Eighty percent of the churches in America are either plateaued or declining. Some put that number even higher. Personally, I believe most of those churches are declining as the plateau level on a life cycle is really a rather small period of time. It is estimated that 4,000 - 5,000 churches close their doors each year. The number of churches per capita continues to shrink meaning that our churches are growing at less than the rate of population growth in this country.
Many denominations are focused on planting new churches which are greatly needed, but we are not starting enough new churches to make up for those that are closing. It is critical that new church planting continues, but we also need to find ways to bring new life into our existing churches.
Church revitalization is not easy work because it requires that churches are willing to change, and change does not come easy for many churches. It requires that their primary focus is no longer on themselves but on those not yet reached with the Gospel. A few years ago I talked with a church about some changes it needed to consider making in order to bring new life into their congregation. I cautioned them that if they began making some of those changes they might lose some of their existing membership. One person responded she didn't see anyone in their church she was willing to give up, and the rest of the congregation agreed. What these folks failed to realize is the impact that decision will make on future generations, their children and grandchildren. Change is not easy, but neither is seeing a church lock its doors for the last time.
Church revitalization is also difficult because it demands courage from its leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Several years ago when I was a pastor I read a book on church turnarounds. One of the statements in the book was that every church turnaround was prefaced by a change in pastoral leadership. The church I pastored needed to change, but if the author of the book was right such change could not happen under my leadership. I didn't feel led to leave the church, but I also didn't want to be a stumbling block to its needed transformation. I decided that I needed to change how I led the church. The church would have a new pastor because I became committed to changing my ministry. As my ministry changed so did our church, and many positive things began to happen.
Unfortunately, too many pastors are not leaders. Some have admitted to me that they don't really know how to lead; they've never been taught how to lead; and they really don't want to be a leader. They are managers. They are comfortable maintaining the status quo. Such pastors are unlikely to ever bring new life into a church. Often, they are little more than hospice chaplains tending to a dying patient.
Unless a pastor is willing to lead the effort church revitalization will not happen. He or she must have the courage to challenge the tunnel vision that has led the church into its current situation and a vision for how to lead the church in a different direction. The lay leaders of the church also need to be people of courage willing to follow the pastor's lead. Only when the pastor and lay leaders demonstrate their commitment to turning the church around will it experience new life.
We cannot afford to lose any more churches. There is so much spiritual confusion today in our nation and world, and they need a healthy and revitalized church that can bring them the clear message of hope found only in the Gospel. Our children and grandchildren need to hear that message, and where will they hear it if not from the church? Is your church growing or is it in decline? Where do you see your church ten years from now if it continues its current trend? If your church is in need of revitalization now is the time to contact your region or denominational leadership and ask for their assistance.