Most of my life has been spent working in Churches who have been in decline or have at least plateaued for years. I have even helped a couple of other Churches close and join up with the one I was leading. All of the Churches I have lead have been small and are usually in small communities. Most of the time I have accepted calls to preach in these situations because I thought God could use me to help them rebuild. I have noticed some similar things in all of the Churches I have led through the years.
These are issues that any Church can have that are fixable.
1. They have become blind to the mess. Many Churches see their facility with the glory it once held. Now the building needs cleaning. Many parts of the facility need updating with a paint job or some new carpet. I am told that after four weeks you become blind to some of the problems in your situation. Imagine what 40 years might do to a person.
2. Tomorrow may be worse mentality. With this mindset, people do not want to spend any money. If they do spend money, it must go before the board and be talked to death. I once was a part of a six-month discussion of a new sump pump. The other side of the issue is that people start keeping everything because we may need it one day. Trash and junk are stored everywhere, and everyone is afraid to throw it away. God only knows how much I have thrown away through the years.
3. Yesterday was better than tomorrow signs. When this type of thinking takes over the Church becomes a place where the saints of yesterday get memorialized. Plaques are everywhere and fastened to everything recognizing the donation of someone from days gone by.
4. Only friendly to insiders. When a visitor finally does come to Church, they are not greeted warmly by the people. They are seen as outsiders who will leave one day. Why be nice to people who are only here for a Sunday or two?
5. The preacher is paid to do all the ministry. In many of the small Churches I encounter the preacher is paid to do everything. They preach, teach, lead, set-up, clean-up, do youth ministry, organize children’s ministry, visit the hospital, marry and bury. Very little gets done by other people, except making decisions. Others meet to make the decisions, and the pastor tries to carry out their wishes.
6. Leadership issues. Lack of leadership or poor leadership are the two most significant problems. To move forward the Church may select men who are unqualified, or they try to bring everyone on board. I have been a part of a Church of 80 with 14 leaders. If you subtract the women and children, then over half of the men were in leadership. Needless to say, very little got accomplished.
7. Change has become unimaginable. We like the way things are done, that is why we keep coming back. So why would we want to change anything? The 30 Christians who attend are happy so why mess up a good thing?
8. Only take care of themselves. If the people are few and the money is tight, then we better not overextend ourselves. Missions giving is slim, and service events are non-existent. The Church exists for us, and everyone outside the walls can take care themselves like we are doing.
9. Children are not a priority. Almost every small Church I have lead had an awful program for kids. I could tell you about dirty nurseries, dangerous toys, unsupervised children’s area and a total lack of security. It is incredible that a group of people who love their grandkids doesn’t care about the spiritual education.
10. Faith is rarely stretched. Everything is comfortable. We attend the same class with the same people where we talk about the same things. We then go to worship where we sit in the same place next to the same people while singing the same hymns. We take the same communion and hear a familiar sermon. We go home and eat the same old meal and watch the same old TV. Each Sunday is a repeat of the last week, and no one does anything daring for the Lord.
I know there are legitimate reasons that some Churches stay small. They are in areas where very few people live or where the community is dying. The majority of Churches I have experienced have enormous potential for God, but they have never sat down and talked about any major issue. The problems mount up, and we blame our lack of effectiveness on “the people these days.”
I have spent my life working against these obstacles. Sure, it may make some people frustrated and others uncomfortable, but the call of Jesus is to reach the whole world with the gospel not to rest in the comfort of our own salvation.