You may have heard me tell the story of a church that started years ago in the Phoenix east valley. This church plant grew rapidly. Helping new people meet Jesus, they became one of the first mega churches in the east valley. Eventually the pastor, under whose leadership this growth took place, left and the succession didn’t go very well. Neither did the next succession. Or the next. In fact, that church went through 18 straight years of decline until at the end of that decline they ended up merging with another church.
Today the new campus averages more than 1,000 people in weekend attendance and is helping new people meet, know and follow Jesus.
Unfortunately for most churches in decline there’s no great comeback story. Churches decline for all kinds of reasons and it’s usually more complicated than one simple decision that was made somewhere along the way.
There are a lot of reasons why churches begin to decline and eventually die. Most don’t ever recognize it until they’re really stuck or worse it’s too late to even turn around. But there are some lead indicators that can be early warning signs that things are moving in the wrong direction.
1. A Lot of Money in the Bank
The Unstuck Group recommends that churches have six to eight weeks of cash reserves in the bank. We recently found in our Q1 2018 Unstuck Church Report, that benchmarks trends in U.S. Churches, that a majority of churches have the equivalent of 17 weeks in cash reserves. This suggests that many churches are in a financially healthy position. They’re in a position advance the Kingdom through investing in new initiatives but aren’t. They’re sitting on money in the bank that could be invested to reach more people for Jesus. Too much money in the bank can turn a church from an advancement mentality to a protection mentality.
2. Comfort is the Opposite of Growth
If you don’t have a list of new ideas that you can go to and possibly implement at any given time, then you’re probably spending a lot of energy propping up old methods and programs. And those old methods and programs bring a certain comfort with them, because they keep people who are already in the church happy. Every idea has a shelf life. If your church isn’t constantly evaluating and strategically stopping old things and starting new things, then you’re probably moving towards becoming insider focused. And while that’s comfortable it’s a lead indicator that you’re moving in the wrong direction.
3. Over Structure
One of the most common misunderstandings of strategic planning is that the goal is not order or structure. The goal of strategic planning is to actually accomplish the vision. In a growing church you want planning and management to lag slightly behind the chaos of change and movement. It’s possible to manage and plan your way into losing momentum. Policies and structure can shrink the box of creativity. They set the standard for how we do what we do, every time we do it. It’s possible to policy and structure yourself right into decline. When planning and order become higher priorities than chaos and movement your church will start moving in the wrong direction.
4. Protective of the Past
One of the most difficult things to navigate in a church is change. If you lead in a church long enough, eventually you’ll hear someone say something like, “But we’ve always done it that way.” That way was someone’s good idea and it may have been the best way at one point. But often times that past way becomes a barrier to a future and better way. When a church is busy defending the past instead of building the future it is moving in the wrong direction. When a church becomes risk averse and starts making choices based on who they are going to keep as opposed to who they are going to reach, the church is in trouble. The real danger in playing defense is that it becomes a cultural mindset that actually stands in opposition to the Gospel. You see the Gospel was never meant to be or does it need to be defended its intended to be unleashed.
Church decline can be avoided and even turned around. If your church is stuck or in decline I’d encourage you to start a conversation with the Unstuck Group. They have proven track record of helping churches get unstuck.
Posted in Leadership