Should a pastor be discouraged if his church is in decline?

I am amazed at how much material has been released recently about church revitalization.  I just heard a statistic that 80% of churches in America have either plateaued or are in decline.  I am grateful for the efforts of those who seek to bring life to these struggling churches.  I am one of them.  Yet, I have a growing concern the more I learn about many of the materials out there addressing this problem.  If we are going to characterize local churches as “declining” then we are basing a church’s health on how many people attend.

How many people now attend a church versus ten years ago and why, does give us some helpful insight into why a church is struggling, but that does not always tell the full story.  This way of evaluation can also be an unnecessary source of discouragement to a pastor.  The more I hear the push to overcome the “plateau or decline” the more I begin to think of scenarios where a church’s decline in numbers is not necessarily a sign of trouble, but maybe even a sign of health.  There are many, but here are 5 reasons that came to my mind, several of which I even experienced in my own church:

1)  Unconverted people leave because the gospel is being preached

If there are many unconverted members in local churches (I believe there are) they will not want to hear a new pastor come in and replace the typical feel good, better yourself message from the pulpit with the true gospel of Jesus Christ that is the only source to bring true spiritual life to a dying church.  Unconverted church members will either leave or stay and cause problems, especially if they are in leadership.  Preaching the gospel is the right thing to do and is the only thing that can give life to a church.  No pastor should ever be discouraged if he lose people over declaring the gospel.

2)  Church members pass away and go to be with Christ

We had a year where we lost several dear elderly saints and the amount of those who died was more than the new members we brought in that year.  A pastor should celebrate faithfully taking sweet saints of Christ to their eternal home and not fret about “replacing them” all at the same time.

3)  Pastors and missionaries are tested, trained, affirmed, and sent out into the ministry

That same year we experienced a decline in numbers not only because of the amount of deaths, but because we sent two families out into the ministry that we had invested in and trained to do so.  I can remember someone coming to me concerned about the sliding numbers and I replied with, “Really, in God’s eyes this may have been our most fruitful year.”  That was received well and we were both encouraged in the reason for our declining numbers and struggling finances that year, both of which were recovered the following year.

4)  An intentional process to take in new members is established

Raising the standard for membership and protecting the front door a bit might cause you to have fewer members join the church in the beginning, but God is honored in pastors making sure believers in Jesus Christ are the only ones that become members of the church, even if the church numbers do not boom like you hoped.  Membership meaning something has actually been the eventual cause of numeric growth for us, not the other way around.

5)  A new pastor takes a long-time declining church

If you take a church as I did with decades of decline, it is a challenge to change that pattern.  It takes time, even years.  I talk to so many young pastors who inside of two years are discouraged because they have not be able to changed the patterns that brought much of the decline.  Remember what you have inherited and if it took 30 years of decline to get your church where you find it today, it might take 30 years to change the pattern.  But God’s gospel and word is powerful enough to do just that over time.

Therefore, dear brothers and fellow pastors, press on.  You may be the cause of the decline and if that is the case, you need to take a good hard look at yourself before God and ask for those blind spots to be revealed.  However, in many cases, imperfect pastors, especially those new to their congregations, are still bearing too much of the responsibility of the decline.  Sometimes God takes us through ups and downs and there is so much more to evaluate on a church’s health than whether your numbers are “higher” this year than last.  Decline can reveal many problems, but it can also be a source of encouragement to a pastor.

Pastors, preach the word, love those people, stay a while, and may God give you grace to determine what your “decline” should say.

Posted in Preaching, The Pastor's Soul
4 comments on “Should a pastor be discouraged if his church is in decline?
  1. Steve S. says:

    This is a great article. Thank you for posting it.

    My real world question though, and I’m not sure if there is an answer to this, what if a young pastor finds himself in one of these declining churches, how should he gauge if there is any hope for it to change? I inherited service to a church that has been divided for over 50 years. I’ve had pastors leave before me because of the church’s resistance to change. There is hope that there are two sides but it’s basically deadlocked between the two–stalemate. Should I just rely on the Spirit to change hearts, trust in his faithfulness, and move on without any indicators? I also don’t want to spin my wheels since there are so many lost. I’m willing to invest if profitable for His Kingdom in the end but hard when many people are so resistant now. Any helpful advice welcome.

    • Brian Croft says:

      Press on brother. It is hard to know if change will come until years have been invested to preach the word and love those people and give time for God to work. That question cannot be answered until those years have been invested. God’s word can revive and change any church, but there are unfortunately no short cuts to this result.

  2. Christa says:

    I can’t thank you enough for this article. After nine years in a church that has declined continually, we absolutely love the current unity and love that we see within our church family. We have had several families in crisis and the outpouring of support for them has been truly overwhelming. However, if we don’t grow, we will cease to exist. My conclusion: God is both brilliant and perplexing. We cannot make sense of the beauty and growth we see in those who remain and yet the inability to draw other families in.

  3. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I looked forward to reading it because it is how I feel at this time.

    1 year ago, I accepted to serve as the pastor of a small church in Arlington, TX. Their hope was to see the church grow again with a younger generation of people, especially if they had a younger pastor and his family too. So my wife and I obeyed the Lord to come here, filled with anticipation of what God would do.

    But since then, we’ve experienced decline in attendance and in the finances too. Missions giving was greater though YTD compared to any previous year in the history of the church. However, the people were resistant to change despite efforts to help bring that about.

    I want to add that since I began here a year ago, all sermons that I have preached have been by exposition too, on Sundays and Wednesday evenings.

    The church never operated from a firm budget either until this year and it greatly helped to know where all of the money was going, yet it still left us without the ability to sufficiently plan for future expenses.

    The building is old too and in much need of repair, but again, finances greatly prohibited any of those issues from being improved, or repaired.

    Have I been frustrated? Sure! I was so frustrated with the lack of help here and with some other things that remained undone that I had asked for, that I nearly walked out last Friday, wanting never to return. But thankfully, I spoke to one of the missionaries we support and he offered some great encouragement and prayer for me and reminded me that the church is not limited to any one city, or building, but to remain faithful to God’s calling upon my life.

    I also read Thom Rainer’s book recently, An Autopsy of a Deceased Church and truly believe that the book was written in a perfect description of the current state of health here, which is not very sick, but dying, which is very unfortunate.

    I’m not even sure if the congregation has realized the reality or the imminent fate too.

    Can God bring revitalization to this church? I know He can and I hope that He will, but I also realize that some things need to die, in order for there to be new life, but not in the same place.

    Sadly, this Sunday, I will be tendering my resignation as the pastor here.

    I’ve learned a lot and there will be much that I will seek God to help make me a better pastor to/for His people.

    Thank you Brian, for posting your experience that others may benefit from as well.

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