Truth is, most of these kinds of articles start with a couple of Rah Rahs! to help get your motivation up about revitalization. If you need a shot of Atta Boys first, then go read some other article and then, perhaps, when you’re adequately positive-minded, then come back and start this article.
Because I’m probably going to burst your bubble from the first.
Revitalization is likely the most needed ministry for the North American church. With around 85 percent of US churches in some state of decline, you’re not likely to run out of work if revitalization is your calling or your specialty. That means, of the 350,000 congregations, 297,500 are struggling. That’s not exactly great news, but that’s nowhere near the worst news.
According to several studies, of those declining churches that attempt a revitalization, less than 20 percent will be able to achieve a sustainable turnaround. That means, short a miracle, 238,000 churches will continue to decline until they close their doors permanently. For some, that’ll happen this year, but for others it’ll take many years as they blow through their endowments, cut staff and ministries, go to a part-time pastor, and finally struggle to stay open with their dozen faithful church members before they finally vote to sell their building to someone who’ll turn it into a thrift store, bed and breakfast, or a single family residence.
That means, currently, there are about 59,500 congregations that have real possibilities of actual turnaround. And since there are very, very few revitalization pastors who have the training, the skills, and the backbone to successfully lead an effective turnaround, they need to be very careful about choosing which church they try to invest their lives into. Remember, only 1 in 5 churches are revitalizable; that a successful revitalization project is typically a five to twelve year process; and few people have the energy to be able to turn around more than one church in their life times.
That said, presuming you’re feeling called to turn a dying church into a thriving, faithful church, then before you start out you’d better evaluate if the church you’re considering even has a hope and a prayer of turning around. Remember – you may only get one shot at this in your whole ministry life. Choose well.
Evaluating a Church’s Potential for Revitalization
It would be nice to believe that every church has the potential for a turnaround, and in an ideal world that would probably be true. But we don’t live in an ideal world and I’ve had to help pick up the pieces of hundreds of broken hearted church leaders who invested in churches they “hoped” would turn around, only to discover they’d invested years of their lives with the knowledge they’d only belayed the inevitable by a few years or months.
So, before you decide to waste your calling, energy, skills, and resources on a potential turnaround, take the time to honestly evaluate the congregation to decide if it’s even possible. I’ve included five key indicators of a church’s potential for successful and sustainable turnaround. These are in order of criticality, although if a church doesn’t have high marks in all five, the chance of a successful turnaround diminishes significantly.
1. Prevailing Culture
Jim Collins rightly suggested that culture eats strategies for breakfast and lunch. I cannot tell you how many pastors I’ve worked with who have developed really great strategies to turn their churches around, only to have the culture take those plans, shove them down their throats, and gleefully choke the life out of them.
Discovering a congregation’s prevailing culture isn’t exactly easy, and yet if you’re going to successfully lead a revitalization then you’ll need to know just how malleable the culture is. Of course, the truth is that if the church had an evangelistic, church-growth culture, they wouldn’t need you. You’re not looking for a near-perfect culture, but one that you can transform.
Start by looking at the church’s core values. A church’s core values are seen in two places: (1) Where the church invests its money; and (2) How the church invests its time. Where they’re not found is in the words of church leaders and especially not in the promises of a church’s search committee. They’re also not found in the church’s publications or website, though you may find hints of the values in the church’s social media interactions. It’s easy to tell the world that obedience to Jesus is the church’s key practice, but if their budget and calendar doesn’t demonstrate those words then, bluntly, the words simply aren’t true.
When you look at the budget and calendar, look for ways in which the congregation is investing in reaching the lost for Jesus Christ. Of course, the church is likely spending most of its funding on staffing and maintaining their building, but a goodly portion of the budget should be designated and spent on evangelistic and disciple-multiplication practices. Marketing, including maintaining an active online presence, is a part of that – but don’t forget that marketing is not the same as evangelism. And that’s where the importance of the church calendar comes in.
The calendar should be peppered with events designed to reach the unreached. For instance, if the only weekly worship service is designed for people who were raised in the church, then you’ve got your first hint where the congregation’s values lie … in the membership. Sure, “everyone is welcome,” but that doesn’t mean everyone (or anyone) will feel welcome when they discover the most contemporary musical instrument is a pipe organ and that the service is littered with words that make no sense to them (introit, invocation, doxology, communion, benediction, narthex, chancel, etc.). In addition, look for calendared events that an unchurched person might feel comfortable at. Is the congregation already doing “outreach” events that put members in the presence of potential participants, or is everything about fundraising and/or fellowship?
The second place to look at the prevailing culture is how long the church has been in decline. The longer a church has been in a general decline, the more “normal” the culture of decline feels. Vital churches that are reaching people have a culture of expectation and hope. Congregation’s that have been in long-time decline tend to have a culture of defeat, exhaustion, and futility. “We tried that” is a common refrain. Further, there are few stories of recent life transformations, conversion baptisms, or new heroes of the faith.
Again, remember that if the prospective church had a great culture, revitalization probably wouldn’t be needed. However, if a church’s core value is “It’s all about us” and if it’s more concerned with survival than revival, then it’s an unlikely candidate for turnaround.
2. The Decision Making Process
The second key to evaluating a church’s potential can be found by looking at the church’s bylaws and speaking with the board chair (or with the ministry staff).
In a turnaround church, decisions that are contrary to the prevailing culture and seem incongruous with the church’s tradition will have to be made. For instance, it may be necessary to change the Sunday schedule in order to add a worship service designed for younger adults. Sure, it would be easy to add that service at 7:30 a.m. … almost no one would object. On the other hand, when you tell them that the church’s beloved 11 a.m. Traditional Worship Service is being moved to 9 o’clock in order to reach Michael and Jessica Millennials, the church’s leadership will likely move heaven and earth to stop you. And that’s when the decision making process is important.
There are a couple things to remember. First, Robert’s Rules of Order aren’t scripture nor scripture based. There is no democracy in the Bible and the only two “votes” in the New Testament go very badly: One put Jesus on the cross when the mob outvoted Pilate, and the other vote sank the ship (Acts 28). In fact, there is not one time in all of scripture where the majority ever gets it right. Not once. If the church demands majority rules, it’s not a legitimate prospect for turnaround – because if the majority was right, again, they wouldn’t need you.
Fact is, you’re probably stuck with some sort of a majority rules situation. However, the question is what it is the majority rules. In a near-perfect system, the congregational vote only approves the lead pastor, annual nominations, and the budget. And the board only deals with budget and setting policy. The day-to-day decisions are made by staff or by ministry teams who are charged with staying within budget and the church’s doctrines, but otherwise pretty much has free reign on decision making.
The above congregation is structured along the lines of John Carver’s Policy Governance model and is more common in larger churches than in smaller churches. For a successful turnaround, this is probably the best practice available. However, it’s not been widely adopted in declining churches because it gives significant decision making control to staff and to small teams – something that’s abhorrent to many long-time members who believe they are entitled to approve any and all decisions.
When evaluating a church’s decision making process, look to see how decisions are made. Policy governance is clearly the best option. However, a church with a small board has potential as well. If you only have to convince five to seven people to do what’s best for the future of the church, you probably have a good chance. A church with a large board that expects to be consulted on day-to-day operations, or a congregation that is a majority rules democracy has almost no chance of a turnaround. You’d be best looking elsewhere.
3. Change Ability
“We’ve never done it that way before” has been the death sentence of many thousands of potential great ministries. The second is like unto the first: “We can’t afford that.” On these two excuses hang almost all of the failures of the church.
Seriously, the primary reason for the US church’s decline is the unwillingness of the churches to endure, let alone embrace, the changes necessary to reach those far from God. Before you take on a revitalization project, you’ll want to take some time to evaluate the church’s response to change … because without significant changes, the church will not – cannot – be turned around.
There are a number of ways to determine how well a church might endure change, but the best way is to rely on Dr. Charles Ridley’s axiom:
The best indicator of future performance is past behavior.
In other words, if you listen to the stories of how the church faced change in the past, you’ll get a pretty good idea of their change ability for the future. However, the truth is, although almost everyone likes the idea of change, no one likes the reality of change, especially when that change makes an impact on them. So, don’t be alarmed when you hear stories about resistance to change – it would be unlikely that you’d hear otherwise. What you’re listening for is the church’s response to change.
- Did they simply vote against it? Or was the change undermined in some way?
- Was there a significant church conflict that resulted in membership losses? Or is that conflict still raging?
- Did they allow the change, only to subvert it later? Or did they fire the leader who brought the change?
- And how significant was the change?
There are many other possible scenarios and questions you may want answered, but by understanding how tolerant the church is to change you’ll have an idea about the risks your taking in bringing real and lasting change to the congregation.
4. Risk Tolerance
Similar to Change Ability, the church’s toleration for risk is a key factor in whether or not you should invest your life into the congregation. To turn a church around, the leaders will have to engage in, or at least approve of, some “risky” behavior. They may have to approve a deficit budget in order to make tech or staff upgrades. They may have to step out of their comfort zones in order to connect with people very much unlike them. They may have to start a second worship service, even though they don’t believe they have the resources to support it. And it’s guaranteed they’ll have to do things they’ve never done before. Some of the risks will pay off, but many more will crash and burn as the leaders try different ideas to reach those in the community for Jesus.
Again, Ridley’s axiom comes into play here as well. How the church has engaged, or refused to engage, in risky ideas will give you an idea about their tolerance. However, another way is to weave potential ideas into a conversation then watch the faces and listen to the responses.
Recently, a pastor I was coaching floated a tenable idea to his board. The leaders listened, but then refused to allow the pastor to implement the idea. “That might work sometime, but let’s wait until later to try that.” The problem is, the church doesn’t have a lot of time left … change will have to come very soon if the congregation is to survive, let alone thrive. Time is almost always working against you when it comes to a turnaround because few churches have the available resources to survive the time it takes for the culture to be renewed (see #1).
5. Available Resources
Bill Easum, one of the fathers of the church turnaround movement, opined that it can take over twelve years to change a church’s culture from decline to growth. However, depending on the responses to the previous four issues, the basics of a turnaround can become effective in three to five years. The culture won’t be “set” for some time to come after that, but it’s very possible that a church with a history and culture of decline could see significant growth sometime between years three to five.
The problem is, if the church is struggling with waning resources, especially funding, a five year window may have more months than the church has money. Too often, midway through a church’s turnaround process, the church will become obsessed with dwindling resources and will begin slashing budgets in order to stave off what seems to be the inevitable. The sad reality is, though, is that those cuts more often than not seal the inevitable.
It takes significant resources to wholly effect a turnaround in most churches. Typically, new tech is going to be required. Additional staffing is in the cards. Building remodeling is typically needed. An online presence needs to be established and promoted. Marketing will be required. Salaries need to be maintained. And the list goes on. All of that takes significant financial resources.
But funding isn’t the only required resource. A turnaround needs willing hands, hearts, and bodies who are able to do the necessary work. If the congregation is too set in its ways, too comfortable with who they are, or if they’re too tired and worn out, a turnaround will be doomed from day one. Not only will you need a strong core of supporters, a turnaround requires a congregation with a near-unlimited supply of energy and enthusiasm. They will not only have to “see” the vision, they’ll have to buy into it with their whole hearts and be willing to invest their time, talent, treasure, and testimony over several years.
The hardest part about a turnaround is the time it takes – and three years sounds like nothing at all, until you have to live through 1095 days without seeing much progress – and in fact, seeing more people leave than come. It takes a hearty core of the committed to not just endure the wait and the work, but to maintain their energy and enthusiasm. And yet, without this, the turnaround will be virtually impossible.
If you’re committed to being a Revitalizer, then you must recognize that the cards are stacked against you. The VAST majority of churches will not be willing or able to do the work, make the investment, and tolerate the risk and changes necessary to experience turnaround. In fact, as mentioned earlier, 80 percent of all churches that attempt a revitalization will fail because they’re unable to meet one of these five criteria. If you’re called to be a Revitalizer, at least have the good sense to be honest enough to know you’re not the savior. You can’t create ex nihilo, that is, something from nothing. If a church doesn’t have what it takes to fully engage in a turnaround, leave it for a loving hospice pastor who can gently lead the church to a dignified end. YOU tap the dust off your feet and invest your life in a congregation that has the potential to bring life to hundred, perhaps thousands, in need of Christ.
 No, Matthias was chosen by lot, that is, by literally throwing dice.
 Charles Ridley made this statement many years before Dr. Phil made a similar observation.