Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

When I consider how many churches are plateaued or declining, not only am I disturbed, but I wonder, “When did these churches stop growing?”  After all, the church did not spring into existence at a given size (say 50, 100, or 300 in attendance).

In most cases each ABCNW church came into existence because a home missionary or church planter gathered a group of people together and worked hard to reach the surrounding community for Christ. As a result a church was born and started growing. Somewhere along its historical time-line the declining church lost its growth momentum, leveled off and started a slow descent towards death.

Usually this occurs when a church establishes routine procedures that institutionalize the organization. Energy shifts from missional enterprises towards institutional concerns such as stabilizing membership gains, designing and implementing operational systems, managing programs, and maintaining the physical plant. (Granted these all need to be handled as a church matures, but never at the expense of the missional enterprise). As a result, increasingly less attention is given to mission, vision and outreach. Relational energy continues between church attenders, but wanes towards newcomers.  Imperceptibly the church drifts from the creative, peak efficiency of its glory days into an institutionally focused stale shadow of its former self.

Radical systemic change is required for a plateaued and/or declining church to recapture the missional drive that once energized its growth. Nothing less than fervent prayer, renewed vision, restored passion for reaching the lost, and new forms of ministry will do. Such change will meet strong resistance, even when the importance of the change is recognized. “There are a good number of people who will see the light, but will not do anything until they feel the heat”, warns Dan Southerland author of Transitioning.

From a systems viewpoint this is no surprise. All systems seek equilibrium, or stasis. Homeostasis is the sweet spot in every relational system, or so it fools itself into believing. In truth homeostasis is deadly. Homeostasis in relational systems finds its complement in the physical body’s natural tendency to choose the recliner over the treadmill. The ancient sins of acedia and indolence are the spiritual parallels to homeostasis.

Rather than embracing radical change the system will bargain for incremental changes, usually in the form of a program fix. In everyday church life this means trying harder at what has worked in the past, or adopting a packaged program, and expecting things to improve.

Some examples include

  • hiring a part time youth director to attract teenagers into the church (although the surrounding community may be inundated with children)
  • purchasing new robes for the choir (in an era when young adults perceive choirs as an old-fashioned oddity)
  • spending thousands of dollars to renovate the organ while refusing to spend a few thousand on an improved sound system, computer and projector to facilitate contemporary worship forms
  • preaching more forceful sermons on commitment because there are not enough volunteers to fill all the committee vacancies

These quick fixes may generate a brief spurt in energy and church involvement, but will fail to sustain a turnaround. Nothing less than system-wide change is needed. Changing the system is a daunting challenge because established systems resist change.

The skilled pastor who desires to lead the church off the plateau into outward mission and growth will need to improve his, or her, skills as an agent of change. In a plateaued church a “Masters in Organizational Change” is more valuable than a “Masters of Divinity.”

The pastor who commits to leading congregational change will be wise to choose a community of peers for support. Surrounding oneself with a learning community will provide supportive prayer, encouragement, problem-solving, and healing for the wounds received through the change-process. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster. Most importantly, the turnaround pastor must be fully committed to the journey. There will be many temptations to turn back.

Jesus said to those who gave excuses when He asked them to follow Him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” I’ve only plowed a few times in my life, and then, it was only a hand operated garden plow that my dad “allowed” me to use when he needed help in his vegetable garden. The work was hard. You couldn’t look back. Rocks and roots discouraged progress. Finishing the job meant diving in and working steadfastly until it was done. Turnaround pastors will get knocked around, but they keep on task, because Jesus calls them to do it.

As the Executive Minister of this Region I am fully committed to pastors and churches that are dedicated to deep change for the sake of the Gospel. We will launch strategies and garner resources to help you in the process. Furthermore, we will provide Congregational Assessments (sometimes referred to as Congregational Interventions) to help accelerate the change process. You’re not alone in leading your church off the plateau.

Originally published October 26, 2004 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest