February 2004 Issue
New Life for Struggling Churches
by Ed Stetzer
Harold stood up, paused for a moment,
and began to speak softly, "We don't want our church to die.
We'll do what it takes." That was when I first knew the church
could make it. The well-respected deacon and pillar of the church
spoke from his heart. He really meant it and he spoke for
the church. They were ready to make the big changes needed to
rescue their church from decline and eventual death.
Like many Southern Baptist churches, this church had its heyday
in the 50s and 60s. Decline had been slow but steady. A church
that once served hundreds (and had the building to prove it) now
averaged thirty-five on a Sunday morning. Now they wanted to reach
young families, a difficult task since their median age was in
Over time, most churches plateau and most eventually decline.
Typically they start strong or experience periods of growth, but
then they stagnate. Patterns and traditions that once seemed special
eventually lose their meaning. Churches that were once outwardly-focused
eventually become worried about the wrong things. They become
more concerned about a well-used policy manual than a well-used
In the 1980s, Ross Perot spoke about the national budget deficit
as "the crazy aunt living in the basement that nobody wanted
to talk about." We have our own "crazy aunt"
tens of thousands of dead or dying churches. Like that "crazy
aunt," we love her. We want to treat her with dignity. But,
ultimately, we think she is hopeless and best ignored.
Most of us know the statistics but few of us care enough to
engage these churches. Churches need to change to reach their
communities, and denominations need to help them do that. As Southern
Baptists, we must engage dying churches not out of guilt, but
because of their potential to be used of God again in a
Not every church will need the radical transformation that
Harold's church required. In the following months, Harold's church
changed its worship style (from traditional to blended/contemporary),
its constitution (the former constitution required a church-wide
vote for any expenditure over $100), and its outreach strategy
(from none to an active one).
The degree of change that is needed is determined in large
manner by the condition of the church. Chart A describes
the actions needed based on the condition of the church.1
Revitalizing a stagnant church
is not easy. If it were easy, 80 percent of North American churches
would not be stagnant or declining. If it were effortless, 3,500-4,000
U.S. churches would not close each year.2
If every church did it, there would not be 8,000 SBC churches
in the U.S. that baptized no one last year.3
Dead and dying churches should concern us all. Millions of
Southern Baptists attend churches that demonstrate little concern
for the lost around them. Billions of dollars of church property
sit idle and unused. This fact makes church revitalization also
a stewardship issue. God has provided many stagnant churches with
people, resources, and buildings. God has also given them a calling.
They must be more than museums of past glory days.
Chart B helps us see the problem in our Southern Baptist
context. Each year fewer churches baptize large numbers and more
churches baptize no one. These trends are alarming, yet few churches
are addressing their own decline.
Many pastors are reading this right now and saying, "That's
us." What can we do? Making a transition requires making
change. No one would argue that doing the same thing the same
way will never produce different results. Yet, many are unable
or afraid to face change. They need a plan. Here are three steps
that will help you make a transition.
1. Determine your current condition. Planning for the future
requires you to know the present. A graph of attendance over ten,
twenty, even fifty years can help churches see long-term trends
and recognize the future the church may be facing.
2. Discuss, discuss, discuss. The entire church, not just the
leadership, needs to understand and discuss the situation. Most
churches that want to change fail to navigate the change because
not everyone agrees on the need. The entire church needs to understand
the situation and embrace the need for the change if it is to
be effective. Sometimes an outsider, a denominational leader,
or consultant is needed to help the church see its real situation.
3. Decide on a course of action. Choosing a plan sounds simple.
It's not. The plan might require a change of style, location,
leadership, or strategy. But if the church does not corporately
agree on the need for change it will continue its downward slide.
Two years after Harold spoke for the church, it averaged over
150 per week and the median age was now in the 30s. Many new members
(and even some old members) had committed their lives to Christ
and had been baptized.
Harold had spoken a hard truth and worked hard to transition.
I remember his words to me when I asked something like "How
do you think it worked?" He said, "Preacher, a lot has
changed. Not all of it to the way I expected. But the church is
full today. The church is the church I always wanted. The work
and changes were worth it."
May thousands of SBC deacons, members, and pastors say the
same it was worth it.
1 Ed Stetzer, "Turning Stats on Their
Head," On-Mission Magazine, November 2003.
2 Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age,
(Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), p. 10.
3 Richie Stanley, North American Mission Board study based on
the Annual Church Profile.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., author of Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, directs
the Nehemiah Project of the North American Mission Board.
To learn more about church revitalization and organizations
helping churches to transition, go to www.comebackchurches.com
and visit the "required reading" section. If your church
has experienced a revitalization, please fill out the survey there.
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