The problem with our declining churches is not that the Word of God has lost its effectiveness. It has the same power to save today, in this culture, as it has through all eras of human history. The church is struggling to adopt. It’s strategies outdated. God’s unchanging Word has the power to meet these new challenges. It still brings those people outside of God’s grace into a saving relationship with Jesus. We have good, faithful, doctrinally sound congregations carrying out their mission. We have gifted, caring, mission-minded pastors, who have good intentions but lacking the knowledge and expertise to adapt. Church leaders and pastors have seen the ship hit the iceberg. They feel helpless to stop the ship from sinking or save the scared and frightened passengers. I will try and give you some warnings signs your congregation may be taking on water and a few ideas to combat that.
Your church has become internally not outwardly focused.
- There is concern over how we will continue/thrive.
- The majority of meeting time is on budget issues or control.
- We have reduced ministry to transactional relationships.
I served the majority of my parish ministry in urban at risk congregations. I recognize the signs. I understand the fear that drives the meetings. I dealt with the frustration and asked the uncomfortable questions. There were several times when our congregation reached the breaking point. They had the mindset of when all else fails, point the finger of blame at the pastor. As groups struggle with diminishing attendance. Struggle with declining church offerings. As the population ages, the stress level rises from a warning yellow to crisis red.
As the issues become more intense the usual tendency is to double failing efforts. These problems focus the leaders even more intensely inward. Internal questions such as How do we get more people and more money? How do we get members to grow deeper in their commitment? We know that our members are overtaxed and overly committed. But we need to demand even more, or we will not survive. So we are forced to do a guilt-ridden stewardship campaign. Here we reminded the faithful of how much Christ gave up for them. That should move them. That is a misuse of Law/Gospel preaching and is completely ineffective. When used the law in this manner it does not motivate, it only condemns. The thinking is if we let members know how dire our situation is maybe we can raise enough funds to keep things going a little longer.
Another tack is to go after the lost inactive members. So we spend precious time and the low energy our people have on going after people who have written off the church for whatever reason long ago. The success rate on this is less than ten percent. We invest all our time and energy on internal solutions. Meanwhile, the church keeps taking on water, and the passengers become even more restless and frightened, and the ship keeps sinking.
Would it be better to focus our time and energy on those who are outside our walls? Who don’t have a history with us? Who as Jesus describe as sheep without a shepherd? Imagine getting back to the reason the congregation was founded to reach those far from God? You can do that by using your existing ministries but doing things like this:
- Sing at Nursing Home > Build relationships with residents
- Feed my starving children > Interview local food shelf about local needs
- Jump Rope/Hearts > Have EMT and first responders share how faith factors into their work
- Sister schools > Share testimonies with students from other schools
- Junior High > Bring back Freshman to discuss faith challenges
- Church has left the building > do good to the neighbors around you, rake leaves, pick up trash, have a block party, do mercy ministry
Your solutions to problems focus on human strategy, not divine wisdom.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom….” 1 Corinthians 1:25
I remember early in ministry walking into several of my congregations and littering the pastor’s old library were tons and tons of binders. It was a binder graveyard of all the workshops he had attended and all the ideas the church was going to employ to jump start explosive growth. All good stuff. It was the best of what some other church had done and put down on paper and now graciously shared with the church world. The problem is that it is hard to reproduce how God worked in that unique congregation at that unique time with its unique leadership. You cannot easily replicate God’s movement among His individual groups. I have tried to reproduce the results of Peter’s sermon and the results in Acts 2 forever with nowhere near the results.
41 Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. Acts 2:41
You can guess that never happened since I didn’t lead workshops nor did I produce a binder. Learning new things is great, attending workshops can be inspiring, but in the end, the questions come down to this: Where is God leading you? What opportunities has he placed before your unique congregation and its unique leadership? What does he have in mind for you to accomplish in that location? You find that out by first understanding the community in which he has called you to serve. One good option is to engage your local leadership in conversation, gather from them what are the needs of our community and ask how can we partner with you to accomplish something great for God.
Once you find out who you are called to serve, then you discover how your current congregation can serve those needs. You have all the gifts in your group right now to meet the needs of those outside of God’s grace. That is why they are there. Nothing God does is an accident. Look at what you have through the eyes of God to determine the mission of God for your ministry. The ship may be taking on water, but she hasn’t sunk yet. God is still Lord of the Church, put your trust in him.