Monday, March 14, 2011

A Hail Mary for dieing churches

The following is a great post from Bill Easum.  Many churches would be well served to heed some/all of this advice.

By Bill Easum
The average church in the U.S. is under a hundred in worship. Churches with less than 50 people in worship make up 40% of all churches in the U.S. The average age in these churches with less than 50 people in worship is over 65. Add to that less than 2% of these churches are growing and you have a formula for major disaster over the next fifteen years for 40% of all the churches in the U.S.

If there is to be any hope for the vast majority of these churches radical action must be undertaken within the next few years or most of them will go out of existence. So, I am suggesting a “Hail Mary Strategy” for these churches.  You get the image. It’s the last five seconds of the football game; your team is down by six points; and you are on your own 45 yard line.  Only a touchdown will allow you to win the game. So you call the play and launch the ball as high and as far as you can hoping beyond hope the ball will come to rest in the arms of your receiver somewhere over the goal line.

So the question is this – “Will the leaders of your church wake up to the fact that the church is in serious trouble and the only way to move it from survival to thriving is by starting over?”
Starting over means the following based on the “Hail Mary Strategy.”
  • Find a way to have a full time pastor/planter who will commit for three years . I know you can’t afford this at the moment but you must find a way or you will continue to decline. A part time pastor does not have the time to do all that is necessary to restart a church.
  • Suspend all of the present ways/policies/hidden agendas/system stories regarding decision making and day to day running the church and allow the pastor and a launch team to give direction to the church during the three years. This also means disbanding all of the existing committees and the Administrative Council.
  • Do away with the present mission statement and come up with one that a six year old can remember as well as short enough to be written on a t-shirt.
  • Allow the pastor to bring together and disciple/equip a re-launch team of a seven people and give them full authority to make all of the decisions for the next three years.  These people need to have four faith characteristics: one, a renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church; two, a servant’s heart; three a deep compassion for the lost; and four, a more focused prayer effort.
  • The pastor should be personally responsible for spending 80% of his or her time in the community, dreaming up ways to reach the unchurched, and responding to the visitors to worship. I’ve never seen a church this size grow without the pastor being the direct cause of the growth. Just think how it would change the church if the pastor personally brought in fifty new members over the next eighteen months?
  • Begin an indigenous worship service designed specifically for people 25-50 which means rock music and tons of visuals.
  • The pastor must find a musician who believes in the mission and is willing to give his or her time to developing the music and musicians for this service. I know you don’t have a clue how to do this but you get what you look for and if part of the 80% of the time the pastor is spending on the unchurched is devoted to finding this person the pastor will find them.  These people are out there waiting to be asked to play in worship rather in the bar scene.
  • Send out six off-the-wall direct mail pieces to all the households with five miles of the church announcing the start of the new worship service.  These mail out pieces will focus on two things- a new service and a new sermon series designed to catch the imagination of the people under 50 years of age. It must not look churchy.
  • Develop one or two signature ministries.  Churches with less than 300 in worship can only do one or two key ministries. I suggest one of these be a children’s ministry fashioned after Promise Land from Willow Creek. You will not be able to afford  to purchase it, but you can easily put your own program together once you understand the basics.
  • Keep the present worship service intack for the present members. These folks have kept the church open all these years and need to be honored for their commitment. What I am suggesting in no way diminishes their past or future contributions to the God’s Kingdom.
  • Have a capital fund drive to raise enough money to accomplish the above. One of the roles of the present members will be to “pray and pay” for what needs to be done to reach young adults for Christ and cause your church to thrive once again. With a solid plan in place you can probably borrow more from your bank.  This should be more than enough money to do what is necessary.  Now you see why I call this a “Hail Mary” strategy. But it works if you have the right planter/restart/pastor.
The one thing you know for sure; if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. Surely you’re not satisfied with that.  So roll the dice; spend everything you have; and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, it just means you’ll close the doors a few years sooner and with a lot less grief.


Joey said...

This sounds really marketing-driven. I'm not sure that's where we want our churches going. Don't get me wrong, there are elements to this that are good. But is it such a bad thing that some churches are geared to older audiences and others to younger? We recently left Bethlehem Baptist Church and are now at Hope Community Church, which definitely fits us much better. Hope actually now occupies a building from a former Evangelical Free church that closed its doors due to an aging, declining congregation.

I'm not that concerned about a lot of these churches closing. Frankly, my parents' church, which is comprised of a vast majority of family members of the pastor - my grandpa - who led it for 30 years, should have closed years ago in my opinion. There are other churches in their area that are similar enough and could absorb the 30 or so people (including children) who are left.

Those are my thoughts anyway. Interesting read, but it felt way too much like a marketing campaign to me. I don't think I want my church's resources going to something like that. Am I off-base?

Chris Meirose said...

I think it really depends on where you are as a church. Hope is a great church. I remember watching them get their start while I was in Seminary. And since you went to Bethlehem, you already know where to park in the neighborhood!

I do think the church that gave the building to Hope is a great example. They knew they were dieing, but rather than waste all their resources to hold on for another couple of years, they found a way to be a blessing to a new church that had hope for a future. Many of the churches Easum is talking about do not have the kingdom vision for this sort of thing. We have a church down the street from mine that fits this bill. I'd much rather go out with a bang trying to make a kingdom impact than stay on life support and die quietly.

As for being marketing driven, Easum isn't one I'd throw into that category (see Nelson Searcy for one that I would), though he obviously is advocating some proven marketing techniques to try to regain some positive momentum. That is though, where as a church wanting make changes, you can make choices to do all/some/none of the suggested items.

I think most of Easum's ideas are ones that could improve our church (some we've already done - tomorrow is my 3 year anniversary here!). A few don't fit our culture so we'd no use them, but all of them are good discussion starters.

Some churches really should fold in with another, but there are a lot of landmines to navigate when doing that. Many churches should try something new and see where God works. But the reality is that church revitalization is the hardest way to go. All the evidence shows that revitalization is far less likely to be successful than new plants (again Hope is a great example here).