Healthy Churches Grow, Sick Churches Don’t
By Dr. Ray Ellis

As a proponent of church growth, I often get asked the question, “Can a church be healthy and not grow?”  My answer is, “It all depends.”  As a general rule, healthy churches grow and sick churches don’t. However from my experience in observing churches in various locations I would have to answer, “Some churches are healthy when they maintain their average attendance and don’t show great gains numerically.”

A church located in an area where the population is declining or in a rural community with a static population may be healthy if it maintains an average attendance that can support a full-time pastor or in some cases support a bi-vocational pastor.

If a Church is located in areas where the population is growing but the church is either on a plateau or declining church leaders need to ask, “Why aren’t we experiencing growth?”  If a local church is healthy there should be spontaneous growth.  The early church grew from 120 in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost to three thousand and then 5,000 with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

To better understand why some churches grow and others just maintain ministries or decline, it’s helpful to look at the life cycle of churches from birth to death.  Robert Dale in his book, To Dream Again, describes the life cycle of a church using a bell curve starting with birth and moving through the growing stage, the plateau stage, the declining stage and finally to eventual death.

Birth – Growing Stage

I have had the privilege of serving as pastor of established churches as well as planting a new congregation in a metropolitan area.  People involved in a new church planting project have a clear purpose to reach out in Christ’s love to non-Christians.  It usually takes much longer to engage in outreach strategies when leading an established congregation that has plateaued in attendance or is in decline.  It usually takes a church growth oriented pastor two or three years to lead an established plateaued congregation into a growing phase of the church life-cycle.

A new church is birthed when a leader and a small core group of believers have a dream of starting a new congregation.  There is much excitement and dedication of time and energy to the new congregation.  People who make up the launch team are passionate about reaching out to people in the community who are confused and searching for meaning in life.  During the growth years, biblical truths are taught and members joyously participate in worship.  Goals of the new church focus on the mission of reaching new people with the good news of the Gospel and nurturing converts to become mature disciples.  Organizational structures are put in place to train and reproduce leaders.  Ministry programs are developed to meet the needs of all age groups with a special emphasis on serving children of young families.

The trends set during the first three years of a church planting project determine the future health and growth of the church.  If the church has not grown sufficiently to support a full-time pastor during the first three-year period, the chance of continued growth is limited and a new strategy with new leadership needs to be considered.

Plateau – Maintaining Ministry Stage

Approximately 70 – 80 percent of churches in the United States are on an attendance plateau or declining.  During the plateau stage the church is able to maintain ministries and pay all of its expenses.  The tendency for churches on a plateau is to become inwardly focused and spend the largest part of the church budget on themselves and allocate very little for missions and outreach evangelism.  Members tend to spend more time in meetings than in actually doing ministry.

Churches on a plateau desire to maintain comfort rather than take risks in developing new ministries.  They would rather maintain ministries than make changes to be relevant to their community.  One of the signs of a church headed for decline is when the church refuses to change while located in a changing community.

A church only stays so long on a plateau maintaining ministries.  After a period of time there is a tilt either upward with a renewal of vision or downward into the next stage of decline.  The tilt downward happens when the congregation lacks visionary leadership, effective prayer, intentional evangelism and discipleship training.

Decline Stage

Churches grow primarily in three different ways: biological growth, transfer growth and convert growth.  The mission of every church is to grow through convert growth.  Convert growth is Kingdom of God growth.  When people are won to Jesus the church continues to grow and more and better disciples are made.

Nostalgia is the first stage of decline.  When the church focuses more on the “Good Old Days” of the past rather than strategizing for the future the church has entered the first stage of decline.

The next stage of decline is the stage of Questioning.  The questioning stage happens when members play the blame game.  The pastor may be blamed for the church’s lack of growth.  People may have a critical spirit and say, “If our pastor would win more people to Christ, work harder and preach better sermons, our church would grow.  Negative comments are made about the congregation as to reasons why the church is declining.  “Members are not committed, not loyal in attendance, don’t tithe, are not willing to serve in ministry, and the economy is bad.”

The natural progression in the decline of a church moves from nostalgia, to questioning to Polarization.

Polarization happens when the congregation forgets its primary purpose and reason for existence.  The primary purpose of the church is, “To continue the work Jesus started of seeking to save the lost and make disciples of all ethnic groups.”  When members of the church are not united in a common mission of outreach their focus turns inward from mission to maintenance.  Conflicts arise over the most trivial issues.

Years ago I led a building program that included a new church and parsonage.  During the year of building our primary focus was on the construction of the church and parsonage.    When the parsonage was nearly finished I ordered a white telephone to be installed.  At the next church board meeting I reported that I had ordered a white telephone.  The church treasurer questioned my action, “Why didn’t you order a black telephone?  A black telephone is cheaper.”

The Church Board debated the issue.  Some of the Board members agreed with me and others agreed with the Church Treasurer.  The Board became polarized over the purchase of the white telephone.  Whenever you find a church polarized over any issue you find a divided, weak church.

The final stages of decline are Apathy and Death.  When too few people are wearing too many hats they experience burn out and leave the church.  People only have so much energy so when they burn out they become indifferent and have no energy to provide leadership to see the church turn-around.

With dwindling membership and limited funds the church takes on a survival mentality and if there is not radical intervention the church will die.

Many churches in the stages of decline find it helpful to bring in an outside coach or church consultant to make an assessment and give an objective diagnosis of the state of the church.  These suggestions can help the church experience a renewal of vision.  (The Free Methodist Consulting Network provides coaches and church consultants for churches desiring help.)

Renewal of Vision

Renewal of vision and dreaming new dreams to turn the church around and get back into a growth phase happens when a few people begin to fast and pray, seeking God’s help to become a Great Commission Church once again.

“When the church shuts herself up to the power of the prayer closet, and the soldiers of the Lord have received on their knees power from on high, then the power of darkness will be shaken and souls delivered.”  Andrew Murray, The Believer’s Prayer Life.

The prophet Zachariah proclaimed that ordinary people of God when totally yielded to the Holy Spirit fulfill God’s mission.  “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.”  Zechariah 4:6

Prayer Triplets

Organizing the congregation into groups of three to meet together and pray any time during the week and any place is one way to renew vision of the church toward mission and outreach.

The early church was a praying church.  The church in Antioch is an example of a church that experienced God’s blessing through prayer.  While members of the congregation were worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.  (Acts 13:2-3)

Leaders in the local church may launch new programs and organize new ministries with little results.  But you cannot fast and pray and remain the same.  Out of a time of fasting and prayer the Holy Spirit speaks.  It is through concentrated prayer that God imparts vision and His master plan and mission to His people.

Change

One of the greatest growth inhibitors that prevents moving off the plateau can be summed up in one word, “change.”  A congregation will say they want to grow, “…If we don’t lose our nice family feeling.”

What is actually needed is a paradigm shift, a completely new way of doing ministry.  To have a relevant ministry the church must be continually changing ministry programs.  To some congregations protecting the churches history and tradition becomes more important than being faithful to the harvest and carrying out the Great Commission.  Jesus speaks forcefully to those who have exclusive attitudes,  “Thus you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition.”  Matthew 15:6

New Start Strategy

When a church located in a growing populated area declines to a weekly attendance of below 50, one possible strategy would be to adopt a re-start strategy.  A congregation of 35-50 can make up the core group to launch a new church.  A new start strategy may mean making some radical changes.  It may mean moving out of the church building into a rented facility.  It may mean selling and relocating to a new ministry area.  It may mean closing down the church for three to six months and starting anew in the same location with a new church name.

A new start helps the congregation to refocus ministry priorities for reaching out with Christ’s love to new people and making more and better disciples.  A new start will help get the congregation back into a growing phase of the church life cycle when immersed in prayer and using effecting church planting strategies.