Surrender to frustration; yield to apathy; succumb to exasperation. The national trends are not good. They contain exclamations of unhealthiness and it’s easy to become desensitized to the reality that the American church really is struggling. In the average congregation, it takes 85 people an entire year to reach one person for Christ. Many churches do not see anyone come to Christ in a year. More than 90 percent of churches are declining or growing less than the community around them.
The macro trends are disheartening, but specific local churches do not have to arrive at point of unhealthiness. After several interviews with church leaders and local consultations with churches of various sizes, our team has uncovered some commonalities of struggling churches. The following list is not exhaustive; however, let’s see some key signals that an individual congregation is beginning to struggle.
Lack of biblical focus. When God’s Word is not the driving force of a church, the congregation is bound to travel down the wrong road. Churches that do not elevate the proclamation and study of God’s Word veer off course. A lack of deep biblical teaching is one of the most glaring signs of a struggling church.
Majoring on minors. Pouring a lot of energy into a program or ministry that has little impact is one of the first signs of a struggling church. Since these ministries bear some fruit, the church justifies a greater focus on the minimal impact. Rather than refocusing, the struggling church chooses to concentrate on diminishing returns.
For instance, we talked with a church in the Southeast that had the most extravagant Christmas production in their community. For decades this program failed to assimilate people. Instead of reducing the scope of the program, they poured more money into it with hopes of reinvigorated its impact. Last year the leadership decided to cut the program entirely—most of the church was relieved.
Fewer resources allocated to an outward focus. When we examine the budgets of churches in our consultations, one key area of focus is how much the church allocates to outwardly-focused ministries. Struggling churches allocate less to missions each year—less money, less people, and less prayer.
Not changing with the changing demographic. Leaders within the church must minister with the following question at the forefront: “What are the biggest needs in my community?” Struggling churches are led by people who do not understand their immediate context. These congregations either do not know about changes in the demographics or they refuse to change with them.
Defensive leadership. Unfortunately, many church leaders have been beat up or burned. As a result, they focus more on not getting in trouble with their congregation than turning the world upside-down for Jesus. Struggling leaders take a defensive posture for fear of rocking the boat. They lead churches to play it safe rather than taking risks to reach more people. Safe churches stall any potential movement forward.
No clear plan of discipleship. A struggling church does not have an answer to the new believer or member who asks, “Now what?” These churches may have an abundance of programs and activities, but they do not have an intentional plan to help believers become more like Christ. The absence of a plan leaves the back door wide open.
The national trends are discouraging, but individual local churches do not have to follow the same path. Healthy churches notice the signs. They work through their struggles and move in the direction God is guiding them.