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11 reasons churches lose momentum and decline

| by Richard Frazer

Max De Pree wisely stated that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. It is often the most difficult thing to do as well.   

So, what should a leader of a declining church do to assess a ministry’s current reality? Here are a few suggestions:

A review of recent (one to 10 years) growth/decline patterns will give a clear statistical picture of the church’s health. Raw numbers are indisputable. 

Highlighting significant events in and stories of the ministry’s history will add more color to the assessment and provide historical insights into the reasons for the ups and downs on the chart. Working together on a historic timeline of decisions the church made could rekindle the fires of gratitude and hope while celebrating – and bemoaning – epic and tragic consequences of these choices. 

Identifying and embracing the underlying values that inspired these decisions will give tremendous insights into the motives still driving the church’s direction. Values prompt decisions more than vision.

So, what went wrong?

Churches have to directly face the reasons for decline and confront that which has been holding them back. Though there are numerous reasons for ministry decline, here are the ones most recognized by Church Revitalization specialists and consultants. Ministry leaders that are evaluating the vitality of their churches would be wise to deliberate on the following causes of congregational decline.

1. Lack of visionary and purposeful pastoral leadership.The primary reason churches decline and lose their sense of hope and passion is the lack of visionary leadership.  Pastors and significant lay leaders without vision, purpose and an effective strategy create a leadership vacuum that results in a misalignment of resources that rob churches of fruitful outcomes for effort and resources invested.

2. Lack of purpose. Every ministry leader needs to know what the ministry they are leading is attempting to achieve. Having a clearly defined and communicated purpose gives meaning to every activity and aligns ministry resources to accomplish agreed-upon tasks through agreed-upon strategies. If the purpose is unclear, unstated or under-communicated, the ministry will lack focused energy and achievement.

3. Lack of evangelism and discipleship. Many churches have forgotten the Great Commission and, thereby, become disobedient to the Master’s marching orders. This deficiency is deepened by a lack of concern for people’s spiritual status as well as complacency regarding their own growth as disciples. 

4. Undefined and/or unbiblical leadership roles. It is imperative that those in the various categories of leadership know their roles and responsibilities. Undefined roles and responsibilities lead to power struggles, unmet needs and disunity. Defining the responsibilities of key leaders (Elders, Deacons, Staff, Lead Pastor) contributes to shared responsibility and defines accountability systems.

5. Cumbersome decision-making processes.Getting approval to implement new ministries or change outdated and unfruitful ones is often a long and laborious process that can be rife with political and historical motivations. Motivated people who are eager to serve become discouraged when their plans for improving or implementing ministries are deferred because of slow approval procedures overseen by authoritarian leaders. 

6. Underutilization of personnel resources.Many believers are underemployed and sidelined by overzealous ministry staff who are convinced they should perform all functions of ministry. They relegate the responsibility of congregational members to showing up, paying up and shutting up.

7. Fear of change.A church’s ability and eagerness to implement needed changes to maximize its ministries and resources is at the core of congregational transformation. Growth requires change. Change requires risk. Risk quite often invokes fear. Resistance to change is too often historical, emotional and personal, rather than spiritual and practical.

8. Lack of Biblical foundations. When a church loses it’s biblical anchors, it sets itself adrift with no tangible authority for direction or the utilization of personnel and material resources. More of this topic will be addressed in later articles. 

9. Demographic shifts. Quite often a church’s ministry is targeting a diminishing demographic. This happens especially in churches where existing attendees either move to a different section of town or when the neighborhood in which the church meets becomes inhabited by a socio-economic or racial stratum unlike the existing leadership and/or congregation. 

10. Ingrown congregations.Many congregations that are in decline are apathetic about outsiders joining their church. Their primary concern is for their own people, property, and traditions. 

11. Congregational discouragement. When people are unenthusiastic about their church’s ministries, they are less likely to invite others to participate. This leads to further decline, increased discouragement and lack of momentum.

These represent a solid spectrum of maladies that leaders of waning churches may identify when assessing their own ministries. There are many helpful assessment tools that can be accessed and employed to improve ministry leaders’ eyesight, expose blind spots and provide a realistic diagnosis of their potential for revitalization. 

Any number of surveys for church assessment are available through Church Central. Here is one example from an article about ingrown congregations.

Fortunately, Jesus is much more interested in resurrecting His church than burying it. In fact, He has a flawless track record of giving new life and purpose to people and movements that wake up, repent, remember and return to Him in a timely manner. This, in itself, can be quite inspiring!

Richard Frazer

Rich Frazer is President of Spiritual Overseers Service (SOS) International, a global training ministry equipping indigenous ministry leaders. He holds a Doctorate of Ministry with an emphasis on training ministry leaders to upcycle declining churches.

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Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 (NIV)
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