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

The First Step to Church Revitalization

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

So your church needs revitalization, and you don’t know where to start? Maybe you have no financial resources and not much of a volunteer base. Perhaps you’re struggling to pay your bills and keep the facilities in good repair. And you’re down to seven people—all of whom are beyond their physically best years. Perhaps you don’t even have a pastor anymore. Or, your church situation may be far from dire. The congregation is paying its bills, and there are reserves in the bank. There is more than one full-time paid staff member. But the early signs of decline are there. Attendance has been trending down for the last few years. Outreach initiatives meet with less enthusiasm amongst the membership. New faces are a rarer sight on Sunday mornings. While specific strategies for successful revitalization would differ in some specifics between the two church situations I’ve just described, the starting point for—and the continued focus during—revitalization is something any church can afford, no matter how dire the budget is. It’s also something any church can do, regardless of the members’ physical health.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

No matter the church, revitalization starts with prayer. I have often heard it said that no great movement of God ever occurred that was not preceded by the extraordinary prayers of His people. Every revival—from the Great Awakenings in America to the turnaround of a declining local church—starts with prayer. If you want to see your church revitalized, you must lead your church to pray together, corporately, that God would bring renewal. And I’m talking about strategic and intentional prayer—not just listing it as one more item in your weekly prayer bulletin. Yes, I would encourage you to start with that prayer list, right next to the sick people and the foreign missionaries—who we should continue to pray for. Yes, I also think that prayer for revitalization should be part of every Sunday morning prayer—or any other prayer lifted up when the body of Christ meets corporately for worship, study, or fellowship. Every time you pray as a church or a group within the church, I encourage you to pray for revitalization and renewal.

But I also encourage you to make it a priority to pray specifically for renewal during times expressly set aside for that purpose. In the struggling church where I served as pastor, we prayed together for this specific purpose on several Friday nights. We had Saturday morning prayer breakfasts devoted to revitalization. We even had an overnight prayer vigil dedicated to renewal in our church. I know it doesn’t sound very convenient. It wasn’t meant to be. We desired, first, to draw the people who seriously wanted to see God move in our church and who believed He would. Second, we wanted this time to be without the distractions of the regular church routine.

Our prayer time was very loose in format, though I provided various revitalization prayer emphases throughout the meetings. We prayed specifically for the neighborhood. We expressed our desire that a move of the Holy Spirit would sweep the community, drawing to Christ those dear souls who didn’t know Him as Lord and Savior. We prayed that our church could be a part of that move, that we could see God work a miracle in our neighborhood, and that He would bend our hearts’ desires to His heart’s desire for the lost. We prayed to see the community members as Jesus sees them and for the chance to be His hands and feet to them. Yes, of course, we prayed that God would send laborers for the harvest—we needed help—but also that we would be bold in our witness. We asked God for material provision to the extent it would help our church facilities be an inviting place and not a hindrance to welcoming others.

Not only did we have such devoted prayer time within the confines of the church building, but we moved outside. I always encouraged the congregation to take prayer walks of the neighborhood, if they could, and engaged in the practice myself. We also initiated a deliberate strategy of prayer-walking the community to pray individually for each home. For this, we used professionally designed and printed door hangers that said simply, “We prayed for you,” and gave the church’s name and contact information if the person reading the hanger wanted to request further prayer. No service times were provided on the hangers—and no invitation to church, no evangelistic “plan of salvation” was printed on the back. You see, this wasn’t an outreach. This was a prayer in reach. We mapped out the community and assigned volunteers to stop before each home and pray for the people there. We instructed those volunteers not to knock on the door but, if possible, to leave a door hangar at each residence they prayed for. 

Some of our elderly members who could not comfortably walk the neighborhood volunteered to stay behind at the church and pray for those out prayer-walking the community (I must say, however, that I was amazed at how many of our octogenarian membership were out there with the rest of us, prayer-walking the neighborhood). If curious neighbors were to ask what we were up to, we would explain our goal and offer to pray right then and there for any specific prayer needs. If people asked about the church—where it was or when services took place—we told them and invited them to visit. But inviting people to church wasn’t the aim of these prayer walks. Evangelism wasn’t the goal, either. 

The prayer walks aimed to get the membership to pray for those outside the church’s four walls. Period. It took me years as a Christian to recognize that the purpose of my prayers was not to get God to do what I wanted Him to do. Instead, God’s purpose for my prayers is to change my heart—to make me long for what He desires. When you want what God wants, you can’t help but have your prayers answered.

When your congregation prays for the community—that God will draw them to Christ, that He will allow us to serve them, that the church will fulfill its Great Commandment mandate to love others, and its Great Commission function of making disciples—God will change hearts. That’s how He works. Yes, God is sovereign. He knows what He’s going to do, and we’re not going to change His mind. I don’t pretend to know precisely how God’s sovereignty and our free choice intersect—if they even do. But I don’t believe that churches die because He somehow, in some deterministic fashion, predestined it to happen. I think churches choose to die. In Revelation 2, the risen Jesus warns the church in Ephesus that He will remove their lampstand if they do not return to their first love. I believe church closure today amounts to a manifestation of the Lord’s warning to the Ephesians. He sometimes removes a church’s lampstand because they no longer love each other or the lost and unsaved around them. In part, the long spiral downward begins because, long before they shut down, the congregation stops praying together as a local expression of the universal body of Christ. 

So, as with every revival in church history, local church revitalization starts with fervent prayer. Indeed, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16, NIV). As Jesus explained in the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18), we should grab onto the horns of the altar in prayer and not let go until we see God’s answer. 

God’s not done with your church.

Calling all prayer warriors to gird up for this next great battle, fought from on our knees!


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