I’m working with a church established in the 1990s that grew up to 200 the year it moved into its permanent building in the late 90’s. Then it began to decline and has been declining every year since and is now down in the low 100’s.
We see this kind of decline often in new church plants when they finally get a permanent home. Prior to having a place of permanence much of the focus of the church is on reaching more people and increasing attendance. That is the only way a church planter achieves his or her goal of planting a church. It takes people to plant and grow a new church. Then a new set of pastors come along and the focus shifts from reaching more people to taking care of who we’ve got.
On key to reversing the decline then is clear – you have to return your focus to reaching more people for Christ rather than taking the people you have deeper in their faith. There is a fine line between just gathering a crowd for the sake of survival and gathering a crowd for the sake of discipling them.
Every strong church always has two primary thrusts- one outward to reach more people and one inward to disciple those who show up. Many of the ministries listed in the audit lean more toward the inward thrust. To reverse the decline you must place more emphasis on outreach to the community for the sole purpose of them participating in worship..
When a person plants a church that person has one all consuming passion – to get more people in the seats so that a viable community of faith is established. Increasing the numbers is everything and when it isn’t the church plant fails. Over time there is a slight shift of emphasis toward discipling those who have been gathered, but even then the discipling is done in the context of growing the Kingdom more than growing individuals. In other words individuals grow more like Christ when they are focused not on themselves but on those who have not yet heard. So most of the discipling takes place on the mission field more than in the class room.
A second key to reversing the decline often around 125 in worship is the either the congregation begins to demand the pastor focus on them and/or one or two controllers try to wrestle leadership away from the pastor and control what the pastor does. From here the church become conflicted and triangulated. Conflicted churches simply don’t grow.