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Signs of a Stagnating Congregation

Signs of a Stagnating Congregation

In mankind’s fallen state, success (in the world’s eyes) always breeds temptations – even for resolute church leaders like Daniel.  His extraordinary commitment to GC3 (the Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling) led to rapid membership and member (in Christ) growth by positioning everyone as Kingdom employees trained to become “pastors” of their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.  However, numerical growth gave rise to pressures that didn’t just distract from GC3, but directly competed with them.  Daniel’s goal had never been a large congregation, but now he had one.  That meant higher expectations, stakes, budgets, and demands for his time.  Before becoming a church planter, Daniel had been critical of pastors of his “mother” church, feeling they had abandoned GC3 – but now found himself a bit more empathetic.

During the first couple years, Daniel had the bandwidth to disciple staff members, network with local civic leaders, connect with other pastors, and spearhead compassion initiatives.  Now with 20 on staff, nearly 1,000 in attendance on Sundays, and a building project underway, Daniel’s days of personal disciple-making and community engagement seemed like a distant memory.  Yet he was still determined not to give in to powerful consumeristic forces that had stifled the growth of most American churches, if not in sheer numbers (of members) then in depth (of discipleship) and impact (on society).  Nevertheless, the train was running down the track so fast at Daniel’s church that his original vision of life and community transformation seemed to be irreversibly giving way to church transformation – speeding toward a destination he’d have to derail the train to avert.

The Cause: Compromise

Daniel meticulously walked through the church’s distinct mission and principles with each new hire.  During interviews, all expressed alignment with GC3 and its emphasis on personal discipleship, evangelism, and compassion.  However, “church as we know it” is all they had ever known.  The only way to silence competing voices within his leadership team at this point was to either reprogram or micromanage, neither of which fit Daniel’s management style.  He wanted staff to feel empowered to manage their areas of responsibility, but when the rubber met the road most “new’ ideas they brought to the table weren’t new at all – simply retreads of contemporary church growth concepts implicitly defining church as a place and members as “customers”:

  • “We need more small groups – our folks don’t have time for 1-on-1 discipleship.”
  • “If we invest in amping up fun in children’s ministries, more parents will attend.”
  • “We’re getting some complaints about services running over – what can we cut?”
  • “It would help us recruit more volunteers if your sermons had that call to action.”
  • “Young families are too busy for ongoing outreach, so let’s do seasonal events.”
  • “We should set up new committees to get lay leaders more involved in serving.”
  • “Would adding additional agenda items to prayer meetings get more to come?”
  • “Not many are signing up for evangelism classes – it seems like inviting friends to church and sharing a testimony is as far as most are willing to go”.
  • “Giving is down this month. Can we run a campaign or do a sermon series?”
  • “Our facilities and signage are aging a bit – how can we spruce them up?”
  • “Better musicians and sound systems could help rejuvenate our congregation.”
  • “Some people were offended by what you said about marriage and genders.”
  • “Pastor, we could free you up a bit if we restructure communication channels.”

The assumption underlying those suggestions is that church is in the business of making people happy.  Companies grow when they get more customers, but churches grow when members are growing.  Efforts to exceed “customer” expectations make sense for businesses but entice churches to compromise by encouraging staff to treat members like consumers and assume churchgoers’ rightful responsibilities (as Kingdom “employees”).

The Effect: Conformance

For years, Daniel’s church had been highly differentiated, not looking like other churches in town in terms of corporate and personal discipleship, evangelism, compassion, engagement, and unity within the body of Christ.  City, school, and ministry leaders had praised Daniel for his service to the community and his courage to stand out from the crowd.  However, small compromises that seemed innocuous at the time naturally and gradually infiltrated the fiber of his rapidly growing church.  Daniel recognized that mission drift but its glacial pace and his team’s (and congregants) contentment with the status quo kept him from taking drastic measures to reverse course.  Eventually, it became difficult to distinguish his church from most others, who operated like businesses in several respects:

  • Emphasizing joining the organization to secure and formalize the relationship
  • Promoting loyalty to the institution when an alternative provider is more suitable
  • Strategically presenting a friendly, welcoming face to the public (e.g. hospitality)
  • Inserting layers of hierarchy as impediments between “customers” and leaders
  • Investing heavily in technology and process improvements to increase efficiency
  • Assuming better leadership is the primary solution to a flawed (business) model
  • Reorganizing to regain momentum, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
  • Overpromising what (we think) people want and underdelivering what they need
  • Misrepresenting the product or service (e.g. “selling” cheap grace or prosperity)
  • Understating the commitment required, to garner interest (i.e. false advertising)
  • Measuring quantity of inputs (activities), not quality of outcomes (transformation)

Daniel had no intention of adopting any business practices when he planted his church.  However, lines blur between church and business when, for the sake of numerical growth, pastors reduce evangelism to referrals (Invite/Involve/Invest), salvation to transactions (“repeat after me”), and discipleship to small groups (which rarely make disciples).  It also likely doesn’t escape the notice of cynical non-believers how cherry-picking (out of context) the most commonly-abused Bible verses (e.g. Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 18:20, Philippians 4:13) is similar to the misleading company ads they see on TV.

Daniel unwittingly gave in to the greatest temptation confronting founders of any thriving enterprise – becoming internally focused.  Catering to “insiders” (as if they were end customers) at the expense of “outsiders” (the real “customer) is bad business – for churches and corporations.  Yes, challenging and equipping churchgoers to live externally-focused Prayer/Care/Share lifestyles will scare off lukewarm believers – but doesn’t losing weight typically makes us healthier?

The Outcome: Stagnation

Years passed before Daniel realized member growth had stagnated, sacrificed at the altar of membership growth.  As he thought back on the early days and his ambitious plans for life and community transformation, he remembered the adage, “If you plant churches, you may not get more disciples, but if you make disciples you will plant more churches.”  In assessing the state of the union relative to his original vision, Daniel felt remorse and regret that his church had become a revolving door with too many slipping out the back exit essentially in the same condition as when they arrived:

  • Most came from other churches that offered fewer programs and amenities
  • The vast majority were rushing to their cars, leaving quickly after worship services
  • Online church had replaced in person services for many, even after the pandemic
  • Nearly all professed faith in Christ, but it seemed few had surrendered fully to Him
  • Business people were separating church life from work life, not integrating the two
  • Most were still living in the same sins, not repenting and leaving them behind
  • Even seasoned lay leaders weren’t holding others accountable for sinful behaviors
  • Few were crying out in prayer or for prayer except those facing a personal crisis
  • More non-believers were in the seats, requiring more scripted, simplified sermons
  • Engagement in worship was becoming less passionate, enthusiastic, and heart-felt
  • Few were witnessing to neighbors and coworkers, inviting them to church instead
  • Unity and diversity decreased, with the congregation looking more homogeneous
  • Factions formed, grouped in socioeconomically and racially segmented circles
  • Impoverished families met through serving were leaving the church, not feeling connected to those with more social capital
  • Giving was down but expectations were higher for pastors, staff, and facilities
  • Pastors were burning out, struggling to keep up with increasing demands
  • Volunteers expected a pat on the back for doing anything to serve at the church
  • Participation in and excitement around compassion activities had diminished
  • It felt like outreach had become “checking a box” and celebrating our “kindness”
  • Literacy partnerships with schools were losing steam as volunteering dropped

Meanwhile, all were flattering and praising Daniel for how well everything was going.  However, Daniel knew deep in his spirit that something was missing – and it was likely the Holy Spirit.  The church had lost its first love, and Daniel knew that a return to the original GC3 vision, principles and plan was the fix, but didn’t see how that was possible given the level of member resistance and fixed costs that stood in the way.  How could the church survive an upheaval almost certain to cut the congregation and giving in half?

It’s Your Turn…

As so often happens, when a church planter or entrepreneur realizes that growth led to internal focus and then stagnation, what is the appropriate response?  Considering how much more important member growth is than membership growth when it comes to churches (as opposed to businesses), what actions should Daniel take at this point?

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