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  • Writer's picturePaul Mahon

Reviving A Dying Church

I have been reading a number of articles recently on church planting. In case you are wondering, the answer is no; I am not about to start a church!

The reason I have been intrigued by church planting is because many of the principles that are crucial for successful church plant's are equally crucial for any established church that wants to remain vibrant and growing.

Often church plants, after a few years of existence, settle into a rhythm and build structure. This mode allows the church to be stable - but it can also bring about stagnation. The structure and systems of the mature church often become the limiting factors that suck the life and energy out of the church.

Studies show that on average 70% or more of church plants are still in existence 3 years after being started but, of that 70%, only 20% have grown beyond 200 in an urban setting.

These studies also show that if the church plant does not break the 200 attendees in the first 3 years it most likely will never break the 200 mark. I have seen many church plants that after 5 years still only have 60 0r 70 people. Some of the original team members have left and now there is a faithful few holding onto the flag but with no clear sense of direction for the future. The are in survival mode rather than thriving.

They are stuck in the same place like a car stuck in snow. No matter how hard they push on the accelerator they can't seem to move forward. We push harder, but because we are using the same strategy as before, the wheels might give off some steam and smoke (which gets everyone excited) but nothing actually changes. And this is the condition of many established churches as well.

It struck me that what ever malady has stunted the growth of the church plant is probably the same malady affecting the established church. And equally, the principles that allow 20% of church plants to thrive most likely are crucial principles for established churches also.

The researchers did an in depth dive to find out why some churches grew quickly to 200 people or more and discovered some common principles. I would like to go a couple of their findings (if I did more then this blog would be an epistle). These principles not only for the church plants but, more importantly, are key areas that might need to be addressed in an established church that is stuck.

1. 88% of successful church plants did it in a team.

It can take time and energy to build a great team.

I remember once asking a seasoned pastor of a large church (around 1500 people) why he was retiring early from pastoring. His answer was very insightful. He said that "My present team (his associate and other key members) is breaking apart for good reasons. I just don't have the energy to go through another round of rebuilding team!"

He was established enough in his ministry that he could have 'cruised' as senior pastor, done great sermons, and used paid staff to carry out the functions. Yet he was also experienced enough to know that this would be a slow death for his ministry and the church.

He understood that if he wanted the fire and vision to stay alive he would need to build a team that would be self propitiating. It would need these qualities...

  • Dynamic...he needed people around him who were leaders in their own right and self initiators

  • Diverse...he would need a team that had all ages, gender, and gift sets in it but it would particularly need younger leaders.

  • Substantial in size...just 2 or 3 core people wasn't enough. He would need a team of 12 or 20 or 40.

  • Harmonious...the team would challenge each other but not be in conflict with each other. A unified group of people who are committed to each others well-being and humility.

  • Fun...he would genuinely need to enjoy the company of the team. They needed to be a group that revived and refreshed him rather than drain his energy away.

  • Compounding...the sum of the whole would need to be exponentially greater than the parts. This is particularly true for a gifted senior leader who is tempted to think that it is easier to do it themselves because individually they perform more effectively than the parts.

Healthy leadership teams generally have a life cycle of 5 to 7 years max before some kind of change happens and the team starts to weaken. When leaders stop the process of rebuilding, and simply shrink the size of team to those they are comfortable with, the church itself will begin to shrink and shrivel.

Reviving a church will mean firstly rebuilding the leadership team. This might mean releasing some current team members to provide an opportunity for freshness. Sometimes we have been operating with the same team for so long we don't recognize the toxic or dysfunctional nature of it. What used to be the right mix for that season is now the very reason the church cannot move forward. Sometimes it can simply be one person that needs to be released and other times it can be an entire group.

It might mean taking a risk on some who are 'not quite ready' and engaging them anyhow. And it might require bringing in people from outside your church who can add skills and strengths you don't currently have.

And you will need to be intentional about building the trust, dynamics, and relationships of this team. The stronger the level of trust and commitment is between team members the more latent potential the team is released. You may even need outside help in identifying team members and coaching on how to build team dynamics. (no self promotion here!).

Done right, however, you will discover that working in a healthy and dynamic team is like driving a Porsche Cayenne versus a beat up, 1995, Dodge Caravan. It's powerful, smooth, and goes places fast!

2. 80% of successful church plants put 10% or more of their budgets specifically towards evangelism.

When I pastored I was very cognizant about the ratio of administrative staff, to pastoral staff, to missional staff. We had a staff 15 to 20 people and I would, at least twice a year, work out how much we were spending on salaries for each of these three groups.

My goal was to make sure that at least 30% of expenditure on salaries was directly 'missional'. I wanted to give room for an outreach pastor who focused on evangelistic programs and strategies. I wanted to see what % of each staff members time was admin, internal programs, and outward focused.

In many ways you could call it a 'missional audit'. The process of breaking down how much of our investment in staff, facilities, money, resources etc was internally focused, building focused, and missional focused,

It is very easy for a church's expenditure to be almost exclusively spent on itself while it members think that they are giving to a missional endeavour.

This is particularly true for smaller churches where the salary of the senior pastor and spouse plus the rent for the facility, can take up 80% of the budget. The finances of the church are used almost exclusively for maintenance rather than growth and this is a downward spiral. If the senior pastors gift set is pastoral and teaching then the church has no institutional catalyst for outreach and conversion growth.

You are like a football team that has all linebackers and no receivers or running backs. Any touch down is purely accidental.

When consulting and coaching a church to move forward the breakdown of the staff and their roles (and their effectiveness in those roles) is one of the first things I look at. You get a very good sense of the direction of a church by the nature of the leadership team. This is the most gut wrenching place to initiate change yet it is the most strategic and productive.

I think, when auditing the missional effectiveness of a church and its resources, it is important to differentiate between the different missional mandates given by Christ. It is very easy to spend money of a program, and think you are being evangelistic, when in fact you are fulfilling a mission of Christ but not necessarily the preaching of the gospel.

Here is a breakdown of the different types of missional' programming and how they differ from pure evangelistic programming.

Social Justice...These are programs by the church that fulfill the call by Jesus to take care of the poor and needy. Programs such as feeding programs, refugee programs, after school care, etc are examples of the church showing the grace of Christ. All churches should have active programming and ministries that serve the world locally and internationally.

What is important to keep clear, however, is that these programs are not firstly about church growth or soul winning. While connections will be made through these ministries we should not see them as firstly 'evangelistic.'. We serve the world simply as an extension of Christs love and not with a 'tit for tat' mentality that says 'If I take care of your needs then I expect you to give me your full attention to hear the gospel'. In my experience, giving out food and then preaching a sermon produces very few, long term, disciples.

When you audit the missional nature of your church make sure that you see the places where you are doing social justice vs the places where you are effectively reaching people with the gospel. They are related but not the same.

Healing Ministries...The church should also be a place where the healing power of Jesus Christ flows to a broken world. . Many churches have done this through programming that provides emotional, or relational, or healing from past trauma.

Programs such as Celebrate Recovery, Freedom Sessions, Counselling Ministries, Addiction Support or Divorce Recovery etc. are all ministries that bring healing.

Again, the goal of these programs is not firstly evangelistic but rather to show compassion to the broken. However, because these programs are usually based on scripture and the teachings of Christ they will engage people on a deeper level with the gospel. Churches who have effective, well run, healing ministries will see a steady flow of individuals being drawn into the faith and fellowship of the church.

When seeking to create balanced programming in a church it is important to have strong ministries that 'bind the broken hearted'. These ministries may also be seen, depending on they way they are run, as complimentary to a churches purely evangelistic efforts.

Evangelistic Ministry... At the core of a missional audit is the desire to see where, how, and how effectively you are sharing the gospel. You want to make sure your church is not a just an ark that cares for the redeemed but also a light house that powerfully spreads the message of the gospel.

Of the three missional mandates (to minister to the poor; to heal the broken hearted, and to preach the gospel) it is finding ways to effectively share the gospel that is the most difficult.

It takes a lot of creativity, a lot of resources, and a lot of tenacity to build an effective ministry to reach the lost. There is a lot of suspicion and mistrust by the community of the church and her message. Solving the huge challenge of how to build genuine connections with the lost, and gather them in a place where they can hear the gospel clearly, takes a laser beam focus to bring about a breakthrough.

Discouragement and distractions mean that few churches commit 10% or more of their time and resources into effective evangelistic programming.

The reason I love the B1:10 challenge is that is a quick and easy way to evaluate how well a church is doing in this area. If a church is seeing 1 person baptized and discipled each year for every 10 who attend the church then it is highly likely they are putting the time, money, prayer, and thought into their evangelistic approach. These results are rarely random.

One church I work with (approximately 70 people) told me a few days ago that they will see 7 baptisms this year. The church has historically had a lot of challenges (and no baptisms). In the last year they have made significant changes to the leadership team by releasing wonderful and sincere people but they had lost their vision and courage. This started the change and then the new team moved from focusing on the problems and reorientated their energy and resources into evangelistic staffing and strategies.

The church is being revived.

3. Successful church plants have a committed team of people who are continuously interceding for the work.

The key word here is 'intercession'.

Jesus said that 'the gates of hell with not be able to withstand the onslaught of the church'. We will break the demonic resistance down. Our destiny is to plunder Satans kingdom and bring back a host of 'captivities captives' into the love of God.

Intercession is how this happens.

It is the consistent, focused, spirit lead, virtuous, seeking of God for mercy for the lost. He invites us to lay hold of Him, and if we do, we will move His hand to scatter the enemy.

But be warned!

Intercession is a Spirit lead journey that will take you places you may not want to go. You 'just want souls' but intercession will lead you into a personal place of repentance and cleansing first. You may 'long for revival' but intercession might lead you to laying down your own position of leadership and letting someone else take over. You 'see a great ingathering' but intercession will lead you into a place where it won't come unless you take that giant leap of faith that the Holy Spirit is calling you too.

Intercession, true intercession, is a great and terrible thing. Yet it is only this kind of intercession that breaks the gates of Hell and brings revival.

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