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What to Do When Your Church Seems to Be Dying

Let go of your church as you’ve known it.

Everything has to be on the table. It’s possible, and even highly likely, that your church is being held back by some rather significant factors such as the leader, the building or location, the power structure, the worship style, poor communication, and broken systems. Many churches are dying because they’ve hung onto seemingly harmless traditions that actually alienate them from those outside the faith by creating an impassible cultural wall.

Many churches are dying because they’ve handcuffed their spiritual leaders with an inverted structure. The sheep are controlling the shepherd and threaten to vote him out if he doesn’t tow the line. This is epidemic. And also common is the lone ranger leader who has all kinds of freedom and power but is too afraid to share the load of ministry by empowering other leaders.

Get help.

We want new church plants to be under the wing of a “mother” church until they’re on their feet. I think it’s pertinent that churches in “resuscitation” mode do the same. Seek out the help and oversight of a church that is thriving. Obviously you will want to seek the leadership of a church that is like-minded theologically, but it’s also vitally important to be able to recognize and appreciate the value and effectiveness of other methodologies. You need coaches, consultants and mentors if you’re going to turn the ship around. Call them the triage team, if you will, and listen to their wisdom.

Start over. Completely.

It’s possible to keep the name of your church the same, stay in the same location, and keep the same leadership. But it’s also necessary to lay all of these on the altar if a new name, a new spot and a new approach to ministry will more effectively reach your community.

There are absolutely success stories out there from which to learn. Pastor Jeremy Franklin turned it around at Oasis Church (formerly Grace Temple Baptist Church) in Arlington, Texas. Pastor Bruce Moore gave his church one year to live and shared with them the date of their final service if they chose to remain the same. Now, Christ Fellowship in Tampa is a thriving, evangelistically effective multicultural church in the heart of a metro area. Pastor Dom Ruso has led a formerly large church that had experienced significant decline to shift things and grow again at Temple Baptist Church in Sarnia, Ontario (hear Cary Nieuwhof interview with Dom about his experience transitioning a declining church via Cary’s Leadership Podcast).

And that painful cutting loose of our attachments and traditions and embracing of a whole new future is just the beginning. The hard work lies ahead. Therefore, if you can’t or won’t take radical action, then it’s time to do something altogether different, and it’s not as negative as it sounds at first.

Die. With dignity.

Imagine closing your church doors with heavy hearts but high hopes for the future. It’s happening in pockets across the country as churches decide to release the kingdom assets they’re currently sitting on and invest in new works. Gather the leadership, chart a course for closing, dissolving assets and re-distributing all assets to new church plants and missions agencies. Ideally, link up with the particular church plant that will be using the funds and host a joint-service with them near your final Sunday and make it a big celebration.

A grain of wheat seems to die when it falls to the ground, but it actually produces new, fresh life. And so can your church!

One of my mentors, Grady Higgs, often said he’d hate to be the church sitting on an enormous savings account when Jesus returns. Remember the big assessment question: Will we, by fighting for our survival, consume resources that could be better invested in other ways for the growth of God’s Kingdom? It could be that the greatest act of ministry in the history of your church is to unselfishly invest yourself back into the Kingdom by helping a new birth happen.  

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Brandon Cox is Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church, a new church plant in northwest Arkansas. He also serves as Editor and Community Facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox and was formerly a Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. In his spare time, he offers consultation to church leaders about communication, branding, and social media. He and his wife, Angie, live with their two awesome kids in Bentonville, Arkansas.