6 Ways to Reverse a Church Decline

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"Quick-fix" formulas won't work. Here are six keys to stopping a church's decline.

I don’t particularly like the “quick-fix” formula some pundits offer to leaders of churches that are plateaued or experiencing a decline.

The approaches often appear to be man centered and methodological. Indeed, many times I think the solutions offered could just as easily apply to a civic organization as they could a church.

Nevertheless, I have had the wonderful opportunity to research churches across America, as well as to have literally hundreds of conversations with church leaders in a variety of settings.

What I have learned is that many churches have plateaued or declined. Many leaders are frustrated and seeking God’s solution to the situation. And a number of churches exhibit common patterns when they break out of their numerical slump.

Allow me to share six of the more common ways I have seen churches reverse a decline.

1. They enter a time of corporate prayer and fasting.

Sometimes the period is a short duration, such as 24 hours. But in that time, many members of the body agree to pray and fast to seek God’s face for His will for His church.

In some churches, the number of members who participate is relatively small compared to the whole membership. In other situations, a large number may participate. In each case, those who do pray and fast understand only God can ultimately give the increase to a congregation.

2. They start new groups.

Churches that start new small groups, new Sunday school classes, new home groups, new discipleship groups and a plethora of other possible groups, often experience turnaround growth. More often than not, the approach to starting these groups is more strategic than haphazard, and more intentional than incidental.   

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at http://www.thomrainer.com

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  • Dennis K

    What about going back to the biblical foundation of preaching and teaching that does not compromise what God meant to say in it?

    • Samuel Fadeyi

      Dennis: I hope my answer to Santiago above took care of your question. It is easier said than done. Remember that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 6:12-19).

  • santiago

    Why is it that so called leaders feel, we the saints (church) can’t and don’t want to hear. The hardcore truth of what Jesus word really means. Americans are not wossies. We want the real deal. Where is the meat.

    • Samuel Fadeyi

      Santiago: Matt. 7:16-21ff was directed to ministers of the gospel; however, it is so true of ALL BELIEVERS that by their fruits ye shall know them. If your life is not yielding the expected fruits, then, men, even God, must arrive at the next conclusion.

      On the other hand, I do not believe that the church (members, those who claim to be ‘Christians’) can’t and don’t want to hear. They CAN, and they DO WANT
      to hear and they DO HEAR. The problems surface when it comes to actualizing
      what they have heard–and BELIEVED! It is summed up in 1 John 2:15-17.

      I cannot but answer your question “where is the meat” The meat is still there–in the word of God. However, they are attached to the bones, discipline and obedience to the word (John 14:15). When a “Christian” misinterprets the presentation of the hardcore truth of the word, and turns around to accuse the minister of targeting him/her, then next time, the minister would watch what he says from the pulpit! Here we see the enemy at work. But remember also that the Scriptures say, not all men have faith! (2 Thess. 3:1-2). There are some
      ‘members’ who yield themselves ready weapons in the hands of the enemy. The
      problem is, they always corrupt others who may have had some measure of
      confidence or appreciation of their apparent faith in the Lord. But at the
      crucial time of testing, these floating parasites fall easy prey and become
      lethal weapons in the hands of the enemy. Let us be carefully watchful!

      Did you say, “…so called leaders…?” I thought you read Romans 13 recently? O, you did not? Hmmm. No wonder you said so. Have a nice day!

  • DrIQ

    the only thing that really counts for anything is… Galatians 5:6

  • ServantHeart2012

    I can’t discount any of the above strategies, but with the exceptions of prayer and fasting, and inviting, they seem like things to do AFTER the increase has come. In order to reverse decline you need to know what caused it in the first place and correct it. If it has gone on long enough you may have to work like crazy to reverse negative perceptions that have developed in the community. Maybe it was a pastor who was a less -than-stellar communicator and simply did not connect with those gathered. Maybe the church gradually became inwardly focused and lost its attractiveness to those on the outside. Shifts in community demographics can cause a huge decline if not embraced and celebrated by the local church.
    Reversing decline takes vision, time, and dedication. Think like a new-comer or visitor. Create environments that are irresistible in every area of your church. Welcome, engage, and challenge those who gather to worship. Continuously evaluate what you’re doing by soliciting candid feedback from attendees and actually reading it. Don’t be afraid to stop doing what’s not working or to implement something new. Don’t continue to do things that aren’t “mission critical” even if they once were. Reduce a “smorgasbord” of services, activities and studies down to a few that are relevant and laser-focused to support your mission. Most of all, prayerfully seek Gods guidance and He will provide the increase. After all He loves His church more than we could ever imagine!

  • http://thethrivingsmallbusiness.com/articles/ Patricia Lotich

    I think another important aspect of reversing church decline is taking care of the needs of the members and church volunteers. This includes identifying those things that make the member experience better and those things that make the volunteer experience better. People rally around a mission and get charged when they know that their participation makes a difference. However, when a church does not take care of the needs of its members and volunteers, they risk losing them to a church that better meets their needs. For example if a member has a child with a disability, they will look for a church that has a children’s program that can partner with them and care for their child. Or, if a church volunteer has a bad experience because of poorly designed systems and processes, they can get discouraged in their role. This requires talking to both of these key groups of people and designing programs, systems and processes that meet their needs. Assuming the discipleship is sound, the teaching is doctrinal and the worship is engaging, once their needs are met, they will stay with the church and bring others with them.

  • Amelia

    @Santiago woot! Amen!! Isnt it said in the bible that people will go to a church to hear what they want to hear? Maybe the “real” churches are experiencing decline for this reason? Obviously that wouldn’t be the case for all of them, but some churches should take it as confirmation…perhaps.

    • Jeremiah

      Wow, I cringed when I read this. First of all the Church is the Bride of Christ, and local churches are representative of the Church. With this in mind a declining church should never be taken as a confirmation of God working! Jesus died for the world to receive life and the Church proclaims the Gospel that gives life. Jesus is the head of the Church and wants the Church to grow! Second, when did we become the judge of other churches? Remember that when you say something negative about a church, you are insulting the bride of Christ! I personally do not take it very well is someone says something negative about my wife, I can only image that Christ wouldn’t appreciate it either.

      • Samuel Fadeyi

        Hello Jeremiah: If there is ‘a ray of truth’ in the negative criticism of my wife (as in every rumor), I would rather work on the problem now, than temporarily cover the festering sore that may permanently disqualify her for the marriage supper of the Lamb!
        Have a blessed day in Yeshua, Jerry!

  • Roger H Frost

    Thank you Jesus

    With you all things are possible

  • Ryan

    Focus on relationships. Why would anyone want to continue in a church where no one wants to talk to them. A church can be as Jesus centered, God centered, Gospel centered or bible centered as can be but if people can’t find friends and have good relationships with people at church, they’ll leave.

    • Timmy Sykes

      If the church is really God centered and Jesus focused… Then they SHOULD have good relationships with people… If they don’t… Then they are NOT God centered and Jesus focused as they falsely profess!!!

  • Bob Pena

    What article is this for, I don’ see much connection with “6 ways………”

  • Mark Telfer

    In my opinion, while I agree 100 % with your first suggestion – prayer & fasting – I feel that your other suggestions may or may not be effective here in Peterborough, UK. Please pray for my city we have a high multicultural population and need His wisdom how to reach the lost. We have terrific Christian resources I believe in this country & through God’s provision. Jn 1 Lk 9:25-26 Matt 28 Gen 9 : 12-17 Mk1:17 God is faithful He will show us what to do & may He fill the net in Jesus Name! Mark Telfer

  • ServantHeart2012

    I would respectfully suggest the first thing a church should do is ensure it is not in denial. If the leadership as well as the flock continually deny anything is amiss as droves continue to leave they will not be open to any of the above because they won’t perceive a need for them.

  • Pastor Jon

    In other words start a new church! this is not recovery it is a planting chuch principles!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.mccallister.9 Gary Mccallister

    Do you mention the Sabbath much??? It was in the Bible 148 times.God Bless

  • Taiwo Opajobi

    “What get you here will never get you there”. As soon as you notice a decline, it is time to change. That is the word – CHANGE. Unfortunately, many hate to hear change. We are so accustomed to our usual ways of doing it to the point that even when it is not yielding fruit, we will still keep keeping on.

    After identifying that you need change, the next question should be what do we change? While appreciating the writer of this article, I wish to state clearly that it may not work in all church environment. You must understand your community, know your people and be familiar with events around your church.

    You can not afford to change program when in actual fact, it is the people that should be changed. You can not afford to change people when you ought to change methods. Understanding is the key thing – or better put revelation and inspiration from God, the owner of the Church.

  • Deana Callins

    Why are the poor so important to Jesus Christ; because we are The LOST in this world. Treated with so little regard. And given so little Respect. Our Lord, came to Save and Deliver us from this pain. To Give us a “Place” in heaven and peace on earth “By” his power. He is Righteous; In His Love; The Lost has Value and Acceptance. Men are Held In High Esteem because of Riches. But, The Lord Regards ALL. Jesus Cares For ALL the things he has created.
    Amazing Grace! It’s so amazing grace; to not be in the public’s “eye”. And Every fault broadcasted for everyone to see, hear, and have an opinion. We can entertain it and Be Quickly Judgmental, because it’s not us. But when we have our own faults, we are not so QUICK to Judge ourselves or broadcast it. So we should show Mercy always as we would want the same “Respect”. God Is All our creator And the only true “Judge” of ALL! Knowing all; when know one else can SEE what we do.

  • http://MaximizingMarriage.com/ Sebs | MaximizingMarriage.com

    We’ve got a lot to work on in terms of truly serving the community. Thanks for sharing these tips.