Five Options for a Church in Decline

It’s simple and straightforward.

Leaders of declining churches have five choices.

Let me clarify. In theory, the choices are simple. But putting them to practice is not so easy. So when pastors or other church leaders ask me what they can do about their declining church, I ask them to begin at the high level before looking at a lot of details. One of these five choices must be made.

1. DO NOTHING.

Anecdotally, I can tell you the majority of churches make this decision. Such is the reason that two-thirds of the churches are declining or plateaued.

Advantages: You avoid conflict. You may get to keep your job.

Disadvantages: If you do nothing and are declining, you will still decline. You are disobedient to the Great Commission. And leading a declining church is no fun.

2. INCREMENTAL CHANGE.

I wrote about this kind of change many years ago in a book called Eating the Elephant.You attempt to discern a pace that can take as many members as possible with you.

Advantages: Change is taking place, hopefully for the better. You minimize losses of membership and criticisms, but not completely. You probably keep your job.

Disadvantages: Today most churches don’t have the luxury of changing incrementally. The world is so different than just a few years ago. Incremental change may not stop the bleeding.

3. SIGNIFICANT CHANGE.

Leadership recognizes the simple choice is, “change or die.” The church decides to make significant leadership, methodological, organizational, structural, and philosophical changes.

Advantages: The church may reverse the decline and become a gospel influence in the community again. For those who are on board, there can be a sense of radical obedience to the gospel.

Disadvantages: The church almost always loses significant numbers of members. Ironically, the church may not survive the change created for survival. Leadership is inundated with criticisms. You could lose your job.

4. PREPARATION FOR CLOSURE.

Unlike the “do nothing” choice of option one, the church acknowledges it is declining and headed toward death. It makes preparation for an orderly shut down and disposition of property and other resources.

Advantages: This option is one of death with dignity. The church is not scurrying at the last moment to consider options. The process is orderly and well planned.

Disadvantages: The church dies. The gospel presence in the community once represented by this congregation no longer exists.

5. PREPARATION FOR ACQUISITION.

The church seeks to become a campus or site of a healthier congregation. It yields its leadership and gives its resources to the acquiring congregation.

Advantages: There is a continuation of the gospel presence in the community. The acquiring church provides leadership and resources to effect a turnaround. The church does not close.

Disadvantages: The acquired church is not the same congregation. The members of the acquired church often have a false notion that the new church will let things stay fairly constant. They never do

At its basic levels, declining churches really have one of five choices. And if a church makes no choice, it has really decided to choose the “do nothing” option, the worst of the five choices.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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COMMENTS

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Recent Comments
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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