I meet with a mentor twice a month. This fall, one of us brought news to each meeting of a church that had closed, merged, etc. These were all types of churches. Some churches had 800-1000 just 10 years ago; others had 400-500 and multiple staff members. Others had been around 100 attenders for 20 years. All of them closed their doors and gave their buildings away this fall. Some of them gave their building to a church plant; others were trying to figure out what to do.
Research shows that 2014 had 3700 church closures.
Every church has to decide how to respond to their unique situation, but what happens when many churches take this option to close? I want to explore 3 implications of church closures.
My focus here is on what ministry in the context of increasing church closures looks like. This is not a prescription for turning around a declining church or for a pastor struggling to turn around a church. This is on ministry in our current context. What do healthy churches do in this context? What do young leaders like me need to consider?
Church Deserts are Coming
Frequent and widespread church closures are going to mean that a new phenomenon in the USA is going to spring up where there are pockets of “church deserts” or “gospel deserts.” These will be areas of the country where someone has to drive 30 miles or even farther to attend a church.
I got this idea from the term “food deserts’. Food deserts are areas of cities where there is no fresh and affordable food available. These are areas with no supermarkets and only have convenience stores.
Church deserts are coming as well. These can be in cities, suburbs, and especially rural areas. Imagine a rural area where there is no church at all for 60 miles or more. Cities can have large numbers of churches but there will be areas of cities with no church for the 100,000+ people living in a section of the city.
As more churches close, more areas will have no church and more people will have no access to our life-changing gospel. There will be no one to personally tell and show them the good news of Jesus. If someone heard the gospel, there would be no church nearby for them to attend and be discipled.
- Pray for church deserts as you see them.
- Instill a discontent in your church for those gospel deserts.
- Identify what is the minimum viable church in your strategy. Take steps to plant those.
- Encourage people to be part of the solution to planting churches in those areas. Every church needs good preachers and good worship leaders, no matter the size. If you see a gifted person or someone with the ability to grow in that way, encourage them to be a part of reaching those developing deserts.
- Consider planting an online church first to reach a desert.
Church Risks are Too Risky, So Declines Will Be Faster
Another implication is that churches will not be able to ride out a difficult time, so declines will be faster. In the past, people often stayed at one church because it was near their home (driving a long way to church was not normal) and because they felt a commitment to the church that went beyond a pastor or a style. They were committed and stayed through change. Sometimes that was for the worse and contributed to the decline of the church. But it also meant that the giving and attendance could be stable enough to do a turn-around.
Now, most churches do not have that kind of commitment. People will not take a risk for their church. If the church needs a lot of change or a pastor transitions, asking them to stay longer and to be patient will not work in a society that moves as fast as ours. If people and money go, then there is no time for a turn-around.
This means that churches will decline faster. If the church doesn’t have the commitment of people and their giving to endure pastoral transitions, internal changes, and declines in attendance, then their decline and death will be faster in the future. Churches won’t take 10 years to close. They will close in 5 years or less.
I heard a pastor lament this just a few weeks ago. He is trying to initiate change in a small church and the one young family in his church came to him and said that it was too hard and too slow to see change so they were moving to another church more like what they want.
That is a phenomenon that has always happened but it is going to happen more. This will increase the speed of church closures.
- Those in leadership positions will need to pay attention and take seriously what decline means. Many people who attend church do not realize all the things that face a church in decline.
- Get help if you are in decline. Don’t wait until the bank account is low. Once that happens, there is usually no time.
Leadership and Transitions Will Be Critical.
If churches decline faster because they cannot handle risks and slow downs, then leadership, leadership decisions, and transitions will be critical. When one pastor leaves, the interim pastor and leadership will be very important to continuing the momentum of the church. A church that takes 3 years to find a pastor may create a lot of problems for the new pastor when he is hired because of the likely loss of vision and momentum.
A poor pastoral hire or promotion can also do great damage when declines can be so rapid. This will make the process of hiring a pastor even more important since many people are not committed enough to a church to wait out a difficult situation.
A pastor’s leadership skills and education will be more important in this kind of world. I would say that theological training and leadership training becomes even more important when there are fewer churches and more and faster declines.
- Churches will look for experience, education, and skill. It will be required. Get it. Leadership skills are important and not natural in the church. Learn true leadership skills like change theory and organizational efficacy (not simply pop leadership). Study Jesus’ leadership style. Jesus’ leadership had more do with shepherding and serving than some church leadership would have you think.
- Churches and leaders should invest in training and education, both before ministry and for on-going ministry. Churches should consider developing their leaders and not depending on them to grow on their own. This is an investment in the church’s future.
- Churches that thrive in this environment will make it as easy as possible for the pastor to stay. That means paying at a level that the pastor can live comfortably. If the work is stressful and finances are hard, then it will be easier for the pastor(s) to move elsewhere. That has risk. This also means that secondary staff who are usually paid very little will also need to be paid well enough to stay or the church will be in a constant state of transition.