Fixing the Leaks in Your Church

Imagine you and the rest of your congregation are on a boat. The boat may be large or small. It may be powered by wind or motor. You might know where you are headed or you may not. However, if your church is struggling and in need of revitalization, then your boat is certainly taking on water, sinking into the deep.

Chances are that, if your church has been struggling for any amount of time, you have several holes in your boat where water is entering. Signs of leaks in your boat may include:

  • Your worship tastes like two-day-old fast-food fries.
  • Your nursery and restrooms look like a truck stop.
  • Your building has an odd musty church smell (you know the one).
  • Your theology has some elements that are debatable or even errant.
  • Your pastor retired ten years ago but told no one.
  • You have a conflict rooted deep into the bedrock below.
  • Some of your communication leaves people guessing rather than informed.
  • A few difficult people have completely handcuffed your leaders.
  • Your discipleship is stuck somewhere in the 1960s.
  • Your community outreach is on life support.

Too often in struggling churches, our response to taking on water is to try to get more resources – particularly people and finances – to help bail water from the boat. There are two major problems with this response:

  1. It focuses on dealing with the results, not the causes, of the problems we have created, so it is very likely to fail.
  2. It doesn’t attract new people, because no one wants to jump onto a sinking ship, so it weighs down the existing congregation.

Instead of focusing on the getting more resources to help manage the result of your problems, you must now identify the actual problems that have led to your church’s decline. What is making your church take on water and sink? Where are the holes? Where are the leaks?

Don’t go at this task alone, as your perspective is too limited! Seek the help of the most spiritual and/or influential in your church, enlist help from outsiders, and look to God’s Word prayerfully. Read through Jesus’ letters to the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. What kind of letter would Jesus write to your church today, and why? Be sure to guard your heart, as this task can easily lead to despair.

After you’ve made a master list of your church’s needs, the next task is to categorize these “leaks”. Try three categories based on the difficulty of fixing the leaks.

Some leaks are easy to fix. Rooms can be painted in a day or two. Church communication can be improved immediately. Denominational resources may be readily available. Your building can be cleaned well in a week. Begin by fixing these areas as quickly as you can, creating momentum. This momentum will be helpful as you address more challenging leaks.

Some leaks are harder to fix. They require significant change to the church’s culture. They necessitate the church’s influencers to be on board. They require funding that may not be available. Prayerfully begin taking small steps in the direction of addressing these issues, preparing yourself for when the opportunity is right to fully address them. I can tell you of the times when the right family moved to our church at the right moment. I can tell you of the times that God dropped thousands of unexpected dollars into our offering plate at the right time. I can tell you of the time that difficult person approach me to complete the very task I thought he would be the hurdle to complete.

Some leaks seem impossible to fix. They require major change in the church’s structure. They require new staff that you cannot afford. They may require a significant property upgrade. Instead of letting these issues constantly eat at you and consume your emotional energy, make these issues your top prayer priority, turning them over to God. Apply the truths of Philippians 4:4-9 to these leaks. Trust in Christ and ask for his peace. After all, he walked on water and can keep your church afloat!

Hope for Your Church in Prayer

“In order for the church to be revived, it will demand a mighty work of God’s Spirit.  Following a particular methodology or program does not guarantee success.  One might greatly desire for the church to revitalize and grow, but genuine church growth calls for more than personal passion.  It requires the Spirit of God.” [1]

The sad truth is that most of our churches rarely pray. We may hold prayer meetings. We may take prayer requests. We may have prayer lists, chains, and newsletters. We may talk about prayer. We may hold Bible studies on the topic of prayer. We may spend a few minutes in our worship services praying. Yet, we are far removed from the early church’s commitment to prayer: “And they devoted themselves to … the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

If there is hope for our churches and if they are to be revitalized, then we must become serious about prayer. The time for talking about praying is over. The time for merely studying prayer is past. The time for prayer meetings with little prayer must cease. We must truly, deeply, and passionately pray. We need to pray.

When my church bottomed out sometime in 2008, the list of administrative tasks to be performed, decisions to be made, and meetings to be held seemed beyond number. The juggling act of trying to determine which ministries to keep and which to let go was all-consuming. The task of caring for a demoralized membership was exhausting. Every numerical category by which we measure a church was sinking.

In the midst of these troubles, I led my church to pray:

  • What do You want, Lord, from our church?
  • Do You want us to keep the doors open?
  • Will You meet this particular need? That particular need?
  • Will You give us the strength when our strength has disappeared?

So, I began praying with everyone, all the time. I would pray to open and close meetings, as well as any time in the middle of a meeting the discourse became difficult, challenging, or uncertain. I would pray with my leadership team, with individuals, and by myself. I would pray with anyone in the church who was willing to meet me for that purpose. I would ask anyone outside the church who was willing to pray for our church.

I would love to tell you that I began praying because I am a super-spiritual Christian. Truth be told, however, I had no choice. I had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to run but to the Lord. I had to pray.

For the very first time in my life, I learned what it meant to truly depend upon the Lord. Our church was broken. Our church attendance was dismal. Our ministries were on life support. I had no idea where to go. I was uncertain about the future. However, I had Jesus and, for the very first time in my life, that was enough.

As I prayed and as our church prayed, God slowly began to renew our hearts and renew our church. He began to show us a new path. He began to help us renew our strength in him. He began to give us hope.

I firmly believe that none of this would have happened if we hadn’t prayed.

If our churches are to have hope in the midst of despair, we need prayer, because the work of revitalization requires the hand of God. We don’t need to talk about prayer. We don’t need more studies on prayer. We don’t even need more prayer requests. We need to pray.

There is a vinyl wall cling in my office that highlights two verses from Proverbs, which serves as a reminder of what God taught me about depending on him in prayer during this season at my church. The wall cling reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6).

We need to pray.

[1] William Henard, “Can these Dry Bones Live” (prepublication book presented at Southern Seminary’s Intro to Church Revitalization Course, Louisville, Kentucky, 2014). This work has since been published, available here.

Is There Hope for Your Church?

God is in the practice of restoring, renewing, and revitalizing people and churches, if they are willing to follow him and pay the price to see it happen. There is hope for your church![1]

Given the point to where God has led your church today, do you see any hope? Perhaps the downward trend has been a slow, demoralizing road. Perhaps the stagnation has you longing for something greater. Perhaps your church imploded after a season of conflict. Maybe your church’s struggle is different altogether. Yet, is there is hope for your church?

As I launch my small corner on Small Church Center, I want to begin, in a series of entries, telling you my story, as pastor of First Baptist Church of Aurora. I believe that many of you will be able to identify with the struggles I have faced, with the despair that I have felt, and with the hurt that came into my heart. If 80% of churches indeed have a flat or declining attendance and if 5,000-7,000 churches close each year, we and our churches are anything but alone in our struggles. However, I also believe that my story will help you to see that there is still hope for you and your church.

My first vocational ministry, at the not-so-ripe age of twenty-three, was at First Baptist Church of Aurora. After earning my undergraduate degree in theology, I accepted bi-vocational role in 2005. As I had grew up in a church that experienced several demoralizing cycles of conflict, First Baptist was a breath of fresh air. The church had been growing at 7-8% annually the previous two years, we had a new facility, and, most importantly, there was life. When I first arrived average attendance was just over 200. Eighteen months later attendance swelled to nearly 250. The church was growing financially as well, as the church was able to transition my part-time position to a full-time position in those eighteen months.

However, between mid-year 2007 and mid-year 2008, our church went from an average attendance of 250 to an average attendance of 50 people. Our budget was slashed by 2/3. All staff members in the church had left, with the exception of me. Conflict was everywhere. Blame filled every corner of the facility. The resulting demoralization was thicker than morning fog. The situation in the church was so bad that our youth pastor divorced his wife, yet nearly no one in the church even knew it happened.

At twenty-six years old, the church asked me to lead the church in the interim, following the departure of the lead pastor. My job for a year was to try to figure out everything that our church could not do anymore. The list of what we couldn’t do was larger than what we could still do. At twenty-seven, they removed the interim tag. Despite the pastor search team’s encouragement, I knew I would be held responsible to lead the church back to some sort of past glory.

Where was there hope for my church?  Where was there hope for me? Is there hope for you?

[1] Gary L. McIntosh, There’s Hope for Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 24