Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

Your Church Deserves Its Reputation in the Community

by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.

How does your community view your church? Do you even know? First, I ought to say that it’s easy to find out. Just go to the nearest grocery store and ask the cashier. Go to places nearby where there are people and ask them what they know. You’ll find out. Your church either has a good, bad or—perhaps most likely—no reputation.

And let me be blunt: no matter your church’s reputation—good, bad, or none—you deserve it. It doesn’t matter if you argue the minor points where you think people have been unfair; you have given off an impression.

Several months ago, I talked to a deacon chairman who shared that his church had a bad reputation in the community. I got the distinct sense that he thought the community had been unfair. First, I would say that it doesn’t matter whether such judgment is unjust or not. The reputation you have in the community is the reputation you have—that’s what you’ve got to work with. But had the community really been unfair? The church had clearly suffered internal division. Apparently, it had gotten bad enough that the pastor resigned abruptly. It’s hard to say what all the factors were that led up to this unfortunate event. Still, you can’t help but think this was a pastor-eating church. Second, the church had no recognizable outreach in the community, even with a relatively good location in the town. By contrast, another similarly sized church up the street seemed active in ministry to the community. Visiting the two churches on a Sunday morning was also a study in contrast. Sunday morning at the church with the “bad reputation” seemed as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss, while the church up the street appeared happy to have guests.

Did this church deserve its bad reputation? I’ll let you judge, but I bet you can tell what I think.

More likely these days than the “bad reputation” church is the “no reputation” church. I have seen this, too. I’ve even pastored a church like that. You could visit the variety store next door and ask the employees what they thought of the church next door, only to be answered with, “What church?” The church had slowly ceased to impact the community in any way, good or bad. And any internal dissent—and it was there—was just irrelevant to the neighborhood around the church. Like churches with a bad reputation, I’ve seen churches with no reputation also blame the community for their obscure status (“no one wants to go to church anymore”). It is as if hanging a shingle will be enough to draw people to their church. It isn’t.

Fixing a bad reputation or a lack of reputation requires church leaders to take a multi-pronged approach. There are no silver bullets; you cannot simply hire a younger pastor with a young family and expect they will attract families with children to become part of your church. Repairing your church’s reputation is complex and will not happen overnight. I could write a book on the subject (and maybe I will), but let’s begin with your first steps.

1.     1. Own your reputation. As I said before, your reputation is your responsibility. You earned it. Own it. The first step in solving any problem is admitting it to each other and God. Repent as a church. Or, at the very least, get the entire church leadership to commit to repenting of what caused the church to have a poor or non-existent reputation.

2.      2. Commit to praying corporately for your community. Many inwardly focused churches do have a prayer ministry. Still, such prayer is often lifted up only for sick, saved people (and yes, we should pray for our ill brothers and sisters). But our prayer focus should go outside the four walls. If you can get the church, as a body, to pray for the community, the Holy Spirit will begin doing the work within the collective heart of the church that is needed to start earning a good reputation. Your community likely has many needs. Find out what those are and pray for them. Pray that God would use your church as an instrument to see lives transformed, addictions broken, families restored, and souls saved by the Gospel.

3.      3. Act like you expect visitors. I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve seen where it wasn’t very apparent to me, from the signage outside, what time the service even started. If you have a website or Facebook page, ensure that information is up-to-date and prominent on those venues. As for me, if I must guess what time your worship service starts, I’m going to save myself the embarrassment by skipping it. When people do show up, act like you expect visitors. Have someone on the lookout for visitors—an usher, a greeter, someone in church leadership. Give this responsibility to someone warm (and not an Eeore), and never leave that front door unattended! And while you’re at it, a few simple signs pointing to the worship entrance can help newcomers—and they won’t bankrupt your church. And while you’re at it, make sure your church (especially bathrooms and the children’s areas) is clean and eliminate some clutter (the more clutter you can disappear, the better)! You’d be surprised how much ensuring your facilities are presentable will improve your reputation.

4.      4. Avoid insider language in your church communication. This drives me crazy. Church announcements and bulletins are full of this. I can’t tell you how often a church will say, “If you want to bring something to the potluck, just see Bonnie Sue, and she’ll get you all signed up.” And a visitor or relatively new attendee wonders, “Who’s Bonnie Sue?” It would help if you at least provided Bonnie Sue’s contact information.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it should get you started. Your church can still have a kingdom impact on your community. What are some other easy ways to begin to mend your church's reputation? Chime in!



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