Can dying churches be resuscitated?

Is the only choice between closing a church and planting a new one?

Russell Burrill, D.Min., is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI) and chair of the Department of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Eighty percent of all Christian churches in North America, including those of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, have plateaued or are in a state of decline.1 Many pastors spend time and energy attempting to revitalize an existing church only to be frustrated.

George Barna surveyed churches across America, looking for an adequate number of "turnaround churches" to include in his study. To his amazement, he failed to find a sufficient number of successfully transformed churches to make his research statistically valid. His conclusions point out that it is rare for a church in decline to turn around.2

In the turnaround churches examined, Barna found that change occurred with the arrival of a new pastor who brought new vision to the church. Such turnabouts required great sacrifice on the part of the pastor, who worked an average of 80 hours per week during the transition. Barna concluded that it takes so much energy for the pastor to accomplish the turnaround that only younger pastors should attempt it, and that only once in a pastor's lifetime!

Obviously, these conclusions are not encouraging. The problem is that churches on the plateau or decline usually have lost their sense of mission. They have become a community of saints rather than a movement that reaches out in specific ways to help the world around. It is much more comfortable for congregations to be pampered than it is to "get dirty" reaching the lost.

Seventh-day Adventist churches are not much of an exception to these scenarios. Many of them have lost their sense of mission. The ultimate result is that the churches become virtual country clubs for the saints. The more one caters to them, the worse they seem to get spiritually, and the more care they seem to require.

Recently, Barna released another shocking study of the religious beliefs and practices of overcomfortable Christians.3 This random study surveyed those who listed the denomination they most frequently attended. The study scrutinized the 12 largest denominations in America, which included Seventh-day Adventists.4

The questions about belief highlighted points that every Adventist should agree on. Yet the results of Barna's study showed that only 67 percent of Adventists believed the Bible to be totally accurate, 42 percent felt they must tell others of their faith, 73 percent felt religious faith important, 37 percent believed Satan to be a literal being, and only 32 percent believed that works don't earn salvation. Amazingly, only 45 percent of Adventists felt that Christ was sinless, while 76 percent believed God was an all-powerful Creator.

Further, Barna ranked Adventists seventh out of the twelve denominations studied, when it came to the question of religious purity. Adventists might be inclined to dis miss this study, but George Barna, one of the most recognized and respected researchers, cannot be dismissed so lightly.

Later, Barna released the results of another part of the same study. This dealt with particular religious practices of the twelve denominations. Again Adventists did not fare well. Most startling was the report on prayer: "By far the most common religious practice among adults is praying. Overall, 82 percent of all Americans including 90 percent of all Protestants and 88 percent of Catholics prayed to God within the past seven days. The figure was highest among those who attend a Pentecostal church (97 percent of whom said they had prayed in the past week), and lowest [were] among those who attended an Adventist church (79 percent)."5

This was not the only religious activity in which Adventists did not score well, but it is the most striking. Apparently, there is work to be done to improve spirituality among Seventh-day Adventists.

Spirituality and involvement in mission

On a more positive note, the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI) has processed Natural Church Development surveys from many Adventist churches.6 The two characteristics that have averaged highest in Adventist churches are "need-oriented evangelism" and "passionate spirituality." Since this survey is given only to active church members, the results may be more reflective of what those who are at the heart of the church feel, whereas Barna's research indicates that spirituality has not captured the attention of those outside that inner circle.

All this data indicates that at the root of any turnaround strategy among Adventists should be a plan to reignite the spirituality of the members of the church. No particular method can accomplish this change.

While strategies are important and helpful, they can never replace the work of the Holy Spirit in revitalizing those who believe in Jesus. Hopefully, the people of the Advent faith will once again recognize and take hold of the Spirit's power and become spiritual giants. Only then can our churches truly be turned around.

At the same time, one cannot simply wait until the spiritual problem is solved before one starts working to turn a church around. Revitalization and spiritual growth occur when members become involved in the mission of the church. Few churches turn around by just concentrating on improving their spiritual life. In fact, sometimes the more a church concentrates on improving spiritual life, the more Laodicean it becomes. Spiritual life is ignited only by involvement in mission.

"Those who would be overcomers must be drawn out of themselves, and the only thing which will accomplish this great work, is to become intensely interested in the salvation of others."7

The church is a living organism. It is not a dead organization. All living organisms go through a life cycle, including birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death. We don't like to think that a church must someday die, so we try to move it away from death by institutionalizing its past. The ultimate result is that the church ceases to be relevant to the present society, leading to death anyway.

No living organism lives forever in this world. How does the church continue? In nature, life is perpetuated by reproduction. So it is with the church. The church continues to grow and expand by reproduction: creating new congregations with new life cycles. One research has pointed out that the older a church gets, the less effective it becomes in reaching lost people. This study found, for example, that churches under ten years of age usual ly require ten people to baptize one new convert, whereas churches that are 50 years or older require 100 peo ple to baptize a new convert.8

Life cycles in a church

Robert Dale divides the church's life cycle into several stages.9 The first four occur when the church is on the upswing. First the church is birthed with a dream. It then codifies its beliefs as it defines what it is all about.10 Third, there comes the development of goals. These are set to accomplish what the church's beliefs have specified.

Finally comes the development of a structure to support the accomplishment of those goals. At this point the church may be described as having come to maturity. It may continue there for several years, riding the crest of the wave that God has helped it to create.

Ultimately, however, a church moves to the downside of the life cycle. Dale suggests four stages in this downfall.11 The first is nostalgia. Things aren't happening like they used to, so people start recalling the "good old days." They then move to the second stage in which they start questioning some of the things they are currently doing. Third, they move into polarization. Some remember one way it used to be; others a different way. Ultimately, the church may divide into warring camps, disagreeing on what has gone wrong with the church. Finally, the church ends up in disintegration. People start leaving, and the church may finally decline and die.

When churches get on the down side of the life cycle, they sometimes try to go back to the upstage area of structure. They think that the road to revitalization lies in redoing the structure of the church. Rarely, if ever, does this work.

Here it is crucial to remember that originally the structure was created to help the church accomplish its original dream and goals. The correct application for a church that is on the downside of the life cycle is to go back and rebirth the dream or define another just vision and then create the new beliefs, goals, and structure to support the new dream.

Dream for the future

The most basic step in helping a church move off the plateau or stop the decline is to help it rebirth its dream for the future. Most churches begin with a dream, but as the years pass, the dream is forgotten. Thus it may not even be conveyed to those who join the church as time goes by. This usually causes, at first, an imperceptible wandering, an ill-defined, aimless amble into the future.

One reason that a church gets stuck on a plateau is the fact that when it was planted, it inevitably took on the characteristics of the generation that birthed it. As time continued and that generation moved on or slowly passed from the scene, few people continued to passionately subscribe to the core values held by the original generation.

It is during this period of aging that the church becomes irrelevant to the new societal challenges in which it finds itself and that it is a part of. Thus, fewer people join the church, and it heads into decline.

This is why the average life of a church is about the same as that of the average human: 70 years. The only way to extend the life of a church beyond the usual threescore years and ten is to keep it young by continually redefining the dream and making the church relevant to the society it must now reach. This does not mean that the church should redefine its doctrinal beliefs, but it must reconsider how it relates those beliefs to the surrounding culture.

Three questions

There are three vital questions that church leadership needs to answer as it negotiates revitalization with existing churches. (1) Why are we here? (2) Where will our present course take us? (3) If this is not where we want to go, what must be changed?

Note that the first step is not change, but the reestablishment of mission. Answering clearly the "Why are we here?" question is the most important step in the process of revitalization. The dream cannot be birthed until this question is fully explored. Leadership must then move on to the remaining questions, which, among other things, help a church realize that the present course will continue to lead the church in the way it has been going. And in most cases, that is death. So, what needs to change in order to make the new dream happen?

As George Barna indicated, turning churches around when they are in steep decline may be almost impossible. In such cases, it might actually be best to close the church and replant it. If the church is still on the plateau or if the decline is just beginning, it is much easier to help the church. Half the battle in such churches is enabling the church leadership to recognize that there is a problem and they need to rediscover and birth the vision and dream God has for their church here and now.

If the leadership can be convinced to recognize the problem and deal with it before decline becomes too obvious and overwhelming, there is a good possibility that the church can be reignited for the accomplishment of the mission of Christ. The process is much like giving a heart transplant to a dying patient. Suddenly, life looks good again. Growth begins to occur, and the life cycle gets repeated for another 50-70 years.

This dream renewal, however, can not be done through mechanical means alone. The whole process must be bathed in much prayer and searching the wisdom of God to understand God's vision and dream for this church here and now. The church must be immersed in spiritual revival.

There is no one method for turn ing churches around, but there is one Spirit who can enable the church to work through the difficulties and empower it to once again be vibrant; a true movement of God in its surrounding society.

1 Win Arn, "Church Growth Associate LeadershipTraining/' Pastor's Growth Leadership Conference, June, 1990, Module III, 18.

2 George Barna, Turnaround Churches (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1993).

3 George Barna, Barna Research Online, "Religious Beliefs Vary Widely by Denomination," June 25, 2001.

4 In the study one percent of the U.S. population claimed to be Adventists. However, Adventist membership is much less than one percent (2.5 million people) of the U.S. population. Therefore the figures released do not reflect actual membership, but only those who claim Adventism as their church preference. Since this is true of all denominations studied, we should look at how Adventists compare with other denominations. That is a more accurate reflection of this study.

5 Barna, Barna Research Online, "Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons Reflect Diverse Levels of Religious Activity," July 9, 2001.

6 Natural Church Development is an instrument that measures church health in the area of eight quality characteristics. For further information on this church analysis tool, see Ministry, January 2001, March 2001, and May 2001 issues. Or you can purchase the book, Natural Church Development, through the online NADEI bookstore, located at www.nadei.org


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Russell Burrill, D.Min., is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI) and chair of the Department of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 2002

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