Change Among the Declining Church

There are plenty of churches that find themselves in various stages of decline, finding themselves increasingly frustrated, and desiring missional renewal. Therefore something must change! But what?

The tempting answer is better programs, a different worship style, and so on. These are what I described in another post as cosmetic changes, which are different from character changes. The difference is important because, as I use this illustration often, you can put lipstick and make-up on a pig but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. That is to say, making cosmetic changes alone to a church only results in the same church with some new lipstick and make-up.

The Problem with the Church…

In my experience, the problem with church decline is a character problem rather than cosmetic problem. The character problem stems from a web of issues involving leadership, unhealthy conflict, lack of vision and purpose, and members who want a church to attend rather than making a commitment to be the church. Such problems create anxiety among the church as an organization. The desire for missional renewal among the declining church then becomes the question of whether or not the church wants to address character change.

According to Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, the answer is “No!” Instead of focusing on the underlying fundamental problems, anxious family systems would rather pursue quick fix solutions (p. 84-85). While Friedman is not talking about churches in particular, the problem he recognizes applies to churches just as much as it applies to families, governments, and other organizations. For churches in decline, it’s easier to blame something else and try to fix it with cosmetic changes than to say that the problem is “us” and address the character change.

Addressing The Church Problem…

Churches seeking missional renewal must focus on their own character? Does the church own a vision and purpose rooted in the mission of God that they are committed to pursuing? In other words, can the church as a whole (not just the minister, elders, and deacons) identify themselves by saying “This is who we are and this is what we are seeking to accomplish by the grace and power of God”?

This is the missional question of identity and purpose and it is the character change that churches must first address. Only when the church is able to answer this missional question of character change can it then begin to make cosmetic changes that may work. There isn’t any guarantee that such cosmetic changes will work but I am convinced that they are futile without a character change resulting in an owned vision and purpose for which the church as a whole is committed to.

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2 responses to “Change Among the Declining Church

  1. I really think that poor leadership has led to a lot of the problems. The congregations with multiple committees comprised of both genders and people of all ages with elders merely providing oversight and pastoral care seem to be surviving and perhaps growing. Congregations of the type tend to not use “church of Christ” in their name. Now, when a church is run by a homogenous group for many years, there is no real desire to change as long the contribution keeps up the building, pays the preacher and maintains a bit of a cash reserve. Only when you have really forward thinking leaders will you have openness and an acceptance of new people. By acceptance I do not mean that they are allowed to attend the service but are allowed to participate by serving on committees.

    Also, rotating committee members is a good thing since no one can become too powerful and control a committee for too long. That has caused issues with leadership. There was a study (by Flavil Yeakley, I think) that said that when you factor in congregational turnover, you can reach a point after about 10 years where a great majority of a congregation will never have voted on the current elders. This does not mean those elders are bad, it just means that most will have had no input even after 10 years. Some don’t like this but every so often, there needs to be a rethink of leadership.

  2. Pingback: The Minister, The Church, and Change… | Kingdom Seeking

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