I am amazed at how much material has been released recently about church revitalization. I just heard a statistic that 80 percent 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 versus 10 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 church’s decline in numbers is not necessarily a sign of trouble, but maybe even a sign of health. There are many, but here are five reasons 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 either leave or stay and cause problems, especially 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 loses people over declaring the gospel.
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.