6 Secrets of TURNAROUND Churches

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Common characteristics of churches who reversed their decline and stagnation.

I love hearing stories of hope.

Instead of waiting for the stories to come to me, I recently interviewed 19 pastors whose churches had moved from struggling to breakout. All of the pastors had been in the church at least four years, and all of them had reached points of frustration.

Then their churches began to reverse their decline and stagnation.

None of the pastors I interviewed were new at their churches. None of the churches had relocated in recent years. And none of the communities in which the churches were located had grown dramatically.

So what happened at these churches?

All of the pastors were careful to give glory to God. Most of them articulated that their stories were not ones of mere methodological devices.

But they did have six common themes worth noting.

1. They led the church to become highly intentional about starting new groups.

The fewest groups started by any one of the churches were four in a one-year period.

These churches were serious about new groups, and most of them saw that, at least from a human perspective, as the primary source of turnaround growth.

2. They led the church to a culture of inviting people.

These pastors expressed amazement at how many people started coming to their churches simply because they were invited.

To be clear, this type of invitation was personal, from a member to someone else. It was not some type of major commercial marketing initiative.

Some of the churches had a big event, “invite-a-friend-day,” to kick off this new culture of inviting.

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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  • Pastor William (Bill) Perkins

    These secrets as they are called really are not secrets at all, as noted the pastors had been there long enough to see programs start working. Fighting change is where congregations dig there heels in, get there heels out of the concrete then change can move forward. It is and never has been about changing the message but changing the tactics to reach the community, most people want to feel appreciated, loved and useful all we as pastors have to do is to blend all of that together and let God do the rest. Pastor Bill

  • Sincerely

    No, been wanting to see it but my church has some concept that these things will grow a false or decietful church. I don’t see that as a poasibility if the Leaders are staying true to God and his words. They believe in small churches means unity, yet they speak kf a desire to bring people in. I stand confused how you can have both and why small is most attractive if we are to preach the gospel to all allrhe world to help move the kingdom of God closer. And it seems selfish to me. I understand if they have fear but God can overcome that too.

    • Sincerely

      don’t see edit button for my mispelled words. oops.

    • Jerry Edmonds

      Sincerely, refer your leadership and membership to Acts 2:41 and 4:4, and ask them to reconcile their belief with scripture. Do it firmly yet with grace, and don’t let up!

  • Penney

    My question, how to turn your church around if your Senior Pastor is not open to the ideas he hired you for in the first place? I was hired to help reach a younger generation. Our Pastor has been at this church for over 38 years. He has a negative attitude toward the community in which houses our church. We are not allowed to have a vision, start new outreach programs ect. over the last 3 years our warm body membership has gone from over 75 to a mere average of 30 including staff and children. Besides the first and foremost answer pray and seek God, how can this be approached without going against the teachings of Jesus? We are commanded to reach a lost and dying world. Do I want to resign? NO I see the need of this community and I try so hard to reach out, but when the Senior Pastor doesn’t truely want growth, what is left? He has been payrolled part time now for over 4 years and the church is fastly headed toward closure. Any insight would be graciously appreciated.

    • Rev. Crisp

      Pray for your pastor that has to be the start (which you already know this). Next I would start a visitation group or you and another bro. just go out a visit people in the area (even if he doesn’t like it show him the great commission and Christ visitation plan to the disciples). If you need to sell him on you do the work not him, yet letting him be aware of the project by starting a bible study or a small group, maybe adopt a school. If none of these things work, then it will be time to leave as much as it hurts (lord knows I have been there).

  • Mike

    We are seeing God turn our church around some. I have been teh pastor for almost 4 years. (Good stat) My wife and I often talk about how the church has an “insider/outsider” culture. And we don’t think that our folks have a pulse. How do you get people to care? To care about the purpose mission and vision of the church? Care about Jesus–knowing him and making Him known? We have been pouring our hearts into it resting in God’s presence. I have been casting vision, training, modelling, praying etc. How do you get people to care?

  • Ricky

    Thanks so much for this article Thom. I am a Pastor in the midst of “turning around” and it can be frustrating and overwhelming until you think about the amazing possibilities of what God is up to. Sometimes when you go to a church that has developed a consumer mentality (folks who say I will attend here as long as you meet my needs and give me what I want but don’t ask me to do anything for the Kingdom or others) it can be tough restoring a Biblical standard of ministry to the church but it is so rewarding when you see the light bulb come on in the hearts of those who have stayed. I agree with Johnny Hunt, who said that most of our members are under challenged and really need to have the Biblical standards clarified and magnified before our people. Thanks again for your encouragement and motivation for Pastors who are trying with God’s help to “Turn it Around”!

  • slehman805

    A Great Article. Thank You. Has anyone also seen an article comparing the differences between a growing church and a declining church which compares things like the ratio between old and new members, the type of music that is done, The size of the youth group, etc?

  • Eric

    Good article but the key is in the fact they were at their ministry for 4 years before change happened. Healthy change that does not hurt a church takes times. The church did not become unhealthy overnight and we have unreal expectations when we believe it can be turned around overnight.

  • MarilynBr

    Many churches have arrested spiritual development and need to be evangelized before they can evangelize others.

  • Beth

    My experience bears witness to the points you made. It is an affirmation to me that in the time I had with one particular church that is on the cusp of turning around we did the “right” things and cultivated the environment that can lead them into future growth even in a declining community. God is at work where faith expects His wonder-working power.