congregation in prayer and action towards a vision of why God put you on the map and where he’s called you to go, you can start leading even big changes.

So, what are the shifts made by churches that successfully reverse decline and breathe new life into their reason for being?

These are four I’ve seen often that I believe are of the highest priority:

1. Shift from being inwardly-focused to being outwardly-focused.

It’s the natural pull of churches to become more and more inwardly-focused over time.

It’s also a defining characteristic of churches that get stuck.

As the leader, this is where that first question I shared above is essential.

In your preaching and series planning, in your staff meetings and in your relationship with the board—you have to set the spiritual tone for your church existing to reach outside the walls.

You have to lead this mindset shift personally.

You’ll have to reinforce it constantly.

It’s the natural pull of churches to become more and more inwardly-focused over time. -@tonymorganlive Click To Tweet

2. Shift from ministry programs to a discipleship path.

Most of the churches I see in decline have an overwhelming number of programs. All kinds of issues emerge as a result.

They tend to staff and structure their team around all of the programs, which creates ministry silos and turf wars over volunteers, communications, and resources.

An outwardly-focused church orients itself around what makes it simple for people to learn to follow Jesus. -@tonymorganlive Click To Tweet

I wrote about this over-programming issue in detail earlier this year.

Suffice it to say the number one advantage to having a simple, clear discipleship path over an assortment of programs is that you make it easy for new followers of Jesus to take their next steps.

An outwardly-focused church orients itself around what makes it simple for people to learn to follow Jesus.

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

3. Shift from complexity to focus.

I’ve encouraged many church leaders to read the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

It’s not a ministry book. It’s not really even an organizational leadership book. But it will help you develop a lens for simplicity, for focus.

It will help you look at your church with fresh eyes for where things are too complex, beyond just the programming area.

Many, many churches are operating from a position of complexity when it comes to how they are structured, how they make decisions, how they train and empower volunteers, and so on.

Almost all declining churches are.

4. Shift from engaging people in meetings to engaging them in ministry.

This last shift has to do with how the lay leadership interacts with the staff leadership.

I’ve encountered so many declining churches that have too much structure around decision-making. There are far too many meetings, committees, boards.

Laypeople spend all their time in meetings talking about how to do ministry instead of engaged in doing it.

To lead revitalization, you’ll need to empower the ministry staff to carry the administrative responsibility and equip lay people to do ministry.

That’s our primary job description, according to Ephesians 4:12. To equip God’s people to do the work of God.

To lead revitalization, empower the ministry staff to carry the administrative responsibility and equip lay people to do ministry.. -@tonymorganlive Click To Tweet

In the healthiest churches, we see only one board of lay people supporting an empowered staff team that spends its time and energy equipping lay people to do ministry.

IT’S NOT JUST THESE FOUR

As I said above, these are the highest priority ministry shifts I see in churches that are trying to revitalize, but they aren’t the only shifts.

In my book, The Unstuck Church, I detail specifically next steps a church should consider taking based on where they sit today in the typical lifecycle.

Take the free online Unstuck Church Assessment. It can help you pinpoint where your church sits today.

It takes about 10 minutes to complete on your own, or for an even more accurate snapshot, you can invite your fellow staff leaders to take the survey, too. You’ll then get a result based on the cumulative responses to the questions, instead of based on your perspective alone.

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.