In his book Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches Mark Clifton asks this disruptive question: ”What about a dying church brings glory to God?”
The answer? Nothing! Yet more than half of the churches across the US are plateaued or declining. Consider this church—a composite of many I’ve talked with through the years. The church is without a pastor. They have been in decline for over twenty years. Their building is old; it’s all the members can do to pay the utilities each month. The demographic makeup of the community has changed. Though the folks who attend worship still live in the community, they don’t look like most of the folks they see in the neighborhood supermarket each week. They know they need to grow or they won’t survive. So they call and ask for help finding a pastor, because they believe if they just find the right pastor they’ll start to grow again.
When I meet with them I share with them my revitalization equation: a skilled pastor + a willing congregation = the possibility of revitalization. While they think all they need is the right pastor, I remind them that the other part of the equation is just, perhaps even more critical.
What is a willing congregation? What must they be willing to do?
A congregation must be willing to confront the truth about themselves and their situation. Being honest and objective about ourselves is something few people do well.
“Folks come and visit, but they don’t come back. What we need is a pastor that can get them to stay” one church member told me recently. That statement suggests two things. (1) They think the problem is the pastor, and (2) they aren’t acknowledging the many other factors that contribute to their decline: e.g., a facility in need of remodeling, the discouragement visitors feel sitting with a handful of folks in a sanctuary designed to accommodate hundreds of people, visiting parents discovering the church has no programs for children or youth, the disappointment of taking your newborn to a nursery that hasn’t been used in months/years, worship services that don’t fit your culture or generation … the list can go on and on.
Stephen Covey often said if you think the problem is out there, that kind of thinking is the problem. Churches must be willing to acknowledge they have problems that just finding a new pastor won’t fix.
We all have blind spots. People who’ve been part of the church for a long time may see the same things visitors see—broken tiles, pealing paint, a mostly empty sanctuary, empty Sunday School rooms. The difference is they don’t see them as problems because they’ve grown accustomed to them.
When I try to point things like this out church members grow defensive. "If folks really loved Jesus these things wouldn’t matter," they tell me. But these things do matter. Remember, not everyone that comes to church already loves Jesus. They are seekers and they will look for a church which they think will meet their needs. If your church doesn’t, they’ll go on to the next church if they go anywhere at all. Those visitors who are already believers have many churches they could choose from. Why would they choose to be part of a church that doesn’t provide the programs their family needs?
Confronting the truth, seeing beyond our blind spots is hard but necessary if a church is going to change which leads to my second point.
A congregation must be willing to change — even if change means giving up something you love. Every church I’ve ever worked with has said they are willing to change … but that’s because they haven’t really thought through what change might mean for them.
Change doesn’t mean any one thing; it could be many things: revamping the worship service, singing a different kind of music, becoming a bi-lingual or multi-cultural congregation, merging with another congregation, giving your facility to another church, remodeling the building or any of a number of initiatives.
When churches start confronting these kinds of changes they discover they like things the way they are. They really don’t want to change. They just want more people like themselves to join the church. That’s not change.
Often the kind of change called for involves giving up something you love about your church in order to reach the people that need the gospel. That’s the level of change a congregation must be willing to make.
Revitalization is possible, but it isn’t for the faint-hearted. The key to revitalization isn’t just finding the right kind of pastor, though that’s important. A congregation must be willing to change, and change isn’t easy. But when it happens, it’s glorious. More about that next month.