Church Decline: Ministry in a Shrinking Church

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Confession time – my church is shrinking. I would not say that we are dying, but the numbers show a steady 20% downtrend over the past five years. That is an approximate number for both giving and attendance. There are several factors, but without question my church is in a period of decline.
This is not something a long time Southern Baptist like myself is supposed to admit, much less blog about. But many churches are in the same situation. Experts state that 85% of American churches are “plateaued of declining.” (Comeback Churches by Ed Stetzer)
There are many reasons why churches shrink. Sometimes it is demographics. Other times it is poor leadership. Whatever the reason, negative growth puts real pressure on the all the church’s ministries. Here are a few lessons I’m still learning from my ministry over the past few years. These can apply to kids ministry or to any aspect of a declining church.

7/2010 Update: We’ve posted a Think Tank discussion on ministry in a declining church and uploaded a PDF workshop I taught on the subject.  Plus I’ve found some honest posts about the topic from Karen Wingate.

Tips for Ministering in a Shrinking Church

Keep an outward focus.
My natural temptation is to work hard to hold on to the people who are still coming to our church. In retrospect I think that is a mistake. A church in decline must try all the more to reach out.
Keep a Kingdom focus.
God’s work around the world continues to advance and we can still take part through missions giving. Even as we have lost membership, we have become more engaged in the praying, giving and going.
Do not let survival become your only vision.
Even if our church completely disappeared, God would still raise up a Gospel witness to our community. It can be easy to make the building or the congregation’s history into an idol. But the great commission has never been about survival.
Let the experience teach humility.
At one point I might have looked down on pastors of shrinking churches. Now I see that some factors are beyond the control of the leadership. The real measure of success is faithfulness before God. (Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome) My experience has helped me learn to be humble.
Do not be angry with God.
He does not owe us anything, even if we have done all the right things to please Him. The Pharisee seeks to control God through his religious obedience and becomes angry when God does not play along. I must not resent God for the negative church growth.
Do not fall into despair.
Do not think this season is forever. This is my weakness and often I wonder at my own discouragement. But I know that in the big picture these lean years are building my character.
Accept responsibility.
It would be easy to make excuses for church decline. I could blame the pastor, or the culture, or the people themselves.  But as a leader I must refuse to pass blame. I can name a dozen things I might do better going forward.
Stay faithful.
In times of decline you must keep doing the little things well. Keep up your prayers and preparation. Even if you only have a very small Sunday School class, those children were put there by God.
Get creative.
Times of decline are perfect for fixing what is broken. People are willing to change and want to see something new. Find new ways to connect with your culture and seek out the lost where they live.
Be frugal.
The practical side to all this is shrinking budgets. Our church has been very wise in managing finances. Our careful spending has relieved much of the pressure that comes with declines in giving. My personal aim is to never spend more than 75% of the children’s ministry budget. This allows for flexibility and builds trust with our people.

What Do You Think?

Have you severed in a shrinking church? What advice would you add? Leave a comment below to share your experience.

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