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Help, our church is shrinking!

Andy Peck, co-author of ‘Closing the Back Door of the Church’ (CWR, 2009)  looks at 6 things your church needs to do if you are losing people.

He had a heavy heart as he locked the front door of the church for the last time and jumped in his car to take the keys to the Estate Agent that would be managing the sale. He reflected that just 10 years before the church was brimming with life with over 100 regularly attending, including young people and recent converts. The lay leadership had been delighted to see God at work. But differences over the gifts of the Spirit had divided the church in half with most of the under 40s leaving. The remaining older people soldiered on, aided by small teams of people from a sister church.  But when a few of the stalwarts died and others moved away, the trustees concluded it was time to accept the inevitable, and this seaside coastal town had one church fewer, its remaining members finding alternatives locally.

This sad tale is all too common. You will have heard the statistics about church decline in the last 20 years – one million leaving the UK  church from 1989 to 1998 and half a million from 1998 to 2005. Some churches are gloriously bucking the trend, but the likelihood is that for many churches the only conversions will be into flats or offices. More than 260 churches belonging to the Church of England have ceased to be used for regular worship in the past decade.

It is easy to assume that ‘this will never happen to us’ – the leaders of the independent church mentioned certainly thought that, and there will be a variety of reasons why people have left. But many churches are at that tipping point where appropriate action could start to address the situation, and under God, restore spiritual momentum to a ship that is very close to running aground. If your church is showing signs of stagnation or decline, here are some actions that might under God provide a way to transform a discouraging situation.

1. Examine the problem

The first suggestion may appear to come from the Noddy school of management. But it is amazing how easily people in declining churches have a casual attitude to losing numbers  and never scrutinise what has happened.

A basic assessment includes checking how many have left, over what period and with what explanation. It is never fun to lose members, but clearly losing them because of job losses, or attending another church locally will be a different problem than if people leave claiming that, having spent time at your church, Christian faith is really a sham!  (See questions below.)

Similarly, if the people lost are mature believers questioning where you are heading as a church, you will have a different problem than if they are recent converts who have drifted into non attendance.

Sadly churches rarely take the time to discover why people have left, always assuming of course that they have the pastoral care systems to realise!

Recently I spent 20 minutes answering a tele-marketing woman’s questions about why I hadn’t used an Energy Trust’s services. If churches spent time talking honestly with leavers, maybe they’d know the obvious things to stem the flow.

Of course in our church hopping consumerist age, you need to decide what you do with what they say. We would be foolish to pander to every whim, but also daft if the Spirit is leading the rest of the church in a particular direction which leaves us behind.

 2. Discern what God is saying

This is of course the all important issue. Just as the risen Jesus had specific words for the seven Asian churches in Revelation, you can be sure that He has some for you.

Have you set aside time for prayer and fasting about the decline? If you haven’t maybe you should. Admittedly a slow decline in numbers may not feel like a crisis, but if your projected decline suggests you may one day have to close, then it is hard to think of a better reason for a concerted time seeking God.

Some churches have benefited from involving an impartial outsider to facilitate discussion. It can take courage for a vicar, or senior minister to call for help, but structures are there for such times, and after all much of the New Testament is written because apostles perceived problems that would cause decline.  If you are in a stream with an apostolic team it’s time that you found out whether they know their onions.

Of course you may be surprised at what God says to you. One Belfast based church called in someone to advise them on what to do next and ended up merging completely with a larger fellowship.  A church in the Christian Brethren tradition concluded that its decline was linked with a failure to provide a Family Service for non believers on Sunday mornings, and so re-positioned the weekly Breaking of Bread service which had dominated the morning in favour of a family service.

Sometimes God sends workers to help revive a church.  An ordained retired school teacher, Ken Hobbs, was somewhat surprised to be called to serve at St Peter and St Paul, the parish church of Albury, Surrey. In 2001 the church had an average age of over 70 and numbered less than 20. He gradually gained trust of the attenders, built a team and the church now sees 100 attending, in a village and area of around 1000.

In some extreme cases, closure of course may be the appropriate result. I once wrote two articles for Christianity which provoked response from one guy alarmed that such a negative piece appeared in the magazine. My therapist tells me that I am over that now. But in some cases it may be a godly, courageous  and kingdom exalting act to close down and re-deploy members to other churches rather than merely keep the building open ‘as a witness’.

3. Take your leadership’s temperature

One commentator suggested that if the UK church was a sports team its manager would have been sacked a long time ago! A survey of all the European nations church attendance habits in 2002 showed church attendance as a percentage of population, places the UK as fourth bottom. If advocating a results based approach to leadership may seem harsh, (though some US churches have sacked staff on this basis) there is no doubt that many have left their local church because of its leadership.

Leadership bashing has become all too common. Nevertheless, leaders need to make sure that when looking for reasons for decline they don’t forget to look at one another. So it is worth asking the following sorts of questions:

  • Have people left because the leadership has not tackled issues, or tackled them poorly?
  • Has the leadership lacked nerve in handling people whose comments or behaviour has upset others?
  • Has the direction of the church galvanised the Spirit’s gifting of individuals?
  • Is there anything the leadership need to apologise to God for?
  • Is it time some leaders had a break?
  • Is there anything the leadership need to apologise to the congregation (or individuals) for?

These may be questions to be discussed behind closed doors, but you can be sure that their answers and the actions provoked will lie at the heart of any church’s demise.

4. Admit your mistakes

Too many churches use the ‘God just didn’t bless us’ line to explain decline. In fact having examined, prayed and reflected there will come a time when leaders will need to explain to the congregation the human mistakes that led to the exodus.

It’s time to come clean that for a few extra grand you might have been able to keep the youthworker, whose leaving and non replacement had such an effect on the youth group. Or you may need to conclude that the decision to attempt to move premises was a massive distraction when God was encouraging you to invest in an evangelist?

And this admission may be ‘sins of omission too’. You may have to confess that you have not made enough mistakes. One church marks its leaders down on annual appraisals if they haven’t made any mistakes on the basis that they are not taking enough risks for the kingdom!

Mistake admission can of course be used manipulatively. Honesty won’t make the problems go away, but when the leaders start describing the same landscape that the congregation see, there’s a greater likelihood that they might trust them to paint a vision for the future.

5. Watch the fringe

The fringe is an underestimated element of church life, but worth watching and nurturing. By the fringe we mean the church hinterland – space for people who are either on the way in, or on the way out. Ideally this crucial place allows people to investigate the faith without feeling pressured. Healthy churches will not have so many programmes that they exhaust their members and thus suck up time that could be usefully spent with those outside the church. The late Howard Lewis famously arrived as the new minister in a Belfast church and removed all programmes from the church apart from the Sunday services. He then challenged the ministry leaders to justify why the programme should be re-introduced!

The fringe is the ‘space’ churches give to Christians from previous churches who need time to check things out, especially if they still nurse wounds from past churches. Too often declining churches pounce on newcomers like a teenager desperate for love, and frighten them off.

But crucially the fringe includes people with faith struggles, who could be on their way out. Empirical research is limited, but  New Zealander, Alan Jamieson writing in ‘A Churchless Faith’ (SPCK,  2002) interviewed 108 church leavers and 54 church leaders who had left churches that were evangelical, Pentecostal or Charismatic and found a high percentage had been involved at the heart of church life and still wanted to follow Jesus. Most would pray regularly, read the Bible, and even engage in ‘Christian’ activities outside church life. Just seven had left the faith altogether. In his estimation, many would have stayed had there been a safe place to explore what was going on with their faith

If New Zealand is comparable with the UK in this respect, then a good proportion of those who have left the church in the UK simply find that the neat answers that served a bygone age are not cutting it in a postmodern world.

One leaver, and former minister told Christianity: “In my experience the simple statement ‘I don’t attend a local church’ wouldn’t be more shocking if I had confessed by being gay! The pavlovian response from most Christians is that that you are being distasteful. Their insistence that ‘every Christian must attend church’ makes it very hard to have a relaxed conversation about it without them assuming an air of superiority.”

He went on to outline why he felt not attending was a regrettable, but reasonable decision to have made. “I don’t need to apologise for not attending, but as it happens I pray daily, study Scripture and have regular times with Christian friends. I am a member of the kingdom of God, indwelt by the Spirit. I just don’t feel that the narrow  simplistic and trite approaches offered by the local church work for me anymore. The gap between the kingdom as found in Jesus teaching and what goes on in local churches I know is so great that it is hard to make a case for carrying on attending and remaining faithful to Jesus.”

No one is expecting your church to stem a problem caused by a general spiritual malaise, but what if many of those who have left would have stuck around if only they could have voiced their doubts, anxieties, even cynicism with church in a non threatening non judgemental atmosphere? Maybe we should have courses similar in format to Alpha where people committed to Christ can explore issues in the same non threatening environment that is provided for seekers? They could be called ‘beta’ or even ‘omega’ groups! This might help some remain in the orbit of the church, even if for a time they may not be comfortable engaging in all the church’s activities.

6. Do something

As Einstein reputedly said, insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Most declining churches bemoan the losses, but have tried nothing to stem the flow. There’s a time when to pray is disobedient! If God asks me to do something, then I am not growing in faith if I am still asking him about it. In the same way, there must come a time when a church concludes that it is time to act

This ‘action’ may be to visit other churches that have turned things around. It may be to try a new service, or abandon a service. It may be to start a door to door programme, offer a homework club, run a soup kitchen, invite a mission team, hold a conference, attend a conference, hire more staff. It may be that you conclude that you have reached the time when you need the help of other churches. Perhaps you need a team to join you, or to merge with someone else?

Doing something will always feel scary and take energy, and of course the action may not be an instant success. But at least you won’t be left with that lingering regret that you just let things slide and brought dishonour on the name of Christ in the meantime.  The Parable of the Talents includes some damning words from the Master to the man who merely buried his talent believing this to be the safe option. Up and down the country churches are doing that very equivalent when it comes to using resources and gifts to little end. Action now can mean that you don’t receive condemnation, but instead the reward for servants who proved faithful with what they were given.

And let’s pray, that as you hear him and are obedient, you will never be called upon to close and lock your church, for one last time.

Church decline analysis – some suggested questions

1.    Name of Church/Fellowship
2.    Location
3.    Years in existence(approx)
4.    Approximate membership* in 1995 Adults__________Under 18s_______
5.    Approximate membership in 2000 Adults__________Under 18s_______
6.    Approximate membership now Adults__________Under 18s_______
7.    Which of these words describes the church’s attendance in the past 10 years Growing? Stable? Declining? Aging? Growing younger? Consistent representation of age groups? Homogeneous? Multi-cultural?
8.    Does your church currently have an organised pastoral care programme? Yes: No: Planned
9.    Does your pastoral care programme include a systematic way of welcoming newcomers? Yes: No: Planned
10. Does your pastoral care programme include a systematic way of integrating newcomers? Yes: No: Planned
11. Do you have an active pastoral care team? Yes: No: Planned
12. Is the pastoral team led by the senior minister or pastor? Yes  No
13. Is the pastoral team led by a paid church leader other than the senior minister? Yes: No:  Planned
14. Is there a separate welcoming team Yes: No: Planned:
15. Is there a strategy in place for visiting or contacting newcomers within the first few weeks of attending? Yes: No: Not sure
16. In your opinion, has the church lost people in the past 5 years because of dissatisfaction, disenchantment or dispute? Yes: No: Not sure
17. How effectively has the church responded to those who have become disaffected? Effectively, mixed effectiveness, ineffectively, issues ignored, not applicable
18. What impact has the departure of disaffected people had on the wellbeing and ministry of the church? No negative impact, some negative impact, significant negative impact, some positive impact, not applicable
19. What impact has the departure of positive supportive people had on the wellbeing and ministry of the church? No negative impact, some negative impact, significant negative impact, some positive impact, not applicable
20. Does the church have specific plans for stimulating numerical growth? Yes: No: Not sure

*In this context membership is used to signify the total number of individuals who regularly gather for services of the church/fellowship

Credit: Why Church