Since we work with many plateaued and/or declining churches, it doesn’t take long to identify common threads. Many churches, regardless of size, struggle with these two issues for the same reasons. And the common causes? For plateaus, the issue is a lack of vision; for declines, the culprit is almost always inward focus.
Inward focus happens when “church becomes about us” or “what we like.” In our consumer-driven culture, it’s quite easy to slide unknowingly into an attitude that evaluates church life based on our personal comfort levels and preferences. We like our church because we like the worship, or we like the pastor, or we like the kids programs, or a host of other reasons that center on what we like.
Now, liking your church isn’t a sin–in fact, it’s a condition we want to develop. No one wants to attend a church they don’t like. But when our likes and dislikes take center stage in church life, we soon find ourselves approaching church services like a mall shopper–wondering what’s there for us and leaving disappointed if we didn’t find it.
Jesus’ idea for His Church was far more about mission. In fact, in His Church, He brings us together to fulfill His purposes in worship of God, loving each other, and impacting the world around us. When we like our church, Jesus’ missional focus would have us “like” it because of the shared commitment and purpose we find in being a part of something eternal.
Inward focused churches choose comfort rather than driving purpose. In such places, the pastor races from one congregant to the next, trying to keep everyone content and cared for, while the community outside is unaffected. People inside often decide that if outsiders want to come in, they’re welcome to do so, but many will resist any changes that might encourage them to do so.
For a church to break from a period of decline, new life is needed. When a church is slipping down the backside of its life cycle, only new life can provide a new future. And to find that new life, the church must get out there where the new life can be found. That requires an outward focus that says, “We exist to reach others.”
Pastors who lead declining churches can take an approach like this: Take one of the strength areas of the church and aim it at the community. For example, if your church is blessed with great musicians, plan a musical event for the community and hold the event in a park or civic center. If the church enjoys serving together, find ways to connect those serving gifts to needs in the community. Hold a Single Parent Care Day, give water bottles to joggers in a nearby park, wrap Christmas gifts at the mall, or help serve meals at a community soup kitchen.If your church is blessed with gifted teachers, offer marriage or parenting classes in the community. Hold the class meetings somewhere away from your church campus–the unchurched will feel more comfortable and your people will more easily engage the community impact if they are truly in the community.
The point is to take what you do well and do it out there! You’ll benefit the people you meet and you’ll also teach your church friends how to connect with the world around them. And, along the way, you’ll connect with new people–people who can bring new life to your declining congregation. That’s how you can rescue a declining congregation.
Fresh vision and outward focus will bring new life to any plateaued or declining congregation!