To the Pastor of a Stagnant Congregation

How many churches have stopped growing in this country, in your denomination, of your church-type, in your county or parish or town?

Depends on who you ask.

Go on line and you’ll soon have statistics coming out your ears on this subject.

In our denomination–the Southern Baptist Convention–the most significant number, one that seems to have held steady for over three decades, is that some 70 percent of our churches are either in decline or have plateaued.

Plateau. Funny word to use for a church. One wonders how that came to be. Why didn’t they say “mesa,” “plain,” “delta” (ask anyone who lives in the Mississippi Delta–flat, flat, flat!), or even “flatline.”

In the emergency room, of course,  to “flatline” is to be dead. No one, to my knowledge, is saying a non-growing church is dead, only that some things are not right.

Healthy churches grow. Non-growing churches are not healthy, at least in some significant ways.

If it’s true that 7 out of 10 pastors in our family of churches serve congregations that are either in decline or in stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed.

Everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.

My single contribution to this discussion is directed toward the shepherd of a stagnant flock: If your church has plateaued, make sure you haven’t.

To pastors of churches that either refuse to grow or are in decline, we offer these ten (hopefully) encouraging words….

1. Some churches are easier to pastor than others.

When Bob went to Easytown First Church, to his amazement and relief, the numbers turned around almost immediately. People loved him, they began responding to his leadership, the pews filled, and soon they were bringing in chairs. Bob was elated. That’s when he made a mistake.

Bob decided the great response was because of his terrific preaching and inspired leadership. And who’s to say he was wrong? After all, had he preached poorly or led haphazardly, the story would have been different.

But what Bob did was to become critical of churches that were not growing and pastors who were not leading in dynamic ways.

Without knowing it, Bob had become part of the problem. He was discouraging pastors of troubled churches when what they needed was an encouraging word.

I have pastored both kinds of churches. Serving at Easytown early in your ministry can sure be nice. It can also give the young preacher a heady dose of ego. I’m afraid I pontificated on matters I knew little of, criticizing denominational leaders for not doing what we were doing. I cringe with embarrassment over some of my statements.

Either from the Lord’s sense of humor or of fair play, He let me get hold of a church that did not respond to my dynamic personality (lol) or bag of tricks. At the annual associational meeting when certificates were handed out to those who led in baptisms (a practice of dubious merit, I must say), I was embarrassed by our small numbers. As if to break me of disparaging even one person coming to Christ, the Lord eventually let me see how it felt for our church not even to make that “top ten” list at all.

Some are easy, some are hard, all are different. Not all methods work in every church.

2. Some pastors have the gift.

Argue with this all you please, but I will go to my grave believing that preachers like the late John Bisagno could grow a mega church in the Sahara. They say “Good morning” in a way that makes you look around for an aisle somewhere to walk.

As the old saying goes, “Some were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.” Not saying Bisagno was that way; he helped more pastors (including me) to become Kingdom-growth-minded than anyone I know.

But for some of us, those without the “gift,” turning a church around can be very hard work.

3. Even if my church has plateaued, I don’t have to join them.

Just because my church is not growing does not mean I have to.

Pastor, don’t give in, don’t throw in the towel, don’t stop learning and growing and looking for ways to make a difference.

4. Some churches should not grow–at least, not yet.

Some churches do not grow for a good reason: they are sick. The last thing in the world they need is for a hundred new members to join them next Sunday. They need to get some matters right with God and with their neighbors before the Lord is going to allow them to grow.

I watched as a small congregation tried to self-destruct. The unhappy members ran off the pastor and a group that supported him. As pastor of the nearest church, I watched this from the outside and did not know all the issues, but my personal conclusion was that the pastor was a fine man and the ones who left would have been excellent members of any church. In fact, several joined my congregation and became just that.

As soon as the pastor left, the disgruntled few looked around, found an unemployed preacher and made him pastor. The man of God walked in, saw all those empty pews, and decided the church needed to grow. He announced a week of revival services, they printed leaflets and hung posters, and held their meeting. But nothing happened.

The community wanted none of what that little group had to offer.

The merciful Lord in Heaven clearly decreed that that little bunch would not be allowed to mess up a new crop of young believers. They did not need to grow; they needed to repent and to bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). .

5. The pastor’s biggest problem is not the church members or deacons.

“We announce visitation and no one comes.” “I handed out assignments but none of the deacons made their calls.” “These people are just like the ones following Moses–headstrong, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.”  I’ve heard it all.

The people are not the problem, pastor; they are your opportunity.

You are your biggest problem, pastor.

If you want your people to minister in the community, go minister in the community yourself.

If you want your people to visit in homes, visit in homes yourself.

If you want them to take door-to-door surveys or prayer-walk blocks, go to it and do it yourself.

After you’ve done this for  six months on a regular basis–WITHOUT TELLING A SOUL–then and only then invite the leadership and the congregation to join you.

6. Your first priority is to become a person of intense prayer.

If you love that church and have a burning desire to see it live once again and make a lasting difference in that community, tell the Lord.

The tendency for pastors with a hurting desire to get their churches growing is to look around for human saviors–some pastor of a big dynamic church somewhere whose brain he could pick or whose conference he can attend. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s out of order.

It’s prayer time. Time to spend concentrated time on your face before the Lord finding out what He wants for His people. Keep reminding yourself and Him that these are His people, He died for them, you didn’t, and that their welfare and health means far more to Him than it does to you. Seek His face, ask for His will.

The Lord may tell you His entire plan during a two-day prayer retreat. But I’d be surprised if He did. More likely, He’s going to give you some immediate direction for your leadership and sermons, but you’re still going to have to spend quality time on your knees pleading for His intervention.

Expect this to take six months, a year, several years.  The principle is that anyone asking the Lord for anything is obligating himself to wait for the answer.  Do not run ahead of Him. “Wait upon the Lord, be strong….” (Psalm 27:14).

Some have said if the church has been plateaued six months, turning it around will take six months. If a year, then one year. If forty years….well, surely it won’t take that long! (I’m not sure what I think about this principle.)

7. Go to conferences and read the books on reversing plateaued churches. But do not look for a program for your church; look for a key idea.

There are experts out there who would willingly come into your church (for a fee) and take over the show and rearrange all the furniture to get the church growing again. But then they would leave and you would be left to deal with the consequences. You don’t need that.

When you sit before pastors with “turnaround” stories, listen in two directions at the same time: to what they are saying and to the Holy Spirit.

When something is said and all the bells go off inside you, that’s what you came for. The Holy Spirit is fingering this principle, that story, this strategic ministry, that idea.

8. Don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit has you start with small improvements.

Someone called our attention to a needy trailer park. A seminary student in our church wanted to try to reach the people there. We sponsored him.

No big deal. At first, it was just an arrangement between the student and me the pastor.

In time, as leaders came and went, God sent us a young man with a real heart for the families in that park. He began reaching the kids, some of the parents began to respond, and our church members began to get involved.

That became the finest mission experience of any church I ever pastored. Before long, fully sixty members of our church were involved to some degree with the young pastor and his wife. It’s my observation that this compassionate ministry speeded the healing of our entire church and helped make it a truly healthy congregation.

“Who has despised the day of small things?” asks the prophet in Zechariah 4:10. We know the answer to that.

We do. .

Our spirits despise small things. We want big numbers, big programs, big responses.

Anything wrong with 3,000 people coming to Christ in one day? Not a bit.

But great results often begin with tiny deeds, such as prayer-walking a neighborhood or putting someone in a leadership position who becomes a key player.

9. Start even smaller than that.

Walk over your buildings. Are the restrooms clean? Do the hallways need painting or brightening up? What do the grounds look like? Never ever pass a piece of trash on your property without picking it up and walking it to a dumpster.

Even if your sanctuary has not changed since the 1950s and looks dated, and even if you can’t afford a renovation, you can get a bucket of paint and cover the fingerprints on the walls. You can scrub the floors. You can see that wastebaskets are emptied each week.

Enlist key leaders and together, announce a “work day” for a Saturday a month away. Encourage classes to brighten up their rooms. Appoint two or three of the persnicketiest matrons to walk over the buildings with one of the men and make a list of improvements that can be made on the work day. Talk it up, serve breakfast early that day, make it fun.

Don’t overdo it and don’t overexpect, pastor. Don’t make this an all-day thing. Two hours on a Saturday morning with 20 or 30 adults can make a huge difference. If they uncover more tasks to be done, ask them if they’d like to have another such work day six weeks later. That’s far enough away that they’ll agree, but not so distant that anyone will forget.

Go for little improvements at first. See that the church sign represents the church well and is changed weekly, even if you have to do it yourself until the Lord raises up a responsible volunteer. If your sanctuary looks bare, ask a florist to lend you some greenery on the weekends. Or rent some. When the congregation responds enthusiastically, see how people would feel about purchasing the greenery.

Use the word “experiment,” as in “We’re going to experiment with this.” It won’t sound as threatening or as permanent as, “We’re making this change.”

10. Thank people. Encourage them. Praise them. Send them notes.

You have two choices, pastor. You can harangue the people on Sunday because they are not what a church ought to be or you can applaud them as they take baby steps in that direction.

I’m in favor of the pastor calling names from the pulpit of people who did well this week. (You’ll want to work hard to get all the names and not leave out someone who should have been included. If you do, make sure to include him/her the next Sunday and apologize for omitting them. But don’t overdo the apology; everyone misses a name occasionally.  Don’t be a perfectionist.)

Write thank-you notes on the church letterhead. One or two sentences are all that’s required. Tell them how much better the church looks with those new flowers in front and how it is a glorious witness for the Lord. Tell the custodian how pleased you were to hear someone comment on the clean bathrooms last Sunday.

I once wrote a note in the church bulletin thanking our custodian. Andy was not an easy man to work with. He could be curt, and more than once, offended some member with his sharp comment on the way she kept her classroom. But when you gave him an assignment, he carried it out well. So I wrote a note of appreciation to let church members know that Andy was responsible for the building looking so impressive on Sundays.

A year later, while searching for something in the sanctuary building, I opened a closet. There was my column taped to the inside of the door. Andy had kept it all this time. I never forgot that lesson.

Praise matters.

As nutrients to flowers and as fertilizer to a crop, so is encouragement to God’s people.

The Lord’s people should be seen as tender plants; if you want them to grow, you must never mistreat them. Instead, handle them with care, treat them lovingly, and keep them in the sunshine with plenty of food and water. Protect them from storms, shield them from careless children, and watch for signs of disease or trouble. They want to grow, and they will, if we do it right.

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Joe McKeever
A native of Alabama and the son of a coal miner, Joe McKeever has been saved more than 68 years, been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ more than 58 years, and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications nearly 50 years. He put in 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist Churches– the last three were FBC Columbus MS, FBC Charlotte NC, and FBC Kenner LA– followed by 5 years as director of missions for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans. He retired in the summer of 2009.