Keeping Your Church From a Slow Death

Left to itself, the universe tends towards chaos.

This is the fundamental truth behind the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A rolling ball will lose its energy until it stops. A rubber band will break or snap back rather than be infinitely stretched.

And a church that exists within a closed system will tend towards a slow death: void of energy but filled with chaos.

In physics, chemistry, and the church, the only thing that can stop chaos is intentional, outside energy that works to bring change. 

In Robert Quinn’s book Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, he states:

“Given the choice between deep change or slow death, we tend to choose slow death.”

Quinn, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It, 6.

Deep change requires outside energy, intentionality, and genuine leadership. The concept of change threatens the status quo, a sense of normalcy, and the perception of equilibrium. However, what most churches refuse to accept is that change is always happening. In a closed system, a church will always be changing towards entropy. While the externals can be managed to look like things are going well, the internal reality is that the organization is unraveling.

Let’s be clear: if your church remains a closed system, resistant to the outside energy required for fundamental and deep change, your church will inevitably die.

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Quinn further states in his book that, “In our comfort zone, we can only imitate that which has been done in the past… everyone is colluding in avoiding the pursuit of excellence.”

Colluding is a strong but accurate word. When churches turn internally-focused, everyone from the pastor to the parishioner is driven by one primary factor: self-interest. Even while dying churches often seem to espouse a welcoming attitude, an openness to feedback, and a willingness to make changes, these churches are dying because of an underlying hypocrisy. 

We gain nothing if we are not honest about the topic.

The truth is: 

  • at least 4,000 churches close their doors every single year. 
  • Half of the churches in the United States have an average attendance of 75 people or less. 
  • 90% of the churches in America average 349 or fewer people every Sunday. 

These statistics are meant to draw your attention to a simple reality: most churches are succumbing to chaos rather than investing the outside energy that’s critical to catalyzing growth and change.

And I wonder, if just for a moment, if you could be honest about where your church is. 

There’s a measure of self-awareness that’s required to say, “Our church is dying.” Given the trajectory your church is on, is it spiraling towards entropy or is it genuinely being given outside energy, opening itself up to authentic leadership and deep change?

Church death doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Your church can change. It doesn’t have to die a slow death. It’s going to take hard work and real leadership. Leadership is the ability to motivate others to do something new—something impactful.

To start the process of your breakthrough, you’ll need to do these four things:

Define the Impact You Desire

I’m tired of pithy phrases that mean nothing. Slapping a new logo and tagline on your church is not the same thing as having a vision. The word vision, itself, is mired in twenty years of self-help and organizational leadership books that have made honest attempts to help churches but have left us with a contorted understanding of the term. 

Don’t get me wrong, vision is a critical concept and is a fundamental aspect of orchestrating a breakthrough. But for the purpose of starting the process of change in your church, talk about vision in terms of impact. What impact do you want to make on the community? 

If your church was functioning at its best, what would be different about your city? 

This dream, this desired impact, is the starting place for vision. Be crystal clear about what that impact is. Don’t think of it in dry, organizational terms. See that impact in your mind’s eye, and think of it as you would a story—with real people’s lives changed and real-world problems solved. If you don’t know what that impact is, then there’s no point in changing. Change for what reason? 

This desired impact has to be so compelling that change isn’t only necessary, it becomes inevitable.

Tackle Negative Internal Realities

Whenever you want to get serious about deep change, it necessarily means you must confront the negative culture and behaviors that are contributing to your slow death. I speak from experience; meaningful change can only occur when you’re honest about what isn’t working and how you’re contributing to the problem. 

Remember the quote from Quinn: participants in a closed system collude against excellence. 

The culture of your church is comprised of three things: what you say you are, what people believe you are, and what you actually do. Often times there’s an incongruity between who you say you are (We welcome everyone!) and what people believe you are (We welcome people we like!) and what you actually do (We haven’t seen someone new in a while!). 

This is exactly the kind of organizational hypocrisy that we must come face-to-face with and confront. 

Change can happen, but not if we’re unaware of the incongruence in our organizational culture, and not if we cannot identify the negative behaviors that directly contribute to the growing entropy. This can be a difficult process, and it may require outside eyes to help identify the issues. 

Often times churches don’t see the problems because they don’t want to see them, and they won’t see them unless a crisis causes them to look their issues in the eyes. Wise leaders don’t wait for the crisis, and get the help they need to identify problems before they grow too large.

Take Risks and Innovate

Deep change requires significant risks. If what you’ve been doing were sufficient for growth and health, you’d have stopped reading by now. You already know that what you’re doing isn’t working, but fear is sidelining you from taking the risks and making the changes you need to make. 

Innovation can be scary, but pastors become leaders when they invite creativity and ideas to spark new strategies. Innovation is going to require shutting down programs and ministries that hold an emotional attachment for some. It may require shifting worship styles. New staff may need to be hired. Money will almost certainly need to be spent. 

Failure must become an option.

Not everything you try is going to work, which is why the future of your church should never hinge on one idea. Churches that become too attached to a ministry, program, strategy, a particular person or family, or an idea lose sight of why those things exist in the first place: to accomplish the impact you set out in step one. 

The first goal of innovation is to generate momentum. Identify the means to accomplish a quick win, then capitalize on the positivity and work on something bigger. Deep change is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be swift. So long as the church is committed to the process and is always tackling the next win in order to accomplish the desired impact, entropy is stopped. 

Innovation doesn’t have to take a shotgun approach, but it does need to be meaningful and significant.

Value Collective Performance Over Personal Preservation

The church in America is filled with way too much ego. Churches are judged by the pastor’s sermons or the worship leader’s talent. Ministries are suspect if they aren’t fresh enough or on the cutting edge. The end result is that in a lot of churches, the demands of leadership on staff become “what have you done for me lately?” 

Rather than valuing what a leadership team can do together, church staffs are far too often the breeding ground for discontent, jealousy, and burnout. Most churches have their staff members develop their own budgets, which they must present and defend to some sort of an advisory board or committee. 

What if church leadership teams took a different approach, looking to identify the most critical wins for the church in a given year and agreeing upon allocating funds based on those mutual wins? To be certain, ministry leaders know what their base line needs are in order to function, and a budget meeting would devolve into focusing on minutia if every line item was up for debate. But undeniably, some ministries get funded more than others above the base line because they were better-defended or more-valued. This is only one example, but there are dozens of ways that the leadership culture within a church can promote personal preservation rather than shared wins.

If your church is truly going to experience a meaningful change, it is going to require that egos be set aside and ministries begin to work together. 

In the summer of 2000, I went on a mission trip to Switzerland. This beautiful, old building was being transformed into a retreat center for missionaries and pastors. The structure was hundreds of years old, and it was in desperate need of new stucco. Scaffolding had been erected all around the building, and it was our job to chip away all of the old plaster by hand with a hammer and chisel.

One day, I was pulled off of the chipping project to work on jackhammering a hole through solid rock to make way for a new plumbing line. For two days I worked alone in the dark basement hammering away at one small hole. When I finally felt the jackhammer break through to the other side, I felt a wave of accomplishment. But the next day when I went back out to the building to begin chipping away at the plaster again, I was astonished. In the two days I worked in the basement, nearly all the plaster had come off the building—only a handful of spots remained. In two days, I had made one hole while the rest of the team had stripped an entire building of decades-old plaster.

Any impact you can make on your own may feel significant in the moment, but it pales in comparison to what you can do when you work together as a team.

Churches die a slow death because they abandon the dream of being something great for the Kingdom of God and the glory of Jesus. They chase petty accomplishments rather than the big dream. They focus on the means rather than the end. They worship their ministries, rather than ministering in a way that causes others to worship. They horde money when they can. They turn insular. They’d rather jackhammer a hole in the dark and take the credit than transform an entire structure and share the reward.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Your church can turn around. Your church can break through. Your church can affect change. Your church can make an impact.

It’s time to get honest. What do you need to do?

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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