By Dr. Glenn C. Daman
Several years before my wife and I arrived, the church celebrated it one-hundredth year of ministry. But the celebration was mixed with sadness. While the church had a rich history of ministry, it had dwindled down to less then ten elderly individuals who were working admirably to keep it open. Some of the people who had previously been involved moved out of the community, some passed away, others were in nursing homes or unable to attend because of heath reasons. Still others left when problems arose over the teaching and moral standard of the previous pastor. When he left the church, the only ones remaining were second and third generation members of the church. To them the idea of closing the church seemed unthinkable but the prospect of keeping the doors open seemed impossible. It was at this point that the church called and asked if I would come and serve as their pastor, even though I was pastoring another church in a nearby town. After talking it over with my board we agreed that I would preach at an early service there before coming back to preach at the normal service at my present church. Along with preaching at the service, I would devote a half a day at the other church in an attempt to get the church back on its feet. Bringing congregational renewal begins by understanding the causes of decline.
Causes of Decline
There are a number of reasons why a church may decline and confront the prospect of ministry death. Some of the causes are outside the congregation's control. Others are a direct result of what the people are doing (or not doing) within the church.
1. Loss of population base within the community. A significant factor confronting many smaller churches located in isolated rural areas is the decline within the community at large. As the farm crisis intensifies, the family farm cannot support more than one family. As the children become adults, there is not enough economic base to support them. Consequently, they attend college and move to larger communities to pursue non-agricultural jobs. The lack of job availability makes it difficult for new families to move into the community. As a result, the median age of the people within the church becomes older with less and less involved in the children's programs. As the population of the community decreases so do the opportunity for church outreach and growth. New people, having no ties to the community, may travel to a larger metropolitan area to attend a church that has multiple programs.
2. Demographic change within the community. Demographic changes alter the cultural setting of the community. Churches that do not adapt to these changes can find it difficult to minister to the new cultural setting. A church that was once in a predominantly Caucasian community may find it difficult to attract new people when the area becomes predominately Hispanic. A congregation that served loggers will struggle if the community becomes a bedroom community to a large metropolitan area. Because small churches tend to be homogeneous, they are often the last to change when transitions occur in the demographic setting. Unwilling to change, they soon become isolated from the mainstream of the community.
3. Changes in society. There are several changes within society that has significantly impacted the small church and contributed to the decline of some congregations. In the past, the church was a social center of not only the people who attended, but also the whole community. People came to church to see their neighbors and friends. No longer is the church this social center; instead people have multiple social centers which draw them away from the church. Consequently, the church no longer has the influence within the community it once had. The downside of this is that people no longer attend church for social interaction, making it more difficult to attract new people. The positive result of this is that people who do attend are seeking spiritual guidance and are more receptive to a discussion of biblical truth. Another factor has been the mobility of people. People will drive past many churches to attend the church of their choice. No longer is there the true "community church" where everyone in the community attends because it is the only church available. Now, because distance is no longer an issue, people have multiple choices of which church to attend. A third change in society is consumerism. Previously people attended a church because of their loyalty to the congregation and community. Even if the church was not "ministering to their needs" they remained because of their sense of duty. Now people hop from church to church depending on their particular needs and the availability of programs within the church to minister to those needs. Their identity within the church is no longer based upon the past, but upon the contribution the church makes in their lives and families. This has brought new pressure upon the small church to develop multiple ministries. A fourth change that has occurred has been the perception people have of success. The industrial age did more than change the technological landscape. It altered people's understanding of success. No longer did people evaluate achievements by the contribution it brought to the community, as was the case in the agricultural mindset that once governed society. Instead people evaluated accomplishments by the numbers they attained. Growth and size became paramount. Consequently, today many judge the small church to be ineffective because it is small. People are attracted to the larger church because they perceive it to be more successful. Whether or not that is truly the case is yet to be seen.
4. Conflicts within the church. Because of its smallness, internal problems not only have a greater impact, but they are more visible. When one family becomes upset over the actions of another within the church, it influences the whole congregation. If one family chooses to leave it often results in several families leaving. Since the church is small, the loss is felt by all. Within a small community, the image of the church becomes marred in the whole area. Even if the conflict happened years ago, people will still perceive the church to be a "fighting" congregation. A church that had problems in the past may still struggle with attracting new people.
5. Turnover of leadership. Two types of pastoral changes can decimate the congregation. The first occurs when the pastor inappropriately handles his resignation. In one church, the pastor announced that he was leaving after he had already placed his family on a plane to move to the new location. The people were deeply hurt and felt betrayed. They had dearly loved the pastor and his family. Because of his abrupt departure, they did not have a chance to grieve his departure and say goodbye. This undermined the morale of the people and short-circuited the enthusiasm and growth that had marked his tenure. While churches and denominations have different policies for pastoral change, the pastor should carefully consider what would have the least negative impact upon the congregation. A second type of turnover that damages the church is when the pastor leaves before the ministry is completed. While God can and does move pastors to new locations, leaving too soon can negate the work that God is seeking to accomplish. One pastor, who had started to rebuild the church after the congregation had gone through some internal problems, left after only two years to pastor another church. The momentum that was gained under his leadership was quickly lost when the new people "didn't like" the new pastor. A critical question pastor's must ask before leaving is; "What effect will my leaving have upon the congregation, especially the people who started attending after I arrived?" Pastors should leave the church because their ministry is finished, not because they received a better offer.
6. Loss of evangelistic vision. There can be a number of reasons why a congregation no longer has a passion for evangelism. A church can become ingrown to the point where it no longer strives to reach others and resists any new people who attend. While they may welcome their attendance, it is made clear that the new attendees cannot hold any office and their new ideas are not welcome. Like the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:4-6) they have lost their love of Christ that compels them to reach the lost. They uphold the traditional doctrines of the church and maintain active ministries, but their passion for the cause of Christ has been diluted. They are more concerned about maintaining past traditions and organizational structures than they are about reaching the lost with the gospel of Christ. Another cause of lack of evangelism can be discouragement. When a small church has had unproductive efforts in outreach, they can develop apathy and complacency towards evangelism. The attitudes becomes, "What's the use, it will not work anyway." This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that further erodes the health of the congregation. People become resistant to new programs. The result is that they stop trying to develop effective outreach programs. While it is true that the result of our evangelistic efforts belong to the hand of a sovereign God (1 Corinthians 3:5-8), it is equally true that there can be no fruitfulness without effort (Matthew 25:14-30). Faithfulness is not measured by achievement but by steadfastness in the task even when results are not readily visible. The church is called to be evangelistic even when people are not responsive to the message. The church that faithfully communicates the gospel of Christ to a dying world has reason to exist no matter how many people attend or how many "conversions" they have. When a church uses the lack of results as an excuse to stop reaching out to others, it will decline, and rightly so.
7. Unchecked sinful behavior. Scripture indicates that deliberate rebellion and disobedience within the community of God's people can significantly affect the overall wellbeing and effectiveness of the group (see Joshua 7). In the book of Revelation, God warns the church that unchecked sin can cause the removal of God's work within the congregation. There are two reasons why a church closes its doors. First, churches close because it is part of God's divine plan and he has determined in his infinite wisdom that his kingdom would be served better with the closure. Second churches close because they have ceased to function as a genuine reflection of the person of Christ and therefore, he closes the door. However, a word of caution: just because a church is declining does not necessarily mean that there is "sin in the camp" nor does church growth necessarily indicates that the congregation is experiencing God's blessing. The ultimate test of genuine spiritual health is not what is happening in the rolls, but the degree that people are being obedient to Christ.
8. Cumbersome organizational structure. When a church has declined, especially from a middle-sized church to a smaller church, the failure to change the organizational structure can further hamper the effectiveness of the ministry. When it tries to maintain all its programs and organizational structure from "its glory years" instead of adapting to the present congregation it can overload people with the task of maintaining the structure instead of freeing them to reach out to with their neighbors and friends. While there is no set method for determining the right organizational structure for any size church, a rule of thumb should be that the congregation should have the simplest organizational structure necessary.
9. Low morale. The attitude and perspective people have regarding the church significantly impacts the ability of the church to attract and keep new people. When the congregation becomes discouraged, they stop inviting people, they are less enthusiastic about programs and ministries, small conflicts will more likely become full-fledged civil wars, and the church will lack in-depth, life changing fellowship. The tragedy of discouragement is that it breeds discouragement. As a small church loses a few members, the morale becomes weakened which cause more people to leave and less new people to attend, which further erodes the morale of the congregation. Thus, the cycle continues until the church closes its doors. Churches on the decline cannot afford to overlook the contribution that the attitude of people makes to church. Elijah, in 1 Kings 19 became so discouraged over the apparent lack of success in his ministry that he despaired of life. When people are no longer aware of God's blessing upon the ministry of the church, they despair of congregational life, wondering if God's absence is a result of their own failures.
While there can be a number of reasons why a church begins to decline, it is import for the leadership to determine the factors which have contributed to the decline so that they can make the necessary action to rejuvenate the congregation. For our church, the decline stemmed from the natural changes in the society as well as the problems with the former pastor.