Reinvigorating the Aging Church

I doubt the current wisdom of rescuing dying churches by merging them into larger, stronger congregations.

In my opinion, church leaders who propose this solution overlook or have forgotten how change, innovation, and growth occurred among these churches in years gone by. In the past, these churches “hung on” until a “growth” pastor came their way to lead them into new arenas of ministry.

Before I continue with my thoughts, let me tell you what my ministry experience has taught me about these things.

I have been working in a large denomination at an adjudicatory level for the last 24 years. In this role, I have had the opportunity to observe closely the trajectories of multiple churches. We currently have 70+ active in our network. My DMin was in church leadership and specifically, identifying the characteristics of growth pastors within my local context. We have also been doing active interventions with churches during their interim period for the last 20 years. So, I have seen a lot and been able to do a “deep dive” into the dynamics of church growth and decline.

I have noticed most pastors will see a bump in church attendance in their first, second, and sometimes in their third year. Each partner in the marriage of congregation and new pastor gives the other 24 months to see if it is a good match. At the end of that 24 months, each decides to continue or break off the relationship. That decision becomes “public” in year three.

This is why the average tenure of pastors in America is often just 36 months! Churches have learned that if growth has not happened in the first 24 months, it most likely will never happen under the current leadership. I have found only 17 percent of pastors naturally can “turn around” a congregation. That leads to the question: “Can we do anything to increase this percentage?” Yes, we can.

Most dying congregations are that way because of a lack of consistent, godly men leading with the skills and experience necessary to lead an organization to growth. So, rather than blaming the church for its current situation, we must ask why the church accepts the status quo. Their complacency is a response to their being starved for regular growth and movement.

How do we change this outcome? In his blog post “How to Revitalize an Old Church (and Live to Tell the Tale)”1, Joe McKeever offers an excellent idea for the new, young pastor—learn from others. Seek others who have successfully walked down a similar road. Learn from their insights and their mistakes.

I think his calm, irenic tone and wealth of experience can affirm and encourage the aging congregation. Lord knows, they need all the encouragement they can get!

There are several things I’d love to discuss with him, however. I’ve got some questions and different opinions about a few things.

When talking about the effectiveness of this method of “re-visioning” a congregation, I am struck by several misconceptions in the article. First, when Joe states “as is often the case” to describe the frequency that a small, dying church “hands over the keys” to a larger church, in my experience this is exceptionally rare. Second, Joe and I differ over the assumption that “this is the only way to achieve survival and a strong presence in the community.” This is indeed one way but, historically, most churches would just bide their time until the winds of change would bring them their next growth pastor.

Third, I wonder if we can reasonably conclude that the embrace of an older, dying congregation by a larger, more vibrant church is “a good sign and shows the weak congregation is serious about wanting to survive and have a strong presence in their community.” These congregations will say they want growth to occur—but the real agenda is to recruit people who will help them keep the doors open. They are still reluctant to share leadership, direction setting and vision casting and incorporating new ideas they have never embraced or experienced before.

I’d also like to explore Joe’s reaction to my opinion that the older congregation must be open to change. This is the big one for these churches. This is the primary challenge. The natural reaction of most people and all systems is to maintain the status quo. It is the path of least resistance. They will not even consider change until the pain of the present trajectory becomes unbearable.

I appreciate Mr. Mckeever’s insight that seniors are not against change per se! He cogently observes that they constantly pick what “changes” to implement in their personal lives. If it is helpful and beneficial to them, and if it makes life easier, they will indeed embrace change.

Allow me to conclude by noting that resistance to change is not confined to senior citizens. It is part of the human condition. To dislike change does not make someone a bad person or unspiritual. Just hear the complaints of the employees in any “break room” of any institution/factory/ school that is going through any type of restructuring or “quality enhancements” and you will hear similar grumbling and complaining!