Getting Out of a Church Rut
Serious issues in church life that go unaddressed can end up getting you stuck in a rut. How do you address these underlying problems to change things for the better?
Every now and again you pick up comments about church life which are often a sign that particular issues are simmering away under the surface. “Sunday mornings used to be standing room only” or “it worked well for us in the past” can often be a mask for underlying problems.
So, why do serious issues in church life go unaddressed, bubbling under the surface for many years? How can we change things for the better?
If you recognise that you might have some unaddressed problems in your church, here are some recommendations which may help you out of a deep rut.
Honestly assess where you are
Remember the saying ‘facts are your friends’1? So, face them.
You may need a direct look at what’s called ‘metrics’: things that are measured and plotted on a graph to help you understand where you are.
Let's look at three metrics: A, B, and C.
A for attendance
You can know how many people are coming regularly and occasionally, and then, if you keep records, you can compare that to how many people used to come 20, 10, five, and one year ago. You can look at the age profile of those attending, count how many children and teens attend, note how many are single or married.
You will know the office bearers you have appointed over the years, and perhaps staff if you have any paid workers.
You can ask about the percentage of attendees who are formal members. How many new members - or departing members - are there each year?
How many baptisms have you had, and with what frequency do baptisms occur?
B for buildings
How full is your building at the morning meeting? 80%? If so, it’s already full!
What about other meetings on a Sunday? How many people attend just one meeting or do they come to several on a Sunday?
What other meetings or ministries occur in the buildings you use?
What are the upkeep costs? Is there any income the building earns?
C for cash
I have often been surprised how vague church leaders, even church treasurers, are when they respond to questions such as “what is your annual gift income?” or “what percentage of those who donate give through Gift Aid, and how much does that contribute to your overall income?”
How about “how much do you give away to other causes?” or “what percentage of your giving is devoted to staff costs, facilities costs, and mission?” or “have you often had legacies? For how much? How frequently are you the recipient of legacies?”
Could you guesstimate those figures within a reasonable accuracy?
If you keep records of attendance, buildings, and cash, it can help you plot trends. Even if you don’t, you can look at ‘soft facts’: things that you intuitively know and that, deep down, you sense that others are feeling too.
Things such as morale, how ‘chipper’ are you and others? Is there a dominant passivity and negativity? Is the shared narrative ‘the good old days’ or ‘woe is us?’ That can happen naturally as a congregation ages, but is it deeper than that?
Are people feeling stressed and dispirited, especially as they look forward? Do they complain in a right or a wrong way? That is, are people talking behind others’ backs, or can issues be aired candidly and without recrimination? These are important questions.
Another soft fact zone for churches concerns prayerfulness, or lack of it. Do you sense, for example, that any used the extra time that lockdown gave us to deepen prayer life, or did people just watch more Netflix?
"If you keep records of attendance, buildings, and cash, it can help you plot trends."
In all these areas, leaders need to call it as it is. Facing the current reality needs spelling out.
Simply put, is the church going onwards and upwards, is it plateauing and stagnating, or is it in decline? Don’t shy away from it because members will instinctively know which of these is the dominant reality you truly face.2
Calling it out will help to shape the response a leader will initiate.
Are you on an upward trajectory? You may need more fuel to the fire.3
- That might be words of encouragement and inspiration, it might be a bold move such as hiring another worker, planting a new church, or starting a new evangelism ministry.
Are you plateauing? You may need to start some fires.
- Perhaps call the whole church to a season of prayer. You may need to commit yourself more seriously to prayer and the ministry of the word (I never tire of pointing out to myself the order of priorities the Apostles set themselves in Acts 6:4).
- You may need to inspire folks to sacrificially give to hire a new worker/assistant pastor/youth minister.
- You may need to challenge the status quo of a congregation that fills the building (remember 80% is full) – and that might mean a plant, an additional congregation, or a move to another building.
Are you in decline? This is the hardest call.
- I have met too many leaders who believe the church has plateaued when all the facts point to decline. None of us wants to feel like failures – that is why Paul had to write 2 Corinthians. Faithful gospel ministry will always be tough and cross-shaped. And decline doesn't necessarily mean “fail” or “no good”.
- Decline can happen for all kinds of reasons – migration, ageing, a particular period of history, or even a major crash in the economy. It is not about blaming anyone but facing the reality of decline and then doing something godly about it.
- It is especially in a season of decline that a church has to ask, ‘Are there any fires we need to put out?’ Are we in a building that is costing us so much money so we need to sell it and move elsewhere? Do we have to stop some ministries to better concentrate on others?
Sadly, most fires that need putting out are relational.
Conduct a relational audit
The concept of a ‘relational audit’ argues that we should assess the nature of relationships in the organisation, in this case the church. Are they healthy, supportive, positive, warm, and deepening? Or are there broken relationships, simmering fueds, superficial niceties, and tolerated un-Christian anomalies in the way people relate to one another?
Such an audit may even uncover deeper problems of abuse, bullying, prejudice, and, tragically, victims who have been silenced, crushed, or driven away.
Church life is not only about holding meetings, teaching, and pursuing activities. It is fundamentally about relationships: with God, with one another, and before the watching world (see John 13:35).
Not all relationships can be ‘deep’, but they must be ‘wide’. That is, there are no breaks in fellowship. No one should be avoiding anyone. No one should hold grudges or a festering resentment.
Ephesians 4:6 says “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” and that is about sorting things out, and doing so urgently. It means seeking forgiveness and giving forgiveness – just as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:23, 24, 18:15, and especially 18:21-35. It does not mean we have to agree on everything, but we must all be able to affirm that we have no barriers to fellowship, that we are not holding on to wrong attitudes or wrong behaviours.
"Church life is fundamentally about relationships: with God, with one another, and before the watching world."
A great deal of what contributes to poor relationships in churches is a lack of awareness of how power works.
Power is a gift from God to enable things to happen. But power is also a dangerous thing. Corrupted, it causes great harm. Power worms its way into many human hearts, and then sullies church life. Tolkien was bang on when he described the “ring of power” as the object that would twist a character nearly out of all recognition – it is not only Gollum who experienced that.
So, in any relational audit, it is important to ask about power and authority. Who has the power? That may be formal, or informal (see Lyle Schaller on tribal chief/medicine man 4). How is power used – to serve or to dominate? Who are the opinion leaders?
Is the formally appointed leadership paralysed into inactivity because too many people are unwilling to lovingly submit to the authority Christ has given them to teach and apply his word? Alternatively, is there a trend for the leadership to lord it over the flock? What is the evidence of the former, and what are the tell-tale signs of the latter?
How are decisions made? Really made? Is there a spirit of collaborative participation? Or is there a cloak of secrecy, diktats, and little accountability? Are there issues of over-control and by whom? Or is there abuse that has gone unaddressed and unchallenged?
Can people speak to power? Are some wanting more power because they want to impose their preference? Are some holding onto roles or positions which is holding back the advance of the gospel?
The notion of abusing power all sounds very contemporary, but none of this is new!
The New Testament shows us churches who would not use power to correct an evil (1 Corinthians 5:1-5); churches where conflicts were leading to relational damage (Phil 4:2); a church where a leader wanted to dominate (3 John 9, 10); a church where leaders had to use power to challenge very destructive behaviour (Titus 1:11); a church where leaders model a wonderful parental power to love care and serve other believers (1 Thessalonians 2:6-12). Bible teaching will be needed on power dynamics in the church, including how deformities of power can arise and must be tackled. James Bannerman’s ‘The Church of Christ’ has a lot of helpful things to say on how the Lord describes the nature and limits of church power.5
Honest, humble, persuasive and warm Bible teaching needs to be brought to bear on the need for true fellowship in a church, where differences can be aired but love not broken, where complaints are made and questions asked without leaders being defensive or aggressive. We need an atmosphere where members support, love, pray for, and obey their leaders, and leaders support, love, pray for, and serve the members.
Henry Cloud once issued a challenge to leaders: “everything in church life is there because you started it, or you allow it.”
As leaders, you have to own it as your responsibility to do something about it, and take the church forward.
A decision to change for the better
A key leadership function is to demonstrate a persuasive case for why we can't stay here.
Here may be something God doesn't want, like broken relationships. Or it could be somewhere we can't stay any longer, for example a lack of converts. It might be somewhere that is (very) dangerous to our future, like a lack of younger people, little ethnic diversity, or a poor reflection of our community. It could even be an unwillingness to sacrifice for the gospel.
Here could be unhelpful tradition that is imprisoning the gospel and the church. It could be a constant negative reaction to necessary change. It could be a regular complaining about preferences as if they are principles, which ends up unhelpfully shaping our regular church activities.
If we know there is a place here we cannot stay, we must speak to the church and inspire the hearts of our people to show where we want to go, where God could take us.
"A key leadership function is to demonstrate a persuasive case for why we can't stay here."
To overcome the problems and move the people of God forwards, leaders will need to model what it looks and feels like to believe the direct promises of God. The many precious promises are given to encourage us to persevere.
‘Comfort’ is not about ease, or even safety, but about steering us to trust God and serve in his mission. Armed with the promises of God, leaders will show what it looks like to pursue and prioritise the great commission of the Lord Jesus.
That can inspire believers to get out of themselves, to overcome ingrained negativity, and to be confident that ‘the Lord is with us’ just as he promised in his famous last words: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Depend on God
How do you address underlying problems in church life? Assessing where you are is crucial. Part of that process might be a relational audit. An honest assessment followed by a decision to change can get you out of the rut.
All of this needs huge immersion in God-dependent prayer.
It is the work of the Spirit and God’s grace to bring any of this about. But he does so regularly – indeed all the time. His mercies are new every morning, and he can help you to get out of the doldrums, and even the disasters you may face.
1 Bill Hybels, Leadership Axioms (Zondervan, 2008), pp155-158
2 Many of the insights in this piece were shared at various Global Leadership Summits by Bill Hybels.
3 See Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, Illuminate. (Portfolio, 2016). Remember the ‘dream, leap, fight, climb, arrive’ sequence they describe, mentioned in a previous blog.
4 Lyle Schaller, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church (Abingdon Press, 1980). He argues that as well as understanding the church theologically (e.g. the elect), and ecclesiologically (e.g. Presbyterian), we should be aware of how it operates sociologically. That is, it works as a ‘small tribe’ of people. Often such a group will have someone who represents and embodies the values they hold to – the Tribal Chief. It will also have someone who brings messages and oversees the conducting of important ‘rituals’ – the Chief Medicine Man. And someone may have to ‘make it all happen’ – the Chief Administrative Officer. It is not a sophisticated description, but it points to many home truths of how groups of people typically work, including churches.