I recently had breakfast in a restaurant that had originally been a church building. The architecture, ornamental woodwork, and stained glass windows revealed that it had once been a beautiful place of worship. As I ate, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the church family that met in this space. Hopefully it outgrew the building and is thriving in another location, but that’s probably not the case. The reality is that thousands of churches close their doors forever every year. Buildings, once meant for the worship or our great God, are converted into art galleries, houses, and clubs.
Thom Rainer projects that as many as one out of every ten churches are on a trajectory toward death, and unless something happens they will die in the not so distant future.
Recent research by LifeWay reveals that the majority of Protestant churches in the United States are plateaued or declining. According to the study, 28% of churches have declined by more than 6% in the last three years, while 33% have stayed within 6% (March 2019). That means that it’s more likely than not that you are in a church that is plateauing or declining.
Church growth is rarely a straight line. There is an ebb and flow in church life. There are seasons of growth often followed by seasons of stability. Hopefully, growth starts again. Sometimes, a season of stability is followed by decline. If something is not done to stop the decline, the church is on a trajectory toward death. That’s what happens to 900 to 1000 Southern Baptist churches. They die!
Is there hope for churches that are plateaued or declining? The answer is a resounding, “yes,” but there are no silver bullets. To make a declining church “vital again” takes years. It’s often incredibly difficult and painful, but it’s worth the effort because Christ loves the church and gave His life for her.
As I’ve been studying and praying about church revitalization, Hebrews 12:1-2 often comes to mind. After sharing about the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the author exhorts us to “... run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith....” We are reminded that following Christ is not an all out sprint until we fall from exhaustion. It’s more like a marathon that must be run with endurance as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
I like to use the word “PACE” when talking about church revitalization. It carries the idea of sustainable movement forward. A PACE must be set that endures for the long haul. Churches rarely move from health and vitality to plateau and decline quickly (unless there has been a scandal or split). In fact, churches are often plateaued for years before noticeable decline sets in. Decline doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does revitalization.
Church revitalization takes time. To borrow the imagery of Hebrews, it is a race that must be run with endurance. It’s a marathon that must be run at a PACE that lasts for the long haul. If the church is going to experience revitalization, all eyes must be fixed on Jesus.
What does that PACE look like for churches needing revitalization?
P - PRAYER: Prayer must take center stage. God’s people must earnestly turn to God for direction in prayer based on His Word. The church belongs to God and exists for His glory and His glory alone. Revitalization depends on God, and the church must desperately turn to Him for renewed life. Extended times of private, small group, and corporate prayer are held as the church listens to God. The church cries out to God for renewed life and vitality in mission and ministry.
A - ASSESS: The church needs accurate information. Churches needing revitalization often have little or no interaction with the community around them. Often, programs are shells of what they once were, and are no longer effective. Assessment tools provide information about the community and the church. Data helps the church understand the challenges that need to be addressed, and the opportunities that need to be seized.
C - COURAGE: It takes courage for churches that are plateaued or declining to make necessary changes. God’s people must radically, sacrificially, courageously love each other as some preferences change, programs are eliminated, and new initiatives started. All eyes must be fixed on Jesus who said: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
E - EXECUTE: The church must act on what God says. The calendar needs to be updated, responsibilities assigned, and budgets realigned. The Pastor must shepherd the people through any transitions. He must cast vision, equip the saints, encourage the people, and tell the story of what God is doing over and over again. The race must be run with endurance. There may be difficult seasons. Some things may be harder than others to implement. People may become tired, wearied by the long race ahead. Spiritual battles may seem harder and more frequent. Be faithful. Remain steadfast. Run at a sustainable pace forward. Above all, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Durbin is the State Evangelism Director for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Before joining the state convention staff, Mike served as Church Planting Catalyst and Director of Missions in Metro Detroit since 2007. He also has served as a pastor and bi-vocational pastor in Michigan, as well as International Missionary to Brazil.