If people are leaving your church it’s easy to panic or bury your head in the sand. But here are six other things you can try.
He had a heavy heart as he locked the front door of the church for the last time and jumped in his car to take the keys to the Estate Agent who would be managing the sale. Just ten years before, the church had been brimming with life. More than 100 people had been regularly attending, including young people and recent converts. The lay leadership had been delighted to see God at work. But differences over the gifts of the Holy Spirit had divided the church in half with most of the under 40s leaving. The remaining older people soldiered on, aided by small teams of people from a sister church. But when a few of the stalwarts died and others moved away, the trustees concluded it was time to accept the inevitable, and this seaside coastal town had one church fewer, its remaining members finding alternatives locally.
This sad tale is all too common. You will have heard the statistics about church decline in the last 20 years – one million leaving the UK Church from 1989 to 1998 and half a million between 1998 and 2005. Some churches are gloriously bucking the trend, but the likelihood is that for many churches the only conversions will be into flats or offices. More than 260 churches belonging to the Church of England have ceased being used for regular worship in the past decade.
It is easy to assume that ‘this will never happen to us’ – the leaders of the independent church mentioned above certainly thought that. But many churches are at that tipping point where appropriate action could start to address the situation, and, with God’s guidance, restore spiritual momentum to a ship that is very close to running aground. If your church is showing signs of stagnation or decline, here are some actions that might, when considered prayerfully, provide a way to transform a discouraging situation.
1. Examine the problem
The first suggestion may appear to come from the Noddy school of management. But it’s amazing how easily people in declining churches have a casual attitude to a drop in numbers and never scrutinise what has happened.
A basic assessment (see questions on page 25) includes checking how many have left, over what period and with what explanation. It is never fun to lose members, but clearly losing them because of job losses, or attending another church locally will be a different problem than if people leave claiming that, having spent time at your church, they believe the Christian faith is really a sham!
Similarly, if the people lost are mature believers questioning where you are heading as a church, you will have a different problem than if they are recent converts who have drifted into non-attendance.
Sadly churches rarely take the time to discover why people have left. (Always assuming that they have the pastoral care systems to realise!)
Recently I spent 20 minutes answering a tele-marketing woman’s questions about why I hadn’t used an Energy Trust’s services. If churches spent time talking honestly with leavers, maybe they’d know the obvious ways to stem the flow.
Of course, in our church-hopping consumerist age, you need to decide what you do with what they say. We would be foolish to pander to every whim, but also daft if the Holy Spirit is leading the rest of the church in a particular direction which leaves us behind.
2. Discern what God is saying
This is the all-important issue. Just as the risen Jesus had specific words for the seven Asian churches in Revelation, you can be sure that he has some for you.
Have you set aside time for prayer and fasting about the decline? If you haven’t, maybe you should. Admittedly a slow decline in numbers may not feel like a crisis, but if your projected decline suggests you may one day have to close, then it is hard to think of a better reason for a concerted time seeking God.
Some churches have benefited from involving an impartial outsider to facilitate discussion. It can take courage for a vicar or senior minister to call for help, but structures are there for such times, and, after all, much of the New Testament is written because apostles perceived problems that could cause decline. If you are in a stream with an apostolic team it’s time that you found out whether they know their onions.
You may be surprised at what God says to you. One Belfast-based church called in someone to advise them on what to do next and ended up merging completely with a larger fellowship. A Christian Brethren church concluded that its decline was linked with a failure to provide a family service for non-believers on Sunday mornings. So they made the family service the focus of their worship, repositioning the weekly Breaking of Bread service which had dominated the morning.
Sometimes God sends workers to help revive a church. An ordained retired school teacher, Ken Hobbs, was somewhat surprised to be called to serve at St Peter and St Paul, the parish church of Albury, Surrey. In 2001 the church had an average age of over 70 and numbered less than 20. He gradually gained the trust of the congregation, built a team and the church now sees 100 attending in an area with a population of around 1,000.
Sadly, in some extreme cases, closure may be the appropriate result of the prayerful discussion. This may seem a very negative thought to be putting in a magazine like this, but in some cases it may be a godly, courageous and kingdom-exalting act to close down and redeploy members to other churches rather than merely keeping the building open ‘as a witness’.
3. Take your leadership’s temperature
One commentator suggested that if the UK Church was a sports team its manager would have been sacked a long time ago! In 2002 a survey of European national church habits revealed that, measuring church attendance as a percentage of population, the UK came fourth from bottom. But if advocating a resultsbased approach to leadership may seem harsh, (though some US churches have sacked staff on this basis) there is no doubt that many have left their local church because of its leadership.
Leadership bashing has become all too common. Nevertheless, leaders need to make sure that when looking for reasons for decline they don’t forget to look at one another. So it’s worth asking the following sorts of questions:
• Have people left because the leadership has not tackled issues, or tackled them poorly?
• Has the leadership lacked nerve in handling people whose comments or behaviour has upset others?
• Has the direction of the church galvanised or obstructed the Holy Spirit’s gifting of individuals?
• Is there anything the leadership needs to apologise to God for?
• Is it time some leaders had a break?
• Is there anything the leadership needs to apologise to the congregation (or individuals) for?
These may be questions to be discussed behind closed doors, but you can be sure that their answers and the actions provoked will lie at the heart of any church’s demise.
4. Admit your mistakes
Too many churches use the ‘God just didn’t bless us’ line to explain decline. In fact having examined, prayed and reflected there will come a time when leaders will need to explain to the congregation the human mistakes that led to the exodus.
It’s time to come clean that for a few extra grand you might have been able to keep the youth worker, whose leaving and nonreplacement had such an effect on the youth group. Or you may need to conclude that the decision to attempt to move premises was a massive distraction when God was encouraging you to invest in an evangelist.
And this admission may be ‘sins of omission’ too. You may have to confess that you have not made enough mistakes. One church marks its leaders down on annual appraisals if they haven’t made any mistakes on the basis that they are not taking enough risks for the kingdom!
Honesty won’t make the problems go away, but when the leaders start describing the same landscape that the congregation see, there’s a greater likelihood that they might trust them to paint a vision for the future. But beware. Mistake admission can be used manipulatively.
5. Watch the fringe
The fringe is an underestimated element of church life, but worth watching and nurturing. By the fringe we mean the church hinterland – space for people who are either on the way in, or on the way out. Ideally this crucial place allows people to investigate the faith without feeling pressured. Healthy churches will not have so many programmes that they exhaust their members and thus suck up time that could be usefully spent with those outside the church. The late Howard Lewis famously arrived as the new minister in a Belfast church and removed all programmes from the church apart from the Sunday services. He then challenged the ministry leaders to justify why the programme should be reintroduced!
The fringe is the ‘space’ churches give to Christians from previous churches who need time to check things out, especially if they still nurse wounds from other churches they have attended. Too often, declining churches pounce on newcomers like a teenager desperate for love, and frighten them off.
Crucially the fringe may well include people with faith struggles, who could be on their way out. Empirical research is limited, but New Zealander, Alan Jamieson writing in A Churchless Faith (SPCK) interviewed 162 leavers (some of whom were leaders) who had left churches that were evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic and found a high percentage had been involved at the heart of church life and still wanted to follow Jesus. Most would pray regularly, read the Bible, and even engage in Christian activities outside church life. Just seven had left the faith altogether. In his estimation, many would have stayed had there been a safe place to explore what was going on with their faith.
If New Zealand is comparable with the UK in this respect, then a good proportion of those who have left the church in the UK simply find that the neat answers that served a bygone age are not cutting it in a postmodern world.
One leaver, and former minister, told Christianity: ‘In my experience the simple statement “I don’t attend a local church” wouldn’t be more shocking if I had confessed to being gay! The Pavlovian response from most Christians is that you are being distasteful. Their insistence that “every Christian must attend church” makes it very hard to have a relaxed conversation about it without them assuming an air of superiority.’
He went on to outline why he felt not attending was a regrettable, but reasonable, decision to have made. ‘I don’t need to apologise for not attending, but, as it happens, I pray daily, study scripture and have regular times with Christian friends. I am a member of the kingdom of God, indwelt by the spirit. I just don’t feel that the narrow, simplistic and trite approaches offered by the local church work for me anymore. The gap between the kingdom as found in Jesus’ teaching and what goes on in local churches I know is so great that it is hard to make a case for carrying on attending and remaining faithful to Jesus.’
No one is expecting your church to stem a problem caused by a general spiritual malaise, but what if many of those who have left would have stuck around if only they could have voiced their doubts, anxieties, even cynicism with church in a non-threatening, non-judgmental atmosphere? Maybe we should have courses similar in format to Alpha where people committed to Christ can explore issues in the same non-threatening environment that is provided for seekers. They could be called ‘beta’ or even ‘omega’ groups! This might help some remain in the orbit of the church, even if for a time they may not be comfortable engaging in all or any of its activities.
6. Do something
As Einstein reputedly said, insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Most declining churches bemoan the losses, but have tried nothing to stem the flow. There’s a time when to pray is disobedient! If God asks me to do something, then I am not growing in faith if I am still asking him about it. In the same way, there must come a time when a church concludes that it is time to act.
This ‘action’ may be to visit other churches that have turned things around. It may be to try a new service, or abandon a service. It may be to start a door-to-door programme, offer a homework club, run a soup kitchen, invite a mission team, hold a conference, attend a conference, hire more staff. It may be that you conclude that you have reached the time when you need the help of other churches. Perhaps you need a team to join you, or to merge with someone else?
Doing something will always feel scary and take energy, and of course the action may not be an instant success. But at least you won’t be left with that lingering regret that you just let things slide and brought dishonour on the name of Christ in the meantime. The Parable of the Talents includes some damning words from the master to the man who merely buried his talent believing this to be the safe option. Up and down the country churches are doing that very equivalent when it comes to using resources and gifts to little end. Action now can mean that you don’t receive condemnation, but instead the reward for servants who proved faithful with what they were given.
And let’s pray that as you hear him and are obedient, you will never be called upon to close and lock your church, for one last time.
Closing the Back Door of the Church (CWR) by Ron Kallimer and Andy Peck is out now.