A friend of mine recently told me that the church he attended for several years just had its final worship service. They’re closing up shop.
First off, according to Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer, somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 churches close their doors for the final time every year (p. 13). That’s nearly 300 per month!
That means the situation I mentioned above becomes a reality for many, many churches.
This is an important point to understand (though many people fight against it): Churches, like businesses, ideas, and people, have a life-cycle. They have a time of growth, which is followed by a plateau, which is followed by decline. If a church doesn’t reinvent itself, then it will slide down until its flat-lined: dead.
Aubrey Malphurs, a Senior Professor of Leadership and Pastoral Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary, explains the cycle by saying, “In general, a church is born and over time it grows. Eventually, it reaches a plateau, and if nothing is done to move it off that plateau, it begins to decline. If nothing interrupts the decline, it will die” (Advanced Strategic Planning, 10-11).
At some point on the path of descent, a threshold is crossed that is basically the point of no return. That point is knocking over the first in a series of dominoes. It starts the beginning of the end, or what I call, “The Domino Effect at a Dying Church.”
The first domino, then, is very important.
What’s the first domino?
I think the first domino, the one that sets the whole thing in motion, is that the church fails to add even one new member by conversion in a full year.
Drew Goodmanson has found that “half of all churches last year did not add one new member through conversion growth.” A church’s failure to lead people to Christ is really just a symptom that indicates a larger problem: the church is off its mission.
When people who value forward progress (i.e., leaders) begin to recognize that the church is off its mission, and has no plans to reinvent itself, they leave to find a place that is making forward progress.
Even though some churches have been able to reinvent themselves and break out of the decline (see Breakout Churches by Thom Rainer), leaders sense that this particular church doesn’t seem poised to do that. Another domino falls.
Because other people follow the leaders, they decide to leave too. The rate of people leaving the church outpaces the rate of people joining the church, and more dominos fall.
That exodus of people creates a money shortage that freezes budgets. Quality goes down because you can’t keep doing things to the level you were doing them before. Another domino falls.
When quality takes a hit, more people leave. Budgets go from being frozen to being reduced. Quality continues to suffer, only more noticeably now. More people leave, and eventually a few staff members have to be laid off.
After those staff members (usually pastors over the ministries to children or students) are gone, the people who benefited most from the attention and effort made by those staff members (young families) decide to leave.
The people who don’t leave are usually older people whose kids are out of the house, so they don’t really mind that the children’s ministry classrooms have dirty carpet and no one other than an untrained volunteer to lead the kids.
The average age of the church rises.
What’s left is a small congregation with an increasing median age. Eventually, they’ll pay a pastor and a traditional music minister to provide what is essentially the organizational equivalent to Hospice care until the money finally runs out and all the dominos have fallen.
This scene is played out at almost 300 churches every month across the United States.
If you work at a church that is dying, you have three options:
1) Try to be a change agent.
2) Stay through the slide.
Having been in that position myself, I can tell you that I went with option 1. When that didn’t work, I was left with no choice but to go with Option 3. I wasn’t willing to try number 2.
Option 3 is safe.
Option 1 is risky.
Which option will you choose?
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