4 Indicators Your Church is Poised for Future Decline

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It was a fabulous day of ministry on Galilean seashore. Jesus was teaching. Multitudes of people were seated all along the shore, listening intently to every parable and story told by the Master.  They journeyed from every town and village within walking distance. By most standards, Jesus' ministry was reaching its peak. Then nightfall came and everything changed. Mark tells us a "furious squall" arose and their lives were in peril (Mark 4:37). Didn't the experienced fishermen notice the dark clouds on the horizon? Was there no changing wind to predict the unstable weather pattern? Even if there were indicators of atmospheric change in the near future, they may not have noticed them.

It is easy for churches to be lulled to sleep by ministry successes -- unparalleled growth, new faces every week, records broken, budget needs met and exceeded, new staff added to the team, etc. Today's success can easily mask tomorrow's downfall for within every church resides a life cycle of growth, plateau and decline. Failure to recognize the indicators of each stage will leave a church in the midst of a sudden squall, taking on water and risking death.

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Image source: Leadnet.org

How do you know if your church is facing decline in the next 3-5 years?

Here are 4 quick indicators to assess what your church is facing in the future:

1) Nobody knows why we do what we do (lack of vision or intentionality)

Churches begin with great intentionality and vision that propels it through a stage of growth. But if vision isn't continually recast and communicated, then doing ministry events becomes the focus rather than the means to accomplishing the vision. VBS becomes the goal rather than a means to reach the kids in the community with the Gospel.

  • Pick an event on the church calendar and ask your ministry leaders why they planned it. Or ask a member of the church why the church has a buffet of ministry of events and ministries.
  • Do you ever hear phrases from the vision statement? Do you hear words of concern for the lost in the community? If not, then your church may have lost sight on its vision and at risk of future decline.

A church without a clear, compelling vision for ministry will decline.

2) Ministry for the members is on center stage and evangelism is backstage

Every church has a center stage (and most often multiple stages) for member performances. Ministry becomes a means for members to do what they want to do because they like doing it, instead of a pathway for those far from God to be brought near to God. With time the performance of member gifts begins to trump the purpose for using those gifts. We choose ministries that members prefer and then get as many people on stage as possible, so that no one is left out without ever considering the people we are seeking to reach with the Gospel. From style of music to Bibles study curriculum, even the church leadership are all chosen based on member preference instead of the of mission of the church. And we hope the unchurched will like what we like.

  • When was the last time your church leadership made a decision with the unchurched as its primary audience?
  • What ministries are your members leading that seek to reach the community outside of the church walls?

A church focused on providing ministries and events for its members in exchange for evangelism will face future decline.

3) No clear discipleship process

The Great Commission stands as the principle vision for the Church of Jesus Christ.  Many local churches adopt vision statements that speak of their intent to make disciples and yet they have no clear process for discipleship. Some churches caught on to a tiered delivery of content that moved its members through an educational process, but somehow information alone failed to create a reproducible process for making disciples.  The local church has not been commissioned to utilize programs and educational spaces to make disciples, its members have been commissioned to make disciples.

  • What opportunities does your church have for making disciples in small group communities?
  • How does your church measure the success of its discipleship process?

Churches without a clear discipleship process may be able to fill classrooms for learning, but will find themselves limited in their ability to reproduce their process and risk future decline.

4) People are overused and underdeveloped

One of the easiest ways to predict future decline is to examine their volunteer mobilization. Churches that allow ministries to be led by the same persons year after year without developing new leadership will quickly plateau and then decline. Successful churches have high expectations from their leaders building an inadvertent exit ramp for burned out members. Departing leaders that likely grew in capacity during the recent growth of the church, now leave a huge vacuum for new, lesser experienced lay leaders to continue high octane ministries. In the same way, failure to develop current leaders will cap their potential to serve and shepherd an increasing number of ministry participants. It won't take long for members to feel neglected or ignored before departing for another church.

  • How often do you take time to equip your ministry leaders for the responsibilities entrusted to them?
  • What feeder system do you have to discover and develop future leaders and members for service?

Churches must invest time developing new ministry leaders to avoid future decline in membership.