Should a pastor be discouraged about his declining church?

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Should a pastor be discouraged about his declining church?

Brian Croft

I am amazed at how much mate­r­i­al has been released recent­ly about church revitalization. Right­ly so, that a focus should be place here. I just heard a sta­tis­tic that 80% of church­es in Amer­i­ca have either plateaued or are in decline. I am grate­ful for the efforts of those who seek to bring life to these strug­gling churches. I am one of them. Yet, I have a grow­ing con­cern the more I learn about many of the mate­ri­als out there address­ing this problem. If we are going to char­ac­ter­ize local church­es as “declin­ing” then we are bas­ing a church’s health on how many peo­ple attend. How many peo­ple now attend a church vers­es ten years ago and why does give us some help­ful insight into why a church is strug­gling, but that does not always tell the full story. This way of eval­u­a­tion can also be an unnec­es­sary source of dis­cour­age­ment to a pastor. The more I hear the push to over­come the “plateau or decline” the more I begin to think of sce­nar­ios where a church­es decline in num­bers is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a sign of trou­ble, but maybe even a sign of health. There are many, but here are a few that came to my mind, sev­er­al of which I even expe­ri­enced in my own church:

1) Uncon­vert­ed peo­ple leave because the gospel is being preached. If there are many uncon­vert­ed mem­bers in local church­es (I believe there are) they will not want to hear a new pas­tor come in and replace the typ­i­cal feel good, bet­ter your­self mes­sage from the pul­pit with the true gospel of Jesus Christ that is the only source to bring true spir­i­tu­al life to a dying church. Uncon­vert­ed church mem­bers will leave or stay and cause prob­lems, even if they are in leadership. Preach­ing the gospel is the right thing to do and is the only thing that can give life to a church. No pas­tor should ever be dis­cour­aged if he lose peo­ple over that.

2) Church mem­bers pass away and go to be with Christ. We had a year where we lost sev­er­al dear elder­ly saints and the amount of those who died was more than the new mem­bers we brought in that year. A pas­tor should cel­e­brate faith­ful­ly tak­ing sweet saints of Christ to their eter­nal home and not fret about “replac­ing them” all at the same time.

3) Pas­tors and mis­sion­ar­ies are test­ed, trained, affirmed, and sent out into the min­istry. That same year we expe­ri­enced a decline in num­bers not only because of the amount of deaths, but because we sent two fam­i­lies out into the min­istry that we had invest­ed in and trained to do so. I can remem­ber some­one com­ing to me con­cerned about the slid­ing num­bers and I replied with, “Real­ly, in God’s eyes this may have been our most fruit­ful year.” That was received well and we were both encour­aged in the rea­son for our declin­ing num­bers and strug­gling finances that year, both of which were recov­ered the fol­low­ing year.

4) An inten­tion­al process to take in new members. Rais­ing the stan­dard for mem­ber­ship and pro­tect­ing the front door a bit might cause you to have fewer mem­bers join the church in the begin­ning, but God is hon­ored in pas­tors mak­ing sure believ­ers in Jesus Christ are the only ones that become mem­bers of the church, even if the church num­bers do not boom like hoped. Membership mean­ing some­thing has actu­al­ly been the even­tu­al cause of numer­ic growth for us, not the other way around.

5) You are a new pas­tor at a long-time declin­ing church. If you take a church as I did with decades of decline, it is a chal­lenge to change that pattern. It takes time, even years. I talk to so many young pas­tors who inside of two years are dis­cour­aged because they have not be able to changed the pat­terns that brought much of the decline. Remem­ber what you have inher­it­ed and if it took 30 years of decline to get your church where you find it today, it might take 30 years to change the pattern. But God’s gospel and word is pow­er­ful enough to do just that over time.

There­fore, dear broth­ers and fel­low pas­tors, press on. You may be the cause of the decline and if that is the case, you need to take a good hard look at your­self before God and ask for those blind spots to be revealed. How­ev­er, in many cases, imper­fect pas­tors, espe­cial­ly those new to their con­gre­ga­tions, are still bear­ing too much of the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the decline. Some­times God takes us through ups and downs and there is so much more to eval­u­ate on a church’s health than whether your num­bers are “high­er” this year than last. Decline can reveal many prob­lems, but it can also be a source of encour­age­ment to a pastor. Pas­tors, preach the word, love those peo­ple, and may God give you grace to deter­mine what your “decline” should say.

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