4 Ways to Turn Around a Shrinking Church

I recently wrote a post over on the Breeze blog that received good feedback.  I thought you might find it helpful.  Here it is:

Our church had experienced steady growth for over twenty years. Year after year attendance and giving grew respectably. Until it didn’t.

Last fall, we faced decline for the first time ever. It was shocking. Attendance was down. Giving was down. It freaked us out.

For us, steady growth had become an expectation and something we didn’t necessarily have to fight for. Decline? This was new territory. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there right now.

I’m happy to report that we took a long look in the mirror, faced our challenges and we’re back on a trajectory of growth. Our attendance, giving and engagement are up this fall. How did we do it? I think it comes down to 4 big ideas.

1. GRIT

This fall the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over 100 years. The entire nation was pulled into the drama.

The Cubs were down 3 games to 1 to the Cleveland Indians. Statistically, they were all but dead. But, there is something about champions that sets them apart from the competition. They are tenacious. They never give up. They never stop fighting because they never stop believing that they can win. I call this quality grit.

You might be thinking that grit doesn’t belong in church. I disagree. I believe grit is foundational for every successful organization. You just have to have that tenacious with a never-gonna-give-up kind of chip on your shoulder.

I’ll never forget the attitude of our leadership last fall. The numbers were alarming. Less people were coming, less people were giving, we were aging. We were a church in decline.

Our leadership could have said:

“Well. It happens to every church. It’s been a good run.”

Our senior pastor could have said:

“It’s been a solid 33 years. I guess it’s time to hang it up.”

But, our leaders have grit. They rose to the challenge, faced reality and battled.

When your church is in decline, the most important factor in whether or not you will turn around, is whether or not your leadership has the grit necessary to face reality and battle.

2. CLARITY

Not long after discovering that we were declining, our leadership scheduled a three day off-site. What was the purpose of the off-site? To come up with the game-changing idea to turn things around? To plan the new service that would bring everyone back?

Nope. We set aside three days to remember who we are.

When things aren’t going well, our first reaction is often to do something to fix the problem.

  • “Millennials aren’t coming to our church? Ok. Let’s start a college and career ministry.”
  • “Parents want a youth group? Let’s build a student center.”
  • “People are leaving for the church down the street? Let’s start a contemporary service.”

I would argue that responding to a problem with activity is usually the wrong reaction. Why? Because activity, without strategy, is just noise.

Activity, without strategy, is just noise.

Our approach was to clarify who God has called us to be as a church.

We didn’t add activity, in fact we put a hold on adding activity. Instead, we sought to return to what had made us successful in the past. We clarified our vision. Then, and only then, did we create strategy around our vision. We have a saying:

Compelling vision. Comprehensive strategy. Relentless implementation.

The solution to decline isn’t more… it’s less.

A “less” that is more focused and strategic. If your church is experiencing a season of decline, I would encourage you return to vision and clarify who you believe God is calling you to be as a church. After clarifying your vision, focus on strategies that help achieve your vision.

3. ACTION

Here’s the thing: ideas are nice. But, we all know that we need more than just ideas. We need action—decisive action. Change requires doing difficult things. Through the process of clarifying our vision, we discovered that there were programs that needed to end. They weren’t bad programs. They just didn’t help us achieve our vision.

Here’s what’s difficult: People love those programs. If you cut those programs, people will get angry. People will leave. Those people support the church financially. Now what?

I believe that turn around requires vision-driven, decisive action. Not everyone will be onboard with your vision and that’s ok. God has gifted each local church with a unique vision. Our responsibility, as leaders, is to follow that vision, even if it means graciously disappointing people.

Part of the equation for our turn around has been tough decisions that required actions that weren’t always appreciated. My suspicion is that your turn around will be the same. A clarified vision is of no use, unless it is followed by vision-driven, decisive action.

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Aaron Buer

Author: Aaron Buer

A little about me: I’ve been a student pastor for 12 years and currently serve as the student ministries pastor at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Ada Bible is a multi-site church of about 9,000. Most of my time is devoted to leading my amazing team, writing curriculum, teaching, and trying to navigate the challenges of multi-site church. I absolutely love my job and the people I am blessed to serve with. I’m primarily a family guy. My wife and I have five incredibly awesome and unique kids. Most of my free time is devoted to them. When I can find time for me, I love beach volleyball, writing, fishing, video games or a good book.

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