We have heard plenty about the plateaued and declining church in America. I have seen research that indicates that somewhere between 66 and 80 percent of evangelical churches would be found in one of the two categories mentioned above. Our concern is magnified by the reality that a declining church has downward momentum that could become a death spiral if the decline is not stopped and new life injected. Further, we know that the plateaued church is only a generation away from becoming a declining church. Knowing these realities causes us great concern, particularly if we happen to be the pastor or a concerned member in one of the churches that is plateaued or declining.
Revitalizing the American church is the passion of my life. I believe that the church is the Bride of Christ and has been given the keys of the Kingdom. Our task is to advance God's Kingdom, by His power, and for His glory until His victorious return. The church is the primary instrument God has chosen to use to advance His Kingdom to the ends of the earth in preparation for His return and eternal reign. Because of the Kingdom-sized task we have been given, we cannot fail to address the problem of the plateaued church. Too much is at stake for us not to join hearts and hands in this great Kingdom endeavor.
Why Do Churches Plateau?
There are numerous reasons that churches plateau. It might be worth considering a few of them to help with the issue of diagnosis. A church may plateau because of changes in the population surrounding the church. Several years ago I was speaking on church growth in the Midwest region of our country. One gentleman seemed to be especially attentive to what I had to say that evening. When time came for the question-and-answer period, he indicated that he had driven several hours to see what he could do to see his church grow again. His church was in a community where a local mine had been closed. Lots stood vacant as houses were sold and relocated. The population had declined by a large percentage. In truth, I was amazed to hear that the church had declined less than the population of the community had declined. I think I made his day when I told him that his church was actually a great testimony to the power of God. Unfortunately, we don't have categories to affirm churches that have remained faithful to their Kingdom commitment in declining communities.
Churches can plateau because the population surrounding the church changes in its demographic make-up and the church fails to notice or respond to the change. I once visited a church in a downtown area of a large town. The demographic make-up of their community had changed twice in a period of twenty to thirty years, and they had failed to adjust either time. First, there was a change that occurred as many young couples moved out to the suburbs so that both the age and racial make-up of the community was significantly altered. Later, there was a revitalization of the inner city that brought many young professionals back to their neighborhood. This church failed to respond in both instances and was therefore in serious decline. If we fail to adjust our strategy to reach our own Jerusalem, we will reap the consequences.
Churches plateau when they reach the saturation point of their land or facilities. Years ago I wrote a small book entitled The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth. It used the bonsai tree as an object lesson on how one can keep a tree artificially small. The key to the diminutive bonsai is the shallow dish which contains root growth. Property and facilities can act like the bonsai dish in restricting natural growth. One acre of land accommodates about one hundred people and when any portion of the building reaches 80 percent of its capacity it has reached its saturation point. When a church plateaus because of a physical constraint, it must remove that constraint either by providing additional land and space, relocating, or planting another church. (The Bonsai book has been reprinted and is available from the Georgia Baptist Convention.)
Churches plateau when they lose their vision. It is true that when there is no vision, the people perish. A church lacks vision when it spends the majority of its time reminiscing about its "glorious" past rather than talking about its excitement concerning the future.
Churches plateau when they experience internal turmoil. A church is like a family, and when the church family becomes dysfunctional it generally fails to reproduce. Most people join a particular church because they were brought by a friend or relative. When a church is in turmoil, members are reluctant to bring their friends. In a small town, the word of turmoil becomes the fodder of community gossip and thus causes the plateaued church to quickly become a declining church.
Churches sometimes plateau as a part of the natural life cycle. Churches of all sizes will occasionally hit dormant periods. Even rapidly growing churches will sometimes discover they are in a plateaued state. This may be the result of "growth fatigue." Making the changes necessary to accommodate continual growth is tiring. Like the human body, there are times where the church may need to take a breath and assimilate the growth God has given it.
How Do We Address the Problem of the Plateaued Church?
The trend of our day is to plant new churches which are more specifically targeted to reach a particular group of people we are not presently reaching. I think that we will always need to have an aggressive, continuous, strategic church planting strategy to continue to reach the growing population of our country and propel us to the ends of the earth. Church planting is not simply a part of the work of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) or the state convention – church planting is a strategy of the local church. Local churches give birth to new churches, and the state conventions and NAMB are partners in this task. Church planting is a Kingdom-focused strategy since it focuses on advancing the Kingdom and not simply growing a particular local church. It will allow a church which has reached saturation to continue to experience Kingdom growth and excitement.
Nonetheless, I am concerned that we not abandon the local church which has plateaued for reasons other than saturation. How do we help them to discover new life and increased effectiveness in advancing the Kingdom? When we think about the vast resources provided by these churches in terms of people, land, and buildings, the revitalization of the plateaued church becomes a mandate. It hardly needs to be said that revitalization will require some strategic and structural shifts in our thinking and our strategy at the local church level. Change is always challenging, and in the case of the church that has lost its vision and passion, it is nearly impossible.
Before we can make such changes in our churches, there must be a change of heart. We often fail to see change because we attempt to implement change in strategy, structure, or style before there has been a change of heart. This will almost always lead to frustration or outright rebellion. You must first change the heart before you can change the mind. You must change the mind before you can change structure, style, or strategy.
We would be foolish to think that we can fulfill the Acts 1:8 mandate without adequate resources. As your partner in Empowering Kingdom Growth, I have been listening to you and attempting to address your needs at the local church level. The first material I developed was the forty-day study called EKG: The Heartbeat of God. This was a biblical study based on the theme of the Kingdom of God throughout the entire Bible. If you follow the thread of the Kingdom throughout Scripture, you will find that God is seeking a people who will embody His Name, embrace His mission to the nations, and obey His Word. This material was designed to help members of the local church to understand the biblical mandate concerning the Kingdom. It is a Bible study because I am convinced that nothing changes anyone's heart except the Holy Spirit as He applies the Word of God.
Once we have God's heart for His Kingdom, His world, and His church, then we're prepared to have an open mind about what our church must do to be an effective Kingdom instrument. Over the past year you have been reading excerpts from a new book due out in January entitled Eternal Impact: The Passion of the Kingdom Centered Community. Early next year, forty-day study guides and a video product will be available to allow you to study this material together as a church. Once again, my strategy is based on the simple truth that nothing changes anyone's thinking but the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God. The Word is a powerful tool that can lay bare our carnal thinking and shatter our disobedience.
This past year, working with the EKG task force, we made available to the church a study called Making Change: A Transformational Guide to Christian Money Management. This tool includes money management principles, stewardship teaching, and a look at the strategic work of the Cooperative Program. Once again, you will find that this study is a thorough examination of the teachings of Scripture concerning the Kingdom value of our gifts, time, talents, and resources.
I thought it might be helpful for you to get an overview of the various forty-day tools that the EKG initiative has prepared to assist your church in becoming effective in Kingdom advancement.