If you have ever been traveling down a one-way street, but you really need to get turned around and head in the other direction, there is nothing quite like seeing an exit lane with a sign that says U-turns permitted. What a relief to see that sign. I'd like to remind every church out there that U-turns are permitted for churches that are stuck in a rut and heading in the wrong direction.
If you have been a Christian leader for a few years–you probably know a story or two about a church that is in decline. Maybe you’ve been in one; or maybe you are in one at this very moment.
There are many reasons why churches decline. In his book, What Have We Learned? The Best Thinking on Congregational Life, (Abingdon, 2001), Lyle Schaller wrote, “While exceptions do exist, the general pattern is that congregations that have been meeting at the same address for more than forty years tend to give a higher priority to (a) perpetuating the past rather than creating the new, (b) taking care of today's members rather than seeking to reach the non- churched, (c) maintaining the real estate rather than launching new ministries to reach new generations." He further adds, "Never before in American church history have there been so many congregations that are vulnerable to this "forty-year syndrome."
When churches are in a state of decline, they are not without their warning signs?
1. Social conformity is more important than biblical truth.
2. The church has a reputation of being a “pastor eater.”
3. There is severe conflict in the congregation.
4. Hardly anyone in the community knows the church exists.
5. The church is declining, while the community is growing.
6. There has been someone come to Christ for years in the church.
7. The church is family owned, controlled and operated.
8. The church has been in a major rut with their traditions for years.
When these signs are prevalent in a church, that church is in need of a courageous leader who will help them get back on the road to health. And yet, when pastors try to lead a church that needs a turnaround–helping a church to rediscover its original purpose from the Scriptures– their zeal and passion can often be misunderstood. Their desire to change things can often rankle the church's established guard.
Many times, a turnaround pastor will feel such a push back from the old guard that they will either leave voluntarily or involuntarily. Any new people that came in under the new pastor's leadership will also leave. Within a year the church disbands, and the building is sold. Okay, maybe you are thinking I am being too melodramatic. I wish you were right. The fact is this happens more than we care to admit in churches that are often over 20-50 years of age.
Maybe you are asking, “does it really have to be like this?" Fortunately, the answer is no. There are many successful stories of churches that have experienced a turnaround. But those turnarounds didn't happen without a lot of hard work on the part of the pastor and key leaders in the church.
While some pastors might be content to travel an easier path in their declining churches–just putting in time, ruffling no feathers, and collecting a pay-cheque–turnaround pastors will never be happy with this type of scenario.
Admittedly, some long-time established churches can be challenging places to have a turnaround type of ministry. They seem to have an abundance of people whose minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set. And sadly, some churches will never experience a turnaround because of their intransigence.
So, what are the things that need to happen for a church to turnaround to a healthy direction?
First, Stop and Pray
Thom Rainer wrote a book entitled, Who Moved my Pulpit. It is one of the best books on initiating change/renewal in the church. Rainer stresses throughout this book the importance of prayer. He says, "prayer is not an option in leading change in the church; it is the foundation." I appreciated Rainer's thoughtful and sustained emphasis on prayer from his book. Turnaround leaders cannot afford to miss the importance of prayer. I highly recommend Rainer's book because of its effective emphasis on praying through change.
Second, the Pastor Must Be Committed to Turning the Church Around.
Turnaround churches are not for the fainthearted. Neither are they for those pastors that want a temporary assignment on the road to bigger things. Church turnarounds are labor intensive, and they require long-term thinking. Turnaround pastors know that "playing church" will never be a healthy option. They also know that some churches will be content to discuss change endlessly, if those discussions will help them to avoid taking any action.
If a church is going to turn around and become healthy, a pastor must remember that the future of their church will be determined by the sum of its next moves; and pastors and their leaders play a big part in giving direction for those next moves.
Third, Face the Music.
Max DePree, inLeadership is an Art, says the first thing a leader needs to do is to "define their reality.” Leaders in churches must face the brutal facts of their reality. They cannot sugar-coat things or use euphemistic language to make things sound better than they are. We cannot begin to lead change until we have looked at all the issues, including the tough issues.
There are several realities leaders will need to face:
1. Nine out of ten churches in North America are either declining or growing at a pace more slowly than the growth of their communities. Stated simply, 90 percent of churches are losing ground in their communities.
2. It takes 86 church members a year to reach one person for Christ. Read that statistic carefully. We are only reaching one person for every 86 church members over an entire year.
3. The majority of pastors' report that critics in their churches demoralize them. Demoralized pastors are ineffective leaders.
4. The era of cynicism is now in the churches. This is why the previous statement is true.
5. More church leaders are accepting and teaching unbiblical things. Thus, many churches are becoming more like the world and its culture.
These are some of the realities that turnaround pastors have to face. Yet, in spite of these obstacles, more church leaders are demonstrating a willingness to define and face their reality head on. To be successful, they focus less on negative people and circumstances and more on God’s possibilities. Turnaround leaders become people of faith instead of people of fear. This spirit of faith is pervasive in churches that experience a successful turnaround.
Fourth, Turnaround Leaders Foster Change Through a Controlled Burn Approach.
Change cannot be too drastic, and it cannot happen too quickly. There is an incubation period in order for eggs to hatch properly and you certainly would never use a blow torch to speed things up. The process cannot be rushed; neither can it be neglected. Those to whom God uses to renew declining congregations will gently keep the heat on.
Sometimes autocratic pastors think all they have to do is tell the church what to do and people will follow. This is never productive. Gary McIntosh refers to this style of leadership as the Rawhide Rule of leadership: “Don’t try to understand them; just drive’em, rope’em, and brand’em.”
Some pastors have advocated making as many changes as possible in the first year of their arriving at the church. Others have said, they wouldn't try to change anything within the first year. Which is right? Maybe neither approach, as one must look at each local situation. When it comes to change, the best advice to follow is referred to as the Law of the Snake Pit:Keep moving but don’t make any sudden jerks.
Fifth, Change is Inevitable, but Growth is Intentional.
There is nothing that doesn't change around us with the exception of God and his Word. What we need to keep in mind is that I am not simply talking about the constant change around us, but rather the regular growth of a church’s overall ministry.
When you pursue church growth as a leader, it is important to connect your church's past to its present. Members of long-established congregations will pursue growth when they sense that what is being asked of them now is consistent with the ways God has been active among them in the past. That is what legitimizes a renewal process in an older congregation.
Remember, there are three levels of change or development in a church: Minor change, major change, and transformational change.
1. Minor changes are when a new carpet is installed, or the facility is painted. I realize that these things can be a "major" change for some people, but generally speaking this type of change falls into the minor change category.
2. Major changes occur when people develop new perspectives and act in certain ways. They demonstrate a willingness to try new things or embrace new ways of doing things even though there may be some reluctance at first.
3. Transformational change is noticed when there is a radical modification in belief and practice. This latter type of change is inevitably what pastors will want their people to experience. In order to achieve this change, Pastors will need to: 1). look for teachable moments; 2.) envision a preferable future; 3.) help people gain ownership of the vision; 4.) assess and prioritize the situation to see what it will take to actualize the vision; 5.) reinterpret past events to show they are congruent with the new vision–"look back and leap forward"; 6.) mobilize support for the vision; 7.) initiate steps and strategies to fulfil the vision.
Sixth, Keep the Back Door Open.
I wish this step wasn't necessary. But turnaround pastors and the churches must be ready to say some goodbyes, even while staying focused on fruitfulness. Whenever the focus of a church leaves from a maintenance mode to an outreach mode, you can expect some people to get upset and maybe even leave the church.
Gene Wood, author of Leading Turnaround Churchesstates that, “95 percent of all serious problems in the church are the result of power struggles that lead to the "losers" leaving or the pastor leaving. Let's accept the fact as pastors and church leaders that people are not against us as much as they are for themselves.
Many long-established congregations have enjoyed wonderful seasons of productive ministry in times past. Whatever the reasons for their current need for a turnaround, turnaround pastors are filled with anticipation that there are more such times to come. They respond affirmatively to Kenneth Callahan's "watershed question" (from Twelve Keys to An Effective Church), “Do you believe that your best years are behind you, or do you believe that your best years are yet before you? They remember that Jesus said, "My true disciples produce much fruit" (John 15:8), and they will not rest until their congregations are producing healthy disciples again.
Tom Rainer, Who Moved My Pulpit, (B and H Books, Nashville, TN., 2016) p. 27.
Gary MacIntosh, One Size Doesn't Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids: 1999), p. 101.