Churches fall into 3 primary categories: growing, plateaued, or declining. Growing churches are outward-looking, entrepreneurial and vital. In plateaued churches experimentation has been replaced by maintenance, and the outward focus has been supplanted by an emphasis on consolidating achievements and taking care of people already inside the church. Declining churches are simply churches that have been in plateau for a longer period of time. Institutionalism has set in. Those who remember the bygone golden days fixate on the programs and practices of that time as if a stronger dedication to those attributes will restore church vitality. They become convinced that the church is doing all the right things, but people have changed, and if only people would come take a look, they would discover what a grand church it is. The more the church gets into trouble, the harder they try to maintain the traditions that worked in their glory days.
That approach kills – because the programs and policies the church is trying to maintain are the very programs and policies that helped turn the church away from its outward, entrepreneurial focus. When members demand that too much of the church’s resources be spent on themselves, there is a decreasing reservoir from which to devise and sustain efforts to reach those who are not yet members. As “outreach” abates, it becomes increasingly difficult to replace members who leave the church. First plateau, then decline sets in.
To revive a church, maintenance has to be replaced by a new round of entrepreneurial, outwardly-focused activity that is intended to change the lives and care for the needs of people who are not church members. That is, the church has to re-orient itself from serving members to serving others.
The mistake most churches make is to think that “outreach” is anything trendy that gets people in the church doors. They expend enormous energy and scarce funds trying to bring people in, when what’s needed is for the church membership to go out, as they did in the church’s vital youth, when members couldn’t wait to share their excitement about their new, dynamic, and growing church.
What’s needed is hard. What’s needed is a complete change of the church’s culture. In Christian terms, we are talking about resurrection: having to literally die to the old self in order to be reborn as a new self in Jesus Christ.
Changing culture is not only a church need. Businesses go through the same stages and, if they fail to renew themselves, they die. But changing an organization’s culture is not easy; in fact it’s very hard. Harvard Business professor John Kotter is the pre-eminent student of business culture change. His work spans 30 years, and he has helped hundreds of major corporations renew themselves. He says it’s a 10-year process.
A group of churches in the Houston area of Texas have nearly 20 years’ experience applying Kotter’s principles to church settings. They confirm his analysis, and write about ways to adapt his business-oriented principles to church settings. The bottom line is that new programs and add-ons will not save a declining church. What are needed are a fresh perspective and a new birth.
In my experience several things must happen simultaneously: management structures have to be re-designed, a fresh vision for the church’s future – one based on congregational strengths – has to be discovered and formulated into actionable principles, the worship service has to be revamped, and the spirituality of the membership has to be revived. And the last is the most important: if existing members don’t catch the spark of renewed spiritual engagement with their own lives and the world, there is no church to share.
To understand the dynamics of church growth and decline, view this excellent power point from the Episcopal Church (it’s based on an out-of-print Alban Institute book entitled, The Life Cycle of a Congregation, by Martin Saarinen).
For background on the process of changing an existing culture, read Kotter’s Leading Change, and the follow-up, The Heart of Change. These are key principles and practices your church change team must understand and be prepared to initiate and sustain over a ten-year period.
To focus specifically on a successful model of church change that incorporates Kotter’s work read Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey. Written by members of the Union Bible Association, a consortium of Houston-area churches that have successfully adapted Kotter’s work to churches of multiple denominations, the book has a companion workbook, titled, Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey (Workbook), which provides assessment questions, planning worksheets, activities, and case examples for each stage of the church change process. (If you are on a budget, get these two resources first.)
Don’t waste your congregation’s time, energy and money on quick-fix approaches to new vitality. Unless core elements of your church are changed, you will not breathe new life into your congregation. Instead, repeated failures at the surface-level will convince members that there is no long-term hope.
That’s not the case. The road will not be easy, but churches do succeed in renewing themselves. And how much change your congregation has to undertake is determined by whether you are plateaued or in decline, and if in decline, how far down the slope toward death you have traveled.
Then, too, the ability to renew the membership’s sense of spirituality can go a long way toward invigorating even a small congregation. Make spiritual renewal a key, leading element in your plan.