19 June 2013

Leading a Dying Congregation to Embrace Change

I've been reading a lot about affecting positive change in the church that will lead to revitalization.  I've been learning how to lead a team through the long-range planning process without scaring them off.  When you begin to talk about real change among a group within the church a silent chill sets in.  Everyone knows that change is difficult, risky, and even potentially explosive.

So, when is it time to take the risk and attempt to lead a church to embrace change?  We pastors are in the business of diagnosing our church's problems.  We spend our time contemplating what our congregation is doing well or what it's missing.  Most often we see weakness and challenges sooner than the average church member.  Most certainly, we see the need for change sooner than the congregation as a whole.  However, it is probably quite foolish to run ahead of the people into dramatic change without their trust and some assurance that the vast majority have good understanding of why the change is needed. 

At some point a pastor will clearly discern that the pain of not changing is going to be much greater than the pain of changing.  However, that doesn't mean that the people have seen this yet.  If the church's attendance and budget have been shrinking, they may have a sense that all is not as well as it should be; however, they still may not feel an urgency for change.  Why?  Because change is always painful - even good change.  Most of us, however, desperately want to avoid pain.  The problem with declining churches is they want to put off the pain and ignore the reality until they absolutely have no choice but to deal with it.  But by opting for a delayed pain, they have chosen the greater pain. 

How do you lead the church to embrace change?  I'm going to start by just showing them the facts.  So, listen up First Baptist family!

I have reviewed the last 50 years of our Annual Church Profiles (ACP), known by different names through the decades.  This is what Southern Baptist Churches complete and file with the local association each year.  It contains a numerical history of the church.  I can find on it each year's average attendances in Sunday school and worship (but worship only back to 1990), how much the people contributed, how much the church gave to missions, how many baptisms occurred and so forth.  The numbers tell a certain raw story.  Behind the numbers, however, are many factors, such as strengths and weakness in leadership, issues of conflict, the strength of the local economy, population migrations, and so forth.  These numbers don't tell a complete story, but they do rather convincingly show us that revitalization is needed, therefore change is necessary.

To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this is what the numbers are telling First Baptist Church of Hazard, Kentucky:

Missions Giving

Currently, FBC gives 7.75%  of it's undesignated giving to the Cooperative Program (CP).  This is up from the 6% when I first became pastor in 2008, but far from the sacrificial commitment the church once made. 

The Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1925.  Ever since then, it has functioned as a marvelous tool of cooperation among all Southern Baptist churches.  Essentially, it is a pot of money from which Southern Baptists support it's missionaries and theological education at the national level and the church-supporting ministries of the state convention closer to home. 

In 1963 FBC contributed 13.5% of its tithes and offerings to the CP.  For 30 years that rate was no lower that 12% and peaked at 18% for three consecutive years (90-92).  Since 2000, the rate has never reached 10% and been as low at 5%.


I also noticed that Sunday school attendance in the 60s was particularly high.  The reason for this is that the church was sponsoring three separate missions.  One of them today is a sister church in our association.  This is evidence that the church was impacting it's community intentionally with, what we call today, church planting.

When I looked at baptisms I also noticed a trend.  During the 30 years from 1963 to 1992 the annual average number of baptisms was 24.  The lowest year in that span was 1984 with 6 and the highest was 1963 with 115!  Since 1992 the annual average of baptism at FBC has been 8.  Although a line graph on baptisms looks a bit like an EKG, when I look at 50 years of data the trend of the last 20 years is clearly and significantly downward.

Sunday School and Worship

Of course, attendance numbers of Sunday school and worship mirror the above statistics.  The average Sunday school attendance of the last 20 years has been 137.  But the average of the last ten years has been 95, and the last five years has been 85.  From 1963 to 1992 Sunday school averaged was 236 with the highest year in 1965 at 427.   

Worship attendance records only go back to 1990, but they do tell a story of decline and the need for revitalization.  From 1990 to 1999 our worship attendance average was 217. From 2000 to 2004 the average was 204.  From 2005 to 2009 the average was 157.  And from 2010 through 2012 it has been 149.  Again, the trend has been downward for an extended period of time.

A typical reaction to his kind of data is defensiveness.  Church folks can immediately begin to point to factors that have caused the decline.  They may talk about a certain pastor who "destroyed" the church.  They point out that days used to be better economically when the coal was "booming."  Some will just sigh and say that the culture just isn't the same and people today just don't care about the things they used to.  Although many of these factors may be real, none of them are excuses for a resignation into complacency and a give up attitude.

As I look at the trends of the last 50 years of FBC, the need for a bold new vision and change becomes all the more obvious to me.  I hope that after reading this the First Baptist family can also see the need to embrace change for a better future.  God is granting us a window of opportunity to repent of our ineffectiveness and our uncaring hearts and do better.  We have time to trust God with a big vision, depending on Him all the while for its realization while we give ourselves to it sacrificially.   

The Long-Range Planning Team is currently in the process of dreaming a God-sized vision for 2018.  In other words, what do we want to see at FBC roughly five years from now.  We know that the status-quo is no good and will only lead us to where we don't want to be.  Good, exciting change is coming and we are determined to make the hard decisions and stay the course as we prayerfully seek the Lord's wisdom throughout it all.

Fellow pastor, does your church need revitalization?  Do you see it the need, but very few in your congregation do?  Maybe you can start to create awareness simply by holding up the mirror and helping them to gain a fresh perspective.  Your church, like mine, has had better days.  Celebrate those days. Refresh the memories of your older crowd and educate the younger ones. Use the facts to contrast the past with the present and motivate your people to dream boldly, give sacrificially, grow spiritually, and serve so that God will accomplish even greater things in the future through them.         


  1. Great article and I applaued you for your research and honest in getting the truth out! I am proud of you, even if you are my Son-in-Law, stick with the plan as you seek God's will for FBH. Praying for you and your ministry.

  2. Excellent thoughts, Daryl. I face many of the same things here in Northern Indiana.


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