4 Keys To Reversing Church Decline

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.

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.


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.


Scroll down and leave a comment to share your take.

4 Keys To Reversing Church Decline


  1. Wes Morgan on January 16, 2019 at 8:42 am

    I began to serve a congregation that had about 20 members. I spent the first year getting to really know the members and attendees. I focused first on the Elders and brought them together as a team. We met every Sunday morning at 8 am. We focused on prayer, the Scripture (usually for that day), concerns and needs of the people. I worked hard at training the Elders for their ministry. They visited members, took communion to shut-ins. Along with others, they led parts of the worship. I also trained another group to be greeters (welcomers) — then spread that training to the congregation. We moved into reaching out into the community — food bank — started a Habitat for Humanity team — started a day-care — a community youth ministry and several ministries. Another part of our outreach was a grief support group — a marriage enrichment group — an open to the community Bible study — and several other groups. We grew to be a church of 500+ built a new sanctuary — a music program that had four “choirs” — three handbell choirs — and a drama team. The KEY was the Elder team!

  2. Wayne Greulich on December 1, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Great article and place to start discussion.
    Recently, I was part of non-denominaational men’s group which met every Friday at 7:00 a.m. The Lord led us to discover what it is that followers/disciples of Christ are to do.
    We are all familiar with the so-called “Great Commission” where we are called to preach the Gospel and make disciples. However, almost always, in my experience, the final part of Christ’s command is ignored – “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;” – Matthew 28:20 (NASB). Our group then went through Matthew’s Gospel and found all the commandments of Christ and examined our own lives in light of them. As a pastor of 40 years, I discovered there were many areas in my life where I was not following Christ’s commands (being a disciple). I had to wrestle through these issues and align myself with Christ and His commands. One cannot really disciple others until he, himself, is being an active disciple.
    This is why the apostle Paul was able to command others, he was discipling to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV).
    Christ made it clear that it is not sufficient to know Christ’s commands as the foolish man in Matthew 7:24 – 27 does, but to DO or OBEY Christ’s commands.
    Once one gets this under his belt, working with Christ to build His Church becomes somewhat simplified: Preach the Gospel/witness the Gospel in one’s life; disciple those who respond by living and teaching Christ’s commands; teaching them to do the same.
    Additionally, I believe the church often doesn’t realize what discipleship really is. The closest comparison in western society, I believe, is that of apprenticeship in the trades. For example, a plumbing apprentice (disciple) will work side-by-side with the master plumber for 5 years (where I live). He learns by the example of the discipler/master as well as taking some classroom teaching. However, the classroom teaching is ALWAYS demonstrated in real life by the discipler/master. Once the apprentice has learned to do just as the teacher does, then he is allowed to go out on his own and become a master plumber, too – and the cycle continues.
    This is how it ought to be and how we see it demonstrated in te New Testament Church. New disciple to Christ were taught by word and example of the original disciples, and so on.
    We need to get back to the Scripture and its instruction to us in order to be the Church Christ designed and the apostles implemented (see Ephesians 2:20). As this article exhorts – we need to simplify and there is nothing simpler than following Scripture (not necessarily easy- but simple).
    God bless.

  3. Clay Faulk on November 30, 2018 at 6:12 am

    I have also discovered that even after asking the first two questions as a congregation, some within may say the “right” answer, but they do not believe it nor want to change the culture of the church. The congregation as a whole may be very unaware of these individuals and there may even be a “terrorist” within the group. Thus, the rest of the congregation is held hostage by the 15-20% of those who just want the church to go back to “the good ole’ days.” These seem to be the congregations which are simply going to die. As Dallas Willard said in his book, The Great Omission, “But spirituality in many Christian circles has simply become another dimension of Christian consumerism. We have generated a body of people who consume Christian services and think that that is Christian faith. Consumption of Christian services replaces obedience to Christ. And spirituality is one more thing to consume. I go to many, many conferences and talk about these things, and so often I see these people who are just consuming more Christian services.” Some people just want to consume that which made them feel good years ago and refuse to do the work of stepping out in faith to reach people who aren’t being reached with the Good News of Christ,

    • Wayne Greulich on December 1, 2018 at 11:23 am

      I pastored a church for 12 years where one (large) family ruled the church for decades. The patriarch drove out every pastor with the average stay of a pastor of 22 months prior to my coming. He tried to force me out as well, and though I wanted to leave, the Lord would not let me. He and most of his family finally left. The Lord made a blessed subtraction to the church.
      I’m sure the Lord will not work the same way, but I encourage those in a similar situation to seek the Lord. He can deal effectively with those in a church who make themselves the rulers. I know of several cases where God even resorted to bringing those to death, who deemed themselves leaders, but opposed the Lord’s will and working.
      Jesus Christ said that He would build His Church – and even the gates of Hell could not prevail against it.
      God bless.

  4. Son on November 30, 2018 at 12:19 am

    Preach the word, love your brethren as He commanded us and call it good, fellas. Follow His commandments and all will be well and right. And never forget that the lowliest member of your congregation is PRECIOUS to Jesus!

  5. Son on November 30, 2018 at 12:18 am

    Preach the word, lover your brethren and call it good, fellas. Follow His commandments and all will be well and right. And never forget that the lowliest member of your congregation is PRECIOUS to Jesus!

    • Son on November 30, 2018 at 12:20 am

      LOVE YOUR BRETHREN – typo correction

    • Son on November 30, 2018 at 12:26 am

      And observe the admonition given in Matthew 23:1-13
      ” Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
      2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
      3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
      4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
      5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
      6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
      7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
      8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
      9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
      10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
      11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
      12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
      13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”
      for ye are no better than the lowliest member of your congregation, whom Christ has covered with His Precious Blood just as He covers you unto salvation.

  6. Suzelle Lynch on November 29, 2018 at 11:37 am

    You say, “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.” I’d like to see an example of this – in detail. What “equipping” do you mean? Training? Teaching? Assigning particular tasks of ministry? We ARE doing a lot of this already, but I’d love to get out from under a boatload of administration so that I might have more bandwidth to equip my leaders and my teams. But my staff is overloaded, too, and volunteers want short-term tasks, not ongoing ones….

    • Son on November 29, 2018 at 10:08 pm

      Why are my comments being blocked?

      • Son on November 30, 2018 at 12:14 am

        Churches, and Carey Nieuwhof, are obstructing true Christian worship and fellowship. That is why people are seeking communion with Jesus in other, non-conventional ways. I had a great dialogue going with other believers on a blog sponsored by Carey Nieuwfof. Suddenly, Carey’s boys are blocking my posts. WTF?

        • Wayne Greulich on December 1, 2018 at 11:27 am

          First of all, I don’t think your claim to blockage of your comments has much validity as your comments have been posted here. Secondly, you might want to watch your language (WTF). If there is any blockage, this may be one of the reasons why. I trust you will humbly accept some loving correction.
          God bless you, brother.

  7. Angel Falcon on November 29, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Excellent and very insightful article. Got a lot to process and books to get. Thank you!

  8. Angel Falcon on November 29, 2018 at 10:23 am

    Excellent and insightful article.

  9. Allan on November 29, 2018 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for this article!

    I have a question about the Discipleship Path. At our church we have been on a journey with our leadership teams of clarifying our Mission, Vision, Values and are now focusing in on our pathway. We are definitely in line with what you described as the church with a bunch of different programs and a high degree of complexity.

    We know we need to streamline. We are in the midst of working through this process, and so far we are leaning toward 4 key pieces of our path: 1) Gathering (ie. Sundays) 2) Teams to volunteer 3) Groups 4) Trips (short term mission trips).

    As I am trying to lead us ahead in finalizing and then implementing our path, my big question/struggle is does it need to be sequential? When I think of a path, I think of going from point A to B, one step at a time sequentially. However, with the 4 things we’ve come up with, we are finding people aren’t all doing them sequentially. People are starting in a group before they attend a gathering. People attend our gathering and then jump to a trip, but aren’t on a team or group. Some go to teams first before groups. Others go to groups before teams. There are all kinds of combinations.

    Does this mean we have not identified the right things to simplify down to, because they aren’t definitively sequential? Or is this normal and to be expected in our day of people longing to “pick their own adventure”?

    • Jon Pyle on November 29, 2018 at 12:20 pm

      Personally, I believe people are chaotic by nature and will often not follow linear processes. Linear processes become processes of elimination by nature. We like sequential and linear processes as churches because it makes it easier on us, not our people.

    • Keith Lavy on November 29, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      You might find the book “Deepening Your Effectiveness” by Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy beneficial in laying out a plan for your discipleship pathway.

    • Dave on November 29, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      Allan, I would also recommend the book Simple Church by Thom Ranier. That’s what has helped me in my current role at a church that has only started thinking that way in the last 2 years. There are two big questions to ask that only your team can answer for your church/context.

      The first is, what does a mature believer look like at your church? Basically, what’s the end goal? While all of us are trying to make disciples, what that looks like can be very different church to church based on our values/paradigm. An example of an answer is, a mature believer is someone who’s living out Biblical principles in his or her life. That’s still vague, so define that more. Someone who is involved, serves, prays, gives, treats others with kindness, invites others to church, etc. But define where you’re hoping to take people, rather than them doing similar types of programming repeatedly for years with no larger picture of where it all leads.

      The second question is, what is the pathway at your church for someone to go from non-Christian to mature Christ follower? This was a hard question for our team to wrestle with, as the classic denominational programs we offered aren’t necessarily designed for someone to grow in a sequential way. Having a linear path doesn’t mean people can’t go in order–we wrestled with that too. But at least a pathway is there with clear next steps so people know what’s being asked of them.

      Only you can answer if you’ve identified the right things. One thing that helped us was identifying a new person who had recently started attending. That way it wasn’t theoretical. How do we help HIM take a next step? For us after attending Sundays it was getting plugged into a small group. After a few months, it was getting plugged into serving, and eventually baptism and membership all within the course of a year. Then we had a success story to help cast the vision to our people that this works, with a real life example of someone with a changed life. Hope that helps!

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