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5 Reasons Why Some Churches Won’t Recover

If you’ve been paying attention to our world over the last few months, you’ve no doubt seen some dramatic economic news.

You’ve probably seen things that made you wonder about the future of your church.

You may be worried about what might come next.

We’ve seen the initial impact that COVID-19 has had on people, and we’re just now starting to get a clear picture of the impact that it’s going to have on both the economy and broader culture.

There has been an overwhelming amount of precedence setting, historically astronomical things happening. It’s seemingly never-ending as the media keeps coming at us on a daily basis with the latest string of bad news.

Who would have ever thought that we would see oil prices below zero? There was so much oil in the world that companies were paying other companies to take it off their hands. Just a few months ago we probably wouldn’t have been able to imagine the circumstances necessary to make that a reality.

Not to mention the fact that we lost over 20 million jobs in the month of April 2020 alone. To put that in perspective, it took the best 10 years of the economy in recorded history to gain 20 million jobs and those were all erased in a single month.

Lots of traditional economic stalwarts are being turned upside down as new upstarts and aggressive competitors are seizing this season as an opportunity for expansion and growth.

What difference does all that economy talk make for your church and for my church? As we encounter the reality of those economic effects in the coming year, we’re going to see more churches close their doors than we have in any other period of modern history.

However, the factors driving this landslide of church closures won’t just boil down to economic reasons; it will be a mixture of economic and leadership pressures.

It pains me to distill a list of some of those factors that will ultimately close churches. I am a “pro local church” leader. I’ve spent my entire adult life cheerleading for and trying to build up churches that make a difference in their communities.

But brothers and sisters, in all truthfulness, I do think we’re facing a season of unprecedented pressure on churches across the country.

Unless we look soberly at what’s happening within our churches, we may find many churches simply not existing anymore in a matter of weeks or months. In fact, I was recently talking with a ministry leader who asked probably one of the saddest questions I’ve ever heard.

Having not been able to pay their insurance and their bank accounts being closed because they were upside down on payments, the question he simply asked was, “At what point do we just not exist anymore?”

I share this list of five reasons why some churches won’t recover as a set of warning signs but also as guidance for how we can think differently and lead differently in this season.

I don’t share these thoughts in an attempt to be unnecessarily harsh about what might be coming, but rather as a friend on the journey who is trying to think about how we can all come out of this crisis stronger.

So, here are some reasons why churches in our communities won’t recover from the pressures that we’re currently facing.

Entitlement Mindset

In times of great economic and cultural upheaval, the worst type of leader to deal with these kinds of changes is an entitled leader.

These are the leaders who think that the world owes them something. And it’s a dangerous attitude to have. We’re in a season where we need to dig entitlement out of our own leadership and out of those who lead around us.

Here are just a few ways that entitlement leadership might be showing up in your church today:

You’re expecting everything to just go back to normal.

The economy and our culture have changed so much in the last two months and they’re not going to just snap back to normal.

Even when we do shift into a more familiar setting after this pandemic, nothing will be the same as it was before.

If you’re anticipating that everything is going to be the same as it was, you’re indulging in an entitlement mindset. If you’re tempted to just “wait it out” until things “go back to normal,” then you’re acting out of an entitlement mindset.

You think that what you did in the past will work in the present and future.

This is always a dangerous posture as a leader because the culture around us is constantly changing. If you expect everything to continue to operate the way it did eight weeks ago and aren’t asking, “How do we change in light of what we currently know?”, then your church won’t survive. Entitlement leads to method inflexibility; that inflexibility will be deadly to churches in the coming months.

You’re expecting someone else to solve your problems.

If you’re looking to the government or your denominational structure to make decisions and chart the path for you, you are operating in a risky zone.

God put you in the place of leadership in your church. So, you need to lead.

You need to be humble enough to look at the situations and realities in your community and make decisions based on what you’re seeing on the ground to define a path forward.

You expect church to only “happen” inside your building.

The bible is full of evidence that God is more interested in working in the marketplace than inside religious buildings.

Think about instances where God called people into service; it was rarely in a religious building. (God called Moses at the burning bush while he was working, David while he was a young shepherd, Peter while he was fishing, Paul while he walking on a road—the list goes on!) If you think church only happens inside your building, then you’re missing out on what God wants to do through your ministry. Churches that will survive are the ones getting out of their seats and into the streets. If it’s just about a 60-minute show on Sunday, you won’t survive.

More than ever before, we need to be leaning into humility and responding to the communities around us.

Churches that will thrive in the next normal will listen carefully to their communities and leverage what they learn to point people towards Jesus.

Our leadership needs to be postured in such a way that we are humble rather than entitled and seeking to serve the community that we’re in rather than turning inward.

Poor Communication

One of the fascinating things about this pandemic is how quickly churches pivoted to a much stronger communication strategy.

Gone are the days where you might look down your nose at those leaders who leverage social media, email lists, digital tools and more to communicate with their people.

There was a time where you could get by without a robust communication strategy but those days are gone. The churches that will survive and thrive into the future are those that are using communication to ultimately drive activity throughout their entire organization. Communication is going to have a seat at the senior leadership table of thriving churches in the next normal.

This goes back to the basic elements of Church Communications 101:

  • You need to build an email list of the people who are connected to your church.
  • You need to be actively engaged on social media platforms to stay in front of your people, regardless of where they’re at.
  • You need to work on a communication plan that gets the right message to the right people at the right time.
  • You need to leverage your church database to ensure people aren’t falling through the cracks.
  • Churches with poor communication methods are already disappearing from people’s view.

As people develop their next normal rhythms (both now and beyond this pandemic), it’s our job to encourage them to come and be a part of what we’re doing. Part of what we’ve always done in the local church is fight the cycles of non-attendance. We’ve taken a massive hit to our understanding around this area, as most churches have gone six to eight weeks without anyone at their physical locations and have a really unclear idea of who attended online or not.

We’ll inevitably be moving into overdrive in the coming weeks and months as we pass through the various phases of recovery. Most churches will be facing the likely reality of needing to run multiple experiences at the same time in the coming weeks:

  • Church online for those who can’t or won’t attend a physical location
  • Smaller group in-person experiences to help people reconnect with others
  • Staggered “normal services” that will have ever-increasing audience sizes (from 25 people to 50 to 150, etc.)
  • If your church has a poor communications strategy (or worse, you sneer at the need for one), it’s not only unlikely that you’ll survive the complexity that is coming your way but you’ll also fail to serve your people where they’re at right now.

Insider Focus

Churches that have always been solely focused on those who are already attending have been on the brink of extinction for a long time. The recovery period will accelerate the decline of churches exclusively focused on those already attending.

Gone is the day when people just showed up to church because they felt a certain amount of obligation to be there.

Models that rely on just passing church from one generation to the next and not reaching out to see new people come into the faith don’t live up to the reality of people’s lives anymore.

Churches that reach out to people who are truly disconnected from the message of Jesus will win the day long term as those people eventually come to know him and are ultimately discipled in him.

This pandemic happened at a fascinating time in the spiritual makeup of our culture. If this happened a generation or two before, the religious community would likely have been seen as leaders in this crisis and there would have been a collective call to prayer, but what’s been made clear through this experience is that the church has been marginalized in its place in society.

You and I need to double down on our efforts to connect with people who don’t follow Jesus and to lovingly see them get connected to his message. Churches that are just focusing on the insiders, that are more worried about the “keep” than the “reach,” will find themselves increasingly marginalized and unable to survive what comes next.

The local church has always been the only organization in the world whose sole mission is to serve those people who are not connected yet. Churches that get that mission backwards won’t recover from this crisis.

Volunteer Erosion

One of the potentially most dangerous aspects of this season has been the radical shift towards an increasing professionalization of the church.

I was recently speaking to a leader of a church of about 1,500 people, and this church leader was a bit distressed about the fact that their Sunday service experience went from a volunteer team of about 450 people to just four staff producing their online weekend services.

While many companies around the world are celebrating the shift to digital and consider it a great savior of their businesses as they reduce costs, the volunteer erosion that this shift represents could ultimately damage the local church long term.

There’s a risk associated with reducing volunteer roles so dramatically, and churches that don’t find new ways to increase their volunteer culture in the coming weeks will find themselves at a loss in the future in many ways.

The people who serve in your church represent the core of your ministry. Those who serve are most likely to invite their friends, they’re most likely to give financially, and they’re most likely to push the mission forward.

As we’ve had to sideline a large percentage of our volunteer force, a re-engagement strategy needs to be central to our recovery efforts.

Looking for ways to increase the volunteer core and draw people into the mission is part of what thriving churches will need to do in the coming weeks and months.

If your church is unable to articulate a desired path forward for volunteers, it will be difficult for your church to recover. If your church is sliding towards fewer volunteers, you are moving away from survival.

A church with no volunteers is a dead church.

Financial Issues

The financial issues that some churches are going to face (or are already facing) are really last on the list of reasons why some churches won’t recover.

“The borrower is a slave to the lender” [ref], and in the coming weeks and months we’re going to hear stories of churches being closed across the country because of bad financial deals.

There used to be an axiom in the church lending business that no lender really wants to close churches, but when we’re facing an economic situation that looks like it is going to be at least the worst recession in a generation or two, it’s not hard to imagine that some lenders won’t hesitate to foreclose on church buildings across the country.

This isn’t really the fault of the lenders; the church has made an arrangement on that financing and by defaulting on loans, they’re breaking a covenant with a third party.

These loans were made in good faith and if churches don’t go out of their way to manage the debt and repay at a reasonable rate, it’s only reasonable that the banks and other financial institutions take whatever action they can to recover their investment.

Churches that struggled with debt before the coronavirus crisis are going to struggle going forward.

I was recently in a conversation with our friends at CDF Capital, and they told me that they reached out to 100% of their churches and offered an extension in payments to give them a rest for six months during this crisis. What an incredible leadership move!

I was even more encouraged to hear that more than half of the churches turned down the need for a break on payments. Those churches are the ones that are moving strongly into the future!

Although many institutions are offering similar loan relief at this moment, those offers will come to an end at some point, and if your church is struggling with debt, you need to start dealing with it now.

The issues we’ve talked about above represent a much larger risk. In many ways, your financial position as a church is a reflection of the positions you’ve taken on the issues discussed above.

However, as a perhaps more visible or immediate issue of concern, we will see financial tensions overwhelm churches in the coming weeks and months.

This is a post written by Rich Birch. Rich the founder of Unseminary and is a member of my Speaking Team. You can book Rich to consult with your team or speak at your next event here.

Want to actually grow in this season? 

 

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  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
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I’d love to hear your thoughts

What are some factors that you could see impacting churches and ultimately pushing them to the point where they can’t recover? Leave a comment below or send me an email.

I’d love to hear more.

5 Reasons Why Some Churches Won’t Recover

24 Comments

  1. Michele Pineau on July 9, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    I’m curious what about a church that has sizeable financial resources, say close to a million dollars. In the form of investment however they are presently doing much of the don’ts listed here. They have been in a negative congregational growth position for almost a decade. They are not using technology to reach new and existing members but for a couple of hourly online weekly services. They turn away volunteers from the congregation. They are for the most part moving toward a professional model. The majority of members are too old to volunteer. All outreach and congregational building is left on the shoulders of the Clergy. I’m just curious. It is very difficult to watch but the use of monies to prop up this kind of church by not following the mission of Jesus Christ is troubling. I see it as the ‘as long as there is a building for my funeral’ attitude. I’d love a response. Thank you for this eye opening article.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 9, 2020 at 4:08 pm

      There’s a saying about this that is sadly too often true:

      “churches with buildings and money have no people, and churches with people have no money or buildings.”

      It’s sad, but often true.

      • Michele Pineau on July 11, 2020 at 5:25 am

        So true, I wonder why this is?

  2. Virginia on July 9, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    There is a lot of emphasis on and advice/direction about what the minister needs to do – as if it is totally his/her job to turn everything around – when in fact the congregation must be on board as well. If there was resistance to transformation before COVID even when they were in decline it is not likely there will be a turn around mindset after- which is another reason why churches will close because this dynamic has been accelerated with the pandemic.

    • Mark on July 13, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      It is not the congregation per se, but the unofficial power structure. They can overrule any vote or veto anything else.

  3. Victoria Wallin on July 9, 2020 at 11:49 am

    I would love to hear more around the topic on developing a solid church communication strategy!

    Great article!

  4. Caleb on July 9, 2020 at 11:20 am

    These are such great points. On the topic of volunteer erosion, I definitely see the need to pivot our volunteer force. We went from having 100s of volunteers serving on a Sunday to needing less than 10 to produce our digital experience. I think a plan in place to reengage volunteers is so vital. However, I would love to hear some more practical ideas on how to pivot volunteers. We have a huge team of guest service volunteers gifted in hospitality and now they’re not seeing people every week. How are some churches practically pivoting their volunteers?

    • Jax on July 10, 2020 at 9:06 am

      I would also appreciate more resources on this topic. In my circumstance, we had a quite large group of volunteers who were, unfortunately to say, not very capable or committed, and lacked training (for various reasons). Most operated well as long as they were led overtly but didn’t not flourish yet on their own… across the board… music, greeters, security. A select few grew into capable and on fire leaders who could really take the lid off. Most served because they wanted to participate in church not because they are volunteers leaders. (They joined ministries to ministered to Rather than to minister which is a hold over from a different time period of course. This is actually one thing I was brought on board to help change, and I was not quite 2 years into this when the pandemic hit).
      I had to cut volunteer engagement for most by a lot with this pandemic. We are not an affluent church. In this time, we’ve had to rely on a very small team, but I have no idea how to engage my creative volunteers outside of the traditional scheduling them and they play/sing/tech with me fully coaching the whole thing. To be crass: it is like I have a wonderful coach pitch little league team who I adore and experience wonderful break through moments and see growth and potential… But they are not able to go out there and play ball, I can’t coach from the dugout, and they aren’t growing independently like a high school team or even a middle school team would. Again, most, not all! I have seen a couple really take flight.
      We are an older church for which I was brought on to help steer into this generation and help modernize etc., so a lot of my experience is very specific to the weaknesses and problems the church had prior. But, I don’t want to stop coaching and holding out for the amazing people who may lack capacity but in no way lack character or love. I adore them. Yet.. All my ideas have flopped! Help!!

  5. Sylvia van der Hoek on July 9, 2020 at 8:31 am

    !

  6. Sarah Majewski on July 8, 2020 at 11:26 pm

    We CAN go back to “normal” church family life if we just choose to – our church has! My husband is preaching through the “one another” passages in the Bible to remind us of the importance of spending time together, social closeness (not distancing), etc.

    I think the greatest thing we’ve learned is to NEVER AGAIN shut down just because a government tells us to, regardless of the reason.

    • Paralee shivers on July 26, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      Amen! Shutting down all churches does not show our complete trust in God! We need the churches open to those who wish attend and the opportunity for members and friends to attend online.

  7. Jesse A Rubio on July 8, 2020 at 7:55 pm

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE WAY YOU PRECENT THE REVELATION OF GOD IN SAMPLE INGLISH, THE SUNDAY PICNICK THAT WE CALL CHURCH IN THE PAST IS OVER .THANK YOU FOR THE WAKE UP CALL.
    Pastor Jesse Rubio
    Vista assembly Hispanic Ministry
    Vista California

  8. Jenna Wexler on July 8, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    Background … All of the unexpected changes in 2020 have prompted me to revisit a wonderful book: “The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Spiritual Wisdom from the Science of Change”. Life is all about continual change; as humans we experience this physically, spiritually, and socially; yet we resist it. In the physical l realm, chaos is nature’s way of disrupting a stale rigid order in order to bring forth something new.

    Key Points … Two of the main themes pose a paradox that we are see. (1) It’s human nature to want to be in control; so when something disrupts the familiar, some react by reverting back to what was familiar and predictable (i.e. reverting back to false sense of control). (2) Others respond creatively as allies in the change process.

    New Perspective … Perhaps those that are re-entrenching are NOT doing so from “entitlement” and instead from a nature that prefers [the old] normal as a way to reinstate control rather than be an instrumental change agent.

    • Rich Birch on July 8, 2020 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting … I do think we’re bent towards what is familiar. I know in my walk with Jesus that he pushes me to grow and develop and that hurts because it’s change.

      Cheering for you.

      – Rich

  9. Justin Klatt on July 8, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Totally! So good. True face to face. Digital community with Community Discipleship can happen and Churches can be ok if they make the shift! Jesus is the hope of the world not our buildings.

    • Mark Holman on July 8, 2020 at 12:27 pm

      Here’s a thought , Real Estate Sellers in USA are using a Low Power Device under CFR 47 Part 15 is a 100 Milliwatt transmitter on Broadcast Band gives approximately 15 seconds to get a chance to Broadcast a sales pitch the same for a Church and the best part is it’s license free and I’ve known that for several years.

      Only investment is to buy one, and you can use the AM band which is more able to program the transmitter for less interference.

      Also invest in a Free To Air Sattelite equipments a service to watch someone may draw interest, and NO I’m not talking about sign up for some service to dole out money towards a service plan.

      I’m going to work on one myself.

      It helps when you research the information and then present the information to the board meeting there’s some books on line that’s a DIYer for simple terminology. And put one up in your yard or home is a good idea to get one.

  10. Nathan Albaugh on July 8, 2020 at 10:18 am

    You all did an excellent job communicating in this post. The phrase I’ve heard before is “the staff run church is a staff ruined church.” I want to find more practical ways to get our volunteers involved on social media and producing regularly a better email list. Thank you again for your ministry!

    • Rich Birch on July 8, 2020 at 9:30 pm

      “the staff run church is a staff ruined church.” … ohh … that’ll preach.

      Volunteer empowered churches win for sure.

      Thanks for dropping by.

      – Rich

  11. Richard Davis on July 8, 2020 at 9:57 am

    I support two churches and within 5 days of the “stay at home” State directive, both had virtual church services up and running, even communion. Other programs have been modified to maintain the safe distance rule. I think this is the new “normal” and you are right, the early church met in houses and were basically what we call small groups today. I always look to GOD’s WORD for guidance about how to live my life, and i have adjusted to the new normal with no problems at all.

    • Rich Birch on July 8, 2020 at 9:31 pm

      Richard … thanks for helping the church! So great … I bet those two churches are so thankful for your help.

      – Rich

  12. Maynard Berggren on July 8, 2020 at 8:53 am

    annual business meeting I have requested during every annual congregational business meeting I have requested a better accounting system with better and more accurate reporting and I have said and asked for a budget which I have been reported that we don’t need and a budget inferring that the pastor in the board operate on faith alone. I wonder now if any of them have changed their mind?

    • Rich Birch on July 8, 2020 at 9:32 pm

      Maynard … I think that accountability only helps us get better to grow.

      Thanks for dropping by and for loving the local church.

      – Rich

  13. Daniel J. EVANS on July 8, 2020 at 8:38 am

    Amen!

  14. David Comstock on July 8, 2020 at 8:07 am

    Thank you!

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