Why do Churches Struggle?

I lifted the following from and article in my friend’s, Chuck Wood, daily missive. (The Woodchuck’s Den — to subscribe, write lorchuck@aol.com and tell them that Dan Burrell sent you!)


    We hear a great deal about the growing churches with that growth measured in a variety of ways (honest, believe me, there is such a thing as growth without significant numerical increase). What we don’t hear much about is the churches that are either stuck on a plateau or actually declining (I hate to use the term “dying” although it is appropriate in some situations).

    Chuck Lawless is a prof at Southeastern Seminary at Winston-Salem. He formerly taught at Louisville, and he has carried on an extensive ministry of church consulting over the last several years. He has drawn up a list of ten factors that he has found present in most cases of stagnation or decline (or even failure to grow). Thom Ranier (well-know as CEO of Lifeway) has published Chuck’s findings on one of his blogs. Even if your work is exceeding your expectations or going very well, I think you would benefit from giving this list careful attention. 

“I love the local church. It’s God’s church, despite its flaws. For ten years, I’ve had the privilege of consulting with churches seeking to grow. Here are my reflections of those years – one reflection for each year. If you’re a pastor in a struggling church, be sure to read to the end. I think you’ll find hope there.

1. Churches often wait too long to address decline. Some churches don’t do regular checkups, and thus they have no means of knowing they’re sick. Others recognize the symptoms but choose to ignore them. By the time they admit decline, the pattern is so entrenched that reversing the trend is not easy.

2. Statistics really are helpful. I realize that numbers can become an idol—and that we must fight against—but numbers do tell us something. Most often, they tell us to ask more “why” questions. Why has the church declined in attendance for five years? Why did the church reach 50 people last year, but attendance grew by only fifteen? Why has worship attendance in the second service plateaued?

3. Prayer in unhealthy churches is reactive rather than proactive. A problem develops, and then the church members pray. A marriage struggles, and then they pray. A young person wanders, and then the church prays. Prayer in an unhealthy congregation is often a response of desperation rather than a marker of the DNA of the church.

4. Churches often settle for numerical growth rather than life transformation. Churches may want to grow, but they seldom evaluate the source of the growth. If the church increases in number at all—even if the growth comes only by believers transferring membership from another local church—the church is satisfied. Few churches evaluate how many non-believers are converted through their ministry.

5. Churches do not know their community. As part of our consultation we would do a demographic study of a church’s ministry area and then ask the leaders to describe their community prior to their seeing the study. Frankly, I’m amazed by how many church leaders were not aware of the demographics of their ministry field. They often lived among a people they do not know.

6. Most churches aren’t ready for conversion growth if God were to send it. The biblical call to make disciples demands a discipleship strategy (Matt. 28:18-20), but few churches have one. They do not have the “nursery” of discipleship ready for baby Christians. Seemingly, they assume new believers will grow simply by showing up each week.

7. Sometimes the most obvious suggestions seem the most revolutionary. Church leaders struggling to overcome decline are so close to the situation they often miss the most obvious corrections. Preach the Word with power and enthusiasm. Train members to do evangelism. Minister in the community. Pray for neighbors and co-workers. Develop a mentoring discipleship program. Do worship well. Going back to the basics is often a first step toward renewed church health.

8. The leader in the pulpit matters. Never have I seen a church reverse a decline when led by a pastor uncommitted to the hard work of turning around a congregation. If he has already mentally and emotionally “checked out,” he won’t fool the church for long. On the other hand, a broken pastor who longs and prays for God to move mightily can see a congregation change.

9. In most churches, somebody wants the congregation to make an eternal difference. I’ve never seen a church so unhealthy that nobody was seeking God and His power. The good news here is that just a few people can ignite a renewal fire in a local church. Somebody sees in faith what God might do, and he/she can be a significant support for the pastor.

10. God is still growing His church. I’ve worked with churches that, to be frank, I thought would never grow. Churches so divided that their communities know them as a combat zone seldom give you hope for Great Commission growth. Nevertheless, I’ve seen God work miracles by restoring unity, strengthening and refocusing leaders, and sending members into the community to share the gospel.

    Only God can turn around a church. He has in the past, and He may well do so in your church today.”

2 thoughts on “Why do Churches Struggle?

  1. Paul


    There are many business like concepts that can produce growth in a local church, but an increase in numbers alone should not be our objective. If a local church practices Biblical separation, and expects its members to live a reasonably exemplary life, in a culturally decadent society, how can rapid church growth take place? I’m not talking about being Pharisaical, or gloomy, or without humor and appropriate fun, but the carnal Corinthian Church was admonished rather severely by the apostle Paul for their sinful ways. The church was exhorted to discipline one unrepentant member, and the apostle Paul threatened to turn some over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that they might be saved in the day of the Lord, and others who were committing fornication were headed for severe chastening. It just seems to me that our culture is comletely set against a true New Testament Church. A church that tolerates “shacking up” among its youth, that lowers all the standards of quality music, and generally provides a program that appeals to the unregerate, will have growth, but the church won’t look anything like what the Lord intends for His bride to be.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. Dan Burrell Post author

    I don’t think you are missing anything. What we are seeing in the church are the consequences of an unsound philosophy that is at the foundation of the Church Growth Movement. In fact, a friend and I are writing a book on this very topic. At the core of the Church Growth Movement are the principles that are embraced by millions of businesses and entrepreneurs – from the blatant pragmatism, to ethical relativism, to emotional manipulation. And if you trace it far enough back, you’ll find the seeds of it in American Evangelical Revivalism and the granddaddy of the pragmatists — Finney. Having lived through the last half century of the CGM — from Hyles to the A/G to the SBC to the Hybels to the Warrens to the Stanley/Youngs to the Bell/Driscoll/McClaren to the Furtick/Mullins/Nobles, there are consistent characteristics that is just a mere periodic repackaging of the CGM philosophy of growth principles wherein size, celebrity and bottom lines are the objectives. American Christianity is what we have been becoming.


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