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

What’s more important in ministry: Faithfulness or fruitfulness?

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

I’ve often heard it said (harped upon, at times) that Christian ministry is about more than faithfulness—it’s about fruitfulness.

I just don’t buy that. Not in the way it seemed to have been meant when I heard it said, anyway.

Yes, sometimes ministries have been unfruitful when they lack no resources to help them yield a bountiful spiritual harvest. But this sort of fruitlessness may actually be the result of unfaithfulness.

What is faithfulness anyway?

All Christians are called to ministry. However, I do write primarily from the perspective of a church leader. As ministry leaders, we ought to be willing to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror, having the fortitude to eliminate ineffective practices in our given context. We should gladly attempt to find and implement those biblically informed ministry methods that have proven fruitful for others ministering in similar circumstances. We should humbly seek coaching and mentorship from those who have walked a similar path. That’s what faithfulness looks like.

We mustn’t expect success when we haven’t worked hard to build relationships within and outside the ministry and the church. We shouldn’t expect to grow a ministry without fidelity in proclaiming God’s Word and fervent prayer. We shouldn’t be surprised when, against the missionary philosophy Paul espoused in 1 Corinthians 9, we use ministry methods inappropriate to our cultural context—and they fail to reach people. You can be as faithful as you want with “bus ministry” and in most places in America today, it won't bring people in—certainly not like it did in the 1970s. Those things aren’t faithfulness.

But our best efforts aren’t always enough—or so it seems.

Sometimes, despite all the sweat, tears, prayer, biblical preaching, and teaching—despite doing one’s best to love people and build Christian community—a ministry will fail. A nascent church plant might never gain traction. The faithful effort of a pastor to lead a struggling congregation to renewal may see the church die anyway. A missionary may not win any converts.

Such ministries have demonstrated all the faithfulness in the world. Still, in the eyes of many onlookers, these ministries were never fruitful—as evidenced by the reality that they didn’t survive.

What, really, is fruitful ministry?

I’m not at all convinced that failing ministries are necessarily unfruitful. That statement certainly goes against the results-oriented, church growth movement so prevalent in American Christianity these last several decades.

But I am sure that were Jesus and the apostles part of the American church today, many in our ranks would see them as failed and unfruitful—despite a faithfulness that led to persecution, suffering, and usually, death. The masses drifted away when it became clear that Jesus’ ministry wasn’t just miraculous healings and phenomenal teaching but that He also preached harsh truths (see John 6:60-70). Only a few disciples, most notably the Twelve Apostles, remained.

Imagine going from preaching to thousands to just a handful. Today that would be the equivalent of a megachurch dwindling to a modestly-sized small group. I think most in Christian America would view as a failure any pastor who led a church to such a drastic decline. A failure who bore very little lasting fruit. More than that, when we look back at many Old Testament prophets—especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—it’s difficult to see how any of theirs would be considered fruitful ministries by today’s American Christian standards. Yet, I don’t think anyone today would claim that Christ’s ministry—or that of the prophets—was, in any sense, unfruitful.

I’m not trying to put any pastor or ministry leader today on the same level as Christ or equate them with any Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles. My argument is this: We ought not to be hasty to call a faithful but “failed” ministry unfruitful. First, I would argue that failure—at least by the metrics of the church growth movement—is to be expected and far more often than we would like. When Jesus sent out the Twelve (Matt. 10; Mk. 6) and the Seventy-Two (Lk. 10), Jesus prepared them for “failure” beforehand—some people wouldn’t receive them.

Failure (at least by American Christianity’s standard) is more the rule than the exception.

Some fields aren’t ripe for harvest yet. That doesn’t mean you don’t work them a little—do some plowing and planting—before moving on to the ready field. And the truth is, most church plants close their doors within the first five years of existence. Did you know that? Further, most churches that attempt the radical revitalization it takes to move off life support to true heath—often called “replanting”—fail to prevent their church's death.

Intellectually, I think many leaders of so-called unfruitful ministries understand this truth. But it’s little comfort to the heart of the church-planting or church-revitalizing pastor and their families, who have given it their all for perhaps three to five years or more—only to be faced with financial realities, closing the church for which they have sacrificed nearly everything before it can reach or return to self-sustainability in attendance and congregational giving. By the standards of a church-growth-oriented movement, those closed doors represent unfruitful ministry—undoubtedly faithful, but fruitless nonetheless.

Dealing with the hurt of “unfruitful” ministry.

The hurt these ministry experience leaders is deep. Of course, many of them bought into the church growth ideal. They entered their church plant or revitalization, knowing it would be hard. Still, they trusted God’s Holy Spirit would show up and do great and mighty works there in that community. But it feels like that never happened. Their expectations are dashed. The church never seemed to gain traction. Maybe there were a few baptisms, new converts, or people new to the area who burned bright with passion for discipleship and the church’s mission. But all too quickly, those for whom the pastor had such high hopes faded away.

That church planter, revitalization pastor, or ministry leader stayed in God’s word daily. They prayed incessantly—not just in their own prayer closets but at the bedsides of the sick and with those in despair. They loved the church and the neighborhood the best they knew how and faithfully taught the Scriptures. They had diligently prepared for this assignment—gone to conferences and seminary. They searched for, recruited, and discipled potential leaders. They sacrificed and labored persistently in their calling, sure that God would one day they would lead a healthy, vibrant Gospel ministry in the community where He had placed them. They never succumbed to moral failure.

To borrow the Apostle Paul’s agricultural metaphors, they plowed the field, planted the seed, and faithfully watered the seedling plants. But not much of a crop ever materialized. Instead, the plants wilted, and the field returned to its barren state.

For that ministry leader, this “crop failure” hits like a death in the immediate family. Along with the genuine grief comes the self-doubt, guilt, and shame of having shepherded a fruitless ministry.

    What did I do wrong?

    What could I have done differently?

    If only I had…

    Did I misunderstand God?

    What’s wrong with me?

    Am I even called to ministry?

Such feelings are natural. And sometimes—but I’ll bet less often than we think—it is the ministry leader’s fault. Still, I suspect that, more often than not, this is just how ministry goes—even when you’re doing everything right.

A little story for you on responding to failure.” 

A dear friend of mine planted a church in an urban area in the Deep South that desperately needed the Gospel light. For three challenging years, he and his wife invested their time, talents, treasure, and tears with few results that his church planting association would have defined as fruit. Disappointed, my friend reached a point where he believed it was time to move on. He and his wife made their peace with the idea of shutting down the church they’d worked so hard to plant, trusting God to guide them to life’s next step. 

Just a few weeks before the planned closure, God showed up powerfully. Years later, the congregation is still worshiping together. No, they never became the dreamed-of megachurch. But they've made disciples in a tough city. They’ve even been able to improve their facilities. They’ve been faithful—and the harvest has been modestly fruitful by church growth movement standards.

The church planter or revitalization pastor may read about my friend’s church plant and wonder whether he quit too soon—just as the ministry was about to bear fruit. Maybe, but somehow, I doubt it. In sharing my friend’s story, I don’t intend to add any “failed” leader’s self-flagellation; likely, they’ve beat themselves up enough.

Instead, I hope to illustrate what I have always admired about my friend’s response to his church’s supposed fruitlessness and imminent closure. He examined his ministry with the help of those he trusted and respected as mentors and sought coaching. He realized my friend could honestly say he had done everything he was supposed to as a church planter. He was a good preacher. He prayed passionately. My friend honestly, sincerely, and warmly loved people—especially the lost. He modeled outreach and evangelism for his flock.

My friend came to terms with the idea that his obligation was to be faithful—even if he never saw the fruit. Even if it hurt. My friend learned to trust that, even if God’s will was to close the church, He was still working in my friend’s life. My friend remembered that his identity was in Christ—not in the title “pastor” or in the role of a church planter. More importantly, my friend recognized that it was Jesus’ church, not his. His doing the “right” things was simply obedience to God’s calling—the Lord is responsible for the outcome.

It really is all about faithfulness.

Faithfulness entails far more than just showing up or hanging a sign outside the door expecting others to come. But in the end, Christian ministry is all about faithfulness.

As the Apostle Paule wrote, “After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.” (1 Cor. 3:5-7, NLT).

You see that? The pastor, the missionary, or the ministry leader is responsible for faithfully doing their part. Our sovereign God makes it grow.

Often, church planters or revitalizers must face financial realities and return to work that can provide for their families. After all, even the minister must heed Paul’s counsel to Timothy, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8, NIV). Sometimes personal health, family needs, or countless possible circumstances beyond their control mean leaders must leave the ministry. Again, I’m not talking about moral failures here. These leaders never cheated on their spouses. They never embezzled church funds. They never committed any other sorts of immoral or illegal acts. They simply could not continue on in their present ministry.

Anyone I’ve ever met who has been through this experience—and they are easier to find than the successful church revitalizers I interviewed for my doctoral dissertation—feels like they are a failure. They think they have failed their congregations, their families, and themselves. Worst of all, they feel as though they have disappointed God.

Likewise, many pastors who labor on in a church that isn’t in imminent danger of closing still harbor the guilt and frustration of a ministry that seems to yield no fruit as the years go by. They’re easy to find, as well. With this in mind, I want to return to challenging the “fruitless” ministry notion by asserting this:

Faithfulness never fails to yield fruit. 

Conversely, fruitfulness never comes without having first been preceded by faithfulness. Sometimes, you just don’t see the fruit in the near term. Maybe not even in a lifetime—and there comes the temptation to call a ministry “unfruitful.” But God honors faithfulness in His time.

I think of an elderly interim pastor named Elton Mills, who invested time in my discipleship as a teenager. In all his years of ministry, he never pastored a large church. But I know he hoped and prayed I would go into full-time Christian ministry—and, over thirty years later, I did. Pastor Mills had long since gone to his eternal reward when I finally answered that call. Pastor Mills didn't see it in his time, but that seed bore fruit.

And I’ve heard many other stories like that. Accounts of how God honored the prayers and time invested in discipleship by saints who went to Heaven long before the harvest they planted ever came in. Indeed, the apostles themselves—persecuted and imprisoned as often as they were—could never have envisioned the fruit born of their collective ministries, even centuries later.

Keeping eternal perspective in temporal life.

God sees things in the light of eternity. God knows what He aims to achieve and always brings about what He wills. He, not we, brings growth and increase. We lack His perspective. But we’re called to faithfulness, trusting that it is God who, in His time, will honor those labors with fruitfulness.

Continue to be faithful in your ministry. Endure as long as God will allow. Share your frustrations with other believers who know where you’re coming from and will quietly listen to your heart before offering their counsel and prescriptions for success. But no matter how it ends up—whether you stay or have to leave—trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace. Trust that it is His to bring growth as He wills.

Ministry in any context is hard. It just is. Embrace that truth. Trust that God is doing a work in your life. You are His loved child, and God is conforming you to the image of His Son. Trust that He is the God who turns ashes into beauty, mourning into joy, and despair into praise (Isa. 61:3). You may never know—this side of eternity—what Gospel impacts you made on this earth. But know that someday you will hear the words of your Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


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