Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 2)

(This is part 2 of a two-part article, 6 through 10 reasons on why small churches usually do not grow. Click here for part 1)

6. No plan.

The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else.

Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.

The church with no plan–that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become–will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of “all churches everywhere.” They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, “What is your vision for this church?” and you will receive blank stares for an answer.

Here are two biblical instances of church leaders who knew what they were doing.

In Acts 6, when the church was disrupted by complaints from the Greek widows of being neglected in the distribution of food in favor of the Hebrew widows, the disciples called the congregation together. They said, “It is not right for us to neglect….(how they would fill in this blank reveals their plan)…in order to wait on tables.” And then, as they commissioned the seven men chosen, the disciples said, “We will turn this responsibility over to them and give our attention to….(fill in the blank).”

In the first instance, the disciples saw their plan as “the word of God” and in the second as “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

How do you see your ministry, pastor? What is your church’s focus?

Earlier, when Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: “Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to…..(what? how they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus).”

“…to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29)

When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (v. 31) Clearly, that means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.

When I asked a number of leaders for their take on why so many small churches do not grow, several said, “They need to focus on the two or three things they do best. Not try to be everything to everyone.”

Some churches need to focus on children’s ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. (Tell me why it is when a church is filled with seniors, we look upon it as failing. It’s as though white-haired people of our society don’t need to be reached for the Lord.)

Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women’s or men’s work.

One note of explanation: this is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.

7. Bad health.

It’s no surprise to anyone who has spent time in more than a few churches to learn that some are unhealthy. And by that, we do not mean just because they are small, they are sick. You can be small and healthy; behold the hummingbird.

An unhealthy church is known more by what it does than by a list of characteristics and attributes. A church that runs its preachers off every year or two is unhealthy. A church that is constantly bickering is unhealthy. A church that cannot make a simple decision like choose the color of the carpet, adopt the next year’s budget, or accept changes in an order of worship may be unhealthy.

So, what is a healthy church and how do we get from here to there?

Entire libraries could be filled with books written on the healthy church, and consultants abound, ready to assist congregations toward that purpose. But here it is in shorthand….

Romans 12 is God’s blueprint for a healthy church. It divides into three parts: verses 1-2 call for each individual to make a personal commitment to Christ (“present your bodies as a living sacrifice”), verses 3-8 call for each one to find his/her place of service where they can use their spiritual gifts, and vs. 9 through the end of the chapter describes the relationships within a healthy, loving fellowship of believers.

Show me a congregation where everyone is committed to Jesus Christ, each one is using the God-given spiritual gifts in the Lord’s service, and the fellowship is sweet and active–and I’ll show you a healthy church.

8. Lousy fellowship.

This overlaps with the last point, but it deserves a spot by itself.

For my money, the best thing a church has to offer individuals and families in the community–other than the saving gospel itself–is a place they will be loved and welcomed and made part of an active, healthy family. It’s what we mean by “fellowship.”

There are ways to tell if the fellowship in your church is unhealthy. Here is a brief rundown.

First, regarding the visitors to your church, your the fellowship is unhealthy if:

a. Visitors are basically ignored.

b. In some places in the church, visitors are even resented.

c. No one follows up on visitors to let them know they are wanted and give information on the church.

d. There’s no attempt to get people to visit your church in the first place.

Second, regarding the worship services of the church, the fellowship is probably unhealthy if:

a. Everything is orderly, but it’s the same order you’ve used since forever.

b. The singing is lifeless and any departure from the norm is verboten. A new hymn or chorus, a different kind of musical instrument, a testimony here, an interview there, a short drama or video–no, sir. Not in our church.

c. There’s no laughter, nothing spontaneous.

d. The invitation time is tacked on, lifeless, and without any response, ever.

e. The prayers are filled with platitudes and stale.

When the Old Testament prophets called on God’s people to “break up the fallow ground”–Hosea 10:12 and Jeremiah 4:3–they wanted to see evidence of brokenness, a willingness to change, a desire to bear new fruit.

Fallow ground is soil that has laid unproductive for several seasons. The hard crust requires a deep turning plow to open it up and even then, the soil may require more preparatory work before it is productive.

A church with poor fellowship or essentially none is not failing to have enough socials and dinners. The church is failing in the most basic of areas of disciples: a failure to love.

Jesus said, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35).

My observation from my own heart and nearly a half-century of ministry is that the disciple who is close to Christ loves the brethren. So a congregation that is unloving toward one another may be said to be far removed from the Lord and in a backslidden state. It’s a simple deduction.

“Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you!” (James 4:8)

9. A state of neglect permeates the church.

Not always, but often, a dying church shows signs of its weakening condition by the disrepair of its buildings and the neglect of its appearance. The interior walls haven’t been painted in years and bear the collective fingerprints of a generation of children. The carpet is threadbare, the piano’s keys stick, the pulpit chairs need reupholstering, and the outside sign is so ugly it would be an improvement if someone knocked it down.

I received a vivid lesson on neglect early in my ministry when we received word that a high school student had taken his own life.

Although the family were members of another denomination, our youth minister and I called at their home to express our sympathy and offer our services. Along the way, my colleague filled me in on the family’s situation. The dad was said to be having an affair, he and his wife bickered constantly, they were heavily in debt, the children were without supervision, and the brilliant son who had taken his life was rudderless.

As we parked and walked up the sidewalk, we were struck by the disarray of the yard. The grass was knee-high and clutter was everywhere.

Inside, the father calmly brushed aside our condolences. “The way I look at these things,” he said, “is that they all have a way of working out for the best.” I was stunned. I thought, “Sir, your child is dead. Tell me how that is going to work out for the best.”

We left sadder than when we arrived.

Dying churches do not tend to their business. They let problems fester and divisions go unaddressed. Listen closely and you will hear a leader speak those infamous words: “These things have a way of working themselves out.”

And so they do nothing, and the church drifts on toward the grave. No one gets saved, no one joins, people drift away, the community becomes less and less aware of the existence of that little church, and the remaining members complain that people just don’t love the Lord the way they used to.

10. No prayer.

It’s tempting to make a little joke here and say, “Such churches do not have a prayer,” but they could if they chose to.

When King Saul was bemoaning the woes that had descended upon him as a result of his rebellion against God, one of his chief complaints was that God no longer heard his prayer. “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer….” (I Samuel 28:6)

Luke tells us, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1)

Pray or quit. Those seem to be the alternatives.

Want to give your congregation a little test, pastor? Next Sunday, call for your people to meet you at the altar for a time of prayer. Do not beg them or cajole them. Just announce it, then walk there yourself, kneel and begin praying. See if anyone joins you. Notice who comes and pay close attention to who does not.

It won’t tell you everything you’d like to know about your church, but it will say a lot.

A friend on Facebook requested prayer for his new ministry. When I asked what he was doing, he responded privately that in addition to pastoring his church, he is working for the state convention in his region. He said, “Almost all our churches in this part of the state are dying. We have buildings that were constructed for hundreds now running 15 or 20.”

The plan, he said, is to get things in place to re-evangelize those regions as these oldline churches die off.

I hope they don’t wait until those churches actually close their doors. A lifeless church can take a long time to give up the ghost.

The best approach would be for that stagnant, dying congregation to awaken and get dead serious about becoming vibrant again. This would mean taking the unprecedented step of doing anything it takes to re-establish their witness and presence in the community.

In almost every case I know personally, that is not going to happen. The leaders would rather see their church disappear from the earth than to do anything new and different.

That is as sad a sentence as I’ve written in a long time.

That’s why the only approach most of us have ever seen work is to bring in church planters from outside and start afresh.

The leadership of the dying churches will resent it. “Why are you spending money on starting new churches when we already have churches here? You could invest a fraction of that to help bring our church back, if you were thinking straight.”

Stay the course, church planters. Not only will you do a good work in your own new congregation, but you might just build a fire under that old bunch. Their resentment may awaken them to fan the flames of the dying embers of their own faith.

The pastors who arrive to begin new congregations will use innovative methods, almost always leave the suits and ties in the closet, set up guitars and drums and install screens and projectors, and come up with names for their churches that seem unchurchlike: Sojourn, Mosaic, Praiseworthy, Koinoia, Maranatha, Celebration, Vintage, and River.

God bless ’em.

But know this, church planter. A generation or two from now, if Koinonia and Sojourn and River and Celebration have not changed their methods and have become set in their ways, they too will be left behind as the ever-creating Holy Spirit seeks those who want to be new wineskins for the new things He is always up to.

Now, let us pray.

“Father, we do like our routines and ruts. Forgive us for limiting you by asking you to adapt to us instead of the other way around. Lord, in the words of the old hymn and the older Psalm, ‘Wilt thou not revive us again that thy people may rejoice in Thee? We ask this for Jesus sake. Amen.” (Psalm 85:6)

2 thoughts on “Why Small Churches Tend to Stay Small (Part 2)

  1. Okay Joe. Now you’ve went and done it. I’ve read it. I copied it over into my word processor. I’ve saved it in my “articles” file. But now… what will I really do with it? You’re tough, Joe. Tough. Keep it up.

  2. I’m Rev.Bernard Nhyiranyin Davis from West Africa, Ghana to be precised. And as a public speaker with divinely vision to target the youth for better future, always remember me in your prayers that the ‘Word of God would anchor me on my feet’. (Job 4:4)

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