I got a note the other day from a church pastor who asked me to explain to him and to his congregation why they should engage in an on-site consultation. His church is struggling with breaking the 200 barrier, has a large endowment fund that they’re unwilling to touch, and are living as if they’re broke. In other words, they’ve found themselves in “Survival Mode” and are panicking about their decline. In this transitional economic climate this is becoming a norm for many congregations today. And so I thought I’d share my response. Perhaps it will trigger some conversation in your context.

  1. We’re no longer living in a culture where church is a part of the cultural conversation, whereas the church generally lives under the false presumption that, with the exception of progressive technology, people are still people and if they would just understand what the church is all about and what we have to offer they would line up to become Christians. People under 40 don’t think that way and we can’t reach them using the old standbys like “Pack a Pew” Sunday, revivals, or even crusades. Good marketing can gather a crowd, but the crowd will primarily be church shoppers who already believe. If the church is going to be serious about being the church, it has to come to terms with the reality that they generally don’t know what they need to know reach their communities. That’s where we come in (Easum, Bandy & Tenny-Brittian). We work coast to coast and understand the national ethos, the changing culture, and what it takes to help a church transform its thinking to become relevant and effective. An on-site consultation gives us the opportunity to adapt and apply what we know nationally to the local context and to help communicate that in ways your congregation can hear.
  2. Eighty percent of church transformations fail in the US and the most difficult transformation of all is to break the 200 barrier. To break the 200 barrier a congregation has to move from a Pastoral organizational model to a Program organizational model. A consultation, when coupled with post consultation coaching, increases the odds of success by taking the pressure off the pastor to say what needs to be said. The move from Pastoral to Program is fraught with political implications because it necessitates the relinquishment of power, control, and management by the selected few in order to create a new system that facilitates growth. Few congregations and pastors understand the process and fewer still are able to negotiate the reorganization and behavioral changes. That’s why, at best, 20 percent of transformational attempts succeed. We’ve worked with over 1,000 churches to help them face issues like this one.
  3. In tight economic times such as these, churches tend to “hunker down” to weather the storm. They take a look at their dwindling income and the escalating costs of keeping a building open, paying utilities, salaries and benefits, and they begin to wring their hands and make cutbacks, beginning with the church’s program (one of the few line items that appears discretionary). However, this is the one area by which a church is measured by a visiting guest. Cut the program budget in your church to your bane. One of the advantages to an on-site consultation is that we experience and evaluate your programming first hand – and because we’re in churches nationwide, we can offer creative suggestions that can bolster your programming to make it both effective and attractive to those in your community.
  4. Most churches in the under 200 category are older … and churches over 40 years-old are in the steepest decline in the US. Further, these older churches have older members. If you create a graph and put the age of the congregation as one axis and time as the other, the escalating age of the congregation in relationship to time has a significant impact on membership. The graying of our congregations does not bode well for the future and many churches we work with discover they have only ten to fifteen years left to make whatever changes are necessary to be relevant to a younger, unchurched audience. Sadly, many of these congregations call us when it’s frankly too late … they need a miracle and we’re not miracle workers. Transformations take time. Significant time. Even a highly motivated congregation will be faced with several years of foundational work. Turning an ocean tanker around takes many miles and much time. An established church with your attendance tends to behave more like a tanker than a speedboat – it won’t turn on a dime. An on-site consultation creates an opportunity for conversations and the great Aha! moments that are necessary before a congregation is willing to invest heavily in their future.
  5. Finally, when a congregation is faced with the reality of their graying and decline, they often fall into panic mode and begin to behave as if the Titanic is going down. Church leadership is faced with having to make changes, but they don’t have the experience nor resources to make timely and relevant decisions. Creativity is the first thing that disappears when panic sets in, and yet creativity is the only hope for most congregations. In panic mode, they’ll work harder at what they used to do, at what they have experience in, hoping that their renewed energy will grow the church. But what worked even ten years ago seldom works today. One of the fallacies of many churches is that they’ll send leadership to a conference or two or three that’s produced by large and successful churches. And though these events are motivational, the ideas they present work well for large churches, but rarely can be applied to churches with less than 500 in average worship. The ministry ideas were created for a Corporate organizational church model and though they sound good, they seldom transfer. We’re in hundreds of churches of all sizes and denominations every year, keeping our eyes open, and learning what’s working today in a variety of contexts. When we do an on-site consultation, we bring a breadth of knowledge that few have access to.

When you’re backed into a corner, it’s difficult to see options. That’s true for individuals and it’s true for organizations as well. If your congregation is in that boat, if the only option seems to be cut the program budget, try and do more of what you’ve already done, and if you’ve talked yourself blue in the face trying to communicate that to your congregation, it might be time for something a bit different. Maybe.