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‘Comeback churches’ refuse to remain plateaued or declining; seek new life

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The few remaining people at Terrace Heights Baptist Church in Yakima, Wash., didn’t want their church to die.

After attendance had dwindled down to a handful of members, they feared the church would soon shut its doors for good. Something had to change fast.

Terrace Heights is one of many churches in the United States that started out strong, stopped growing and then fell into a period of decline. Currently, 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches have either leveled off in growth or are declining.

In the new book, “Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can, Too,” authors Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson researched 300 churches among 10 denominations around the country. They mapped out a detailed approach to restoring “plateaued” or declining congregations. The book is published by B&H Publishing Group, the publishing division of LifeWay Christian Resources.

According to Leadership Journal, which the authors cite in the book, 340,000 churches are in need of church revitalization.

“Over time, most churches plateau, and most eventually decline,” Stetzer writes. “Patterns and traditions that once seemed special eventually lose their meaning … [Congregations] become more concerned about a well-used policy manual than a well-used baptistery.”

For Terrace Heights, realizing there was a problem was the first step.

The second step involved being more upfront about the church’s vision and direction. The congregation toughened their membership requirements by unveiling a new member’s course and a yearlong new members “boot camp.”

“They were desperate for anything that might bring life,” Terrace Heights pastor Rob Morris said. “We know it is working because we have seen very few people leave or stop coming to the church.”

Having the courage to admit mistakes and take action is where church revitalization begins, the authors say.

“Business as usual will continue to produce the same slow or no-growth environment that plagues the large majority of churches,” Stetzer and Dodson write. “The church will need to have an honest evaluation of their current condition, get the church working together for a common solution, and determine what to do together.”

Stetzer, who June 1 will become director of LifeWay Research, has authored several books and is currently co-pastor of Lake Ridge Church near Atlanta. Dodson has served as a pastor and church planter strategist for more than 10 years.

Many struggling churches are focusing too heavily on the wrong things, such as worship and preaching styles, they say.

“The wrong question is whether your church is ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’ and which is better,” the authors add. “The real issue is whether your church is biblically faithful, acting as the presence of Christ in the community at large, able to relate Christ to people in culture, and is on mission.”

Most of today’s struggling churches fail to relate to their communities, the authors contend.

Since 1991, the adult population in the United States has grown by 15 percent. During that same period, the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, rising from 39 million to 75 million –- a 92 percent increase.

As staggering as that last statistic may sound, most of today’s churches still are not adapting to this growing trend. The authors contend this is more of a “heart” issue than one of strategy and style.

“Most Christians don’t like lost people,” Stetzer and Dodson write. “We wish it were not so, but, it is. Lost people don’t think like us; they often don’t vote like us; they influence our kids … they are not our people.”

Christians must get past their prejudices and focus on relationships and building more small-group ministries, the authors add.

“Unfortunately, many Christians make little effort to cultivate new friends because they feel comfortable with the friends they already have,” Stetzer and Dodson add.

Nearly all growing churches have an outreach strategy, and almost all declining churches do not, the authors say. Ultimately, they say, people need community, and it is up to the church to provide that community.

“People who are connected in community are more likely to make the journey to connect with Christ,” Stetzer and Dodson write.

Though every church is different, the authors hope that struggling churches can use the book as a tool to help them get back on track.

“This study reveals that there is hope for struggling and declining churches,” they write. “Churches can be restored, renewed and revitalized.”

Stetzer, who June 1 will become director of LifeWay Research, has authored several books and is currently co-pastor of Lake Ridge Church near Atlanta, Ga. Dodson has served as a pastor and church planter strategist for more than 10 years.
“Comeback Churches” is available at LifeWay Christian Stores and online at www.lifewaystores.com.

    About the Author

  • Shawn Hendricks