Questions to Ask When Facing Decline

A pastor said, “I am tired of the new normal. I have watched church attendance in general decline for decades. It wasn’t that obvious at first at our church. People stopped coming as often, their kids didn’t stick around as they got older, they didn’t come back when they had kids, and we had fewer and fewer guests at worship. Now that we hit COVID, it has sped things up. People have drifted from the church, others have left our church for another one, and some are staying home and won’t return, and just a few are in worship.”

Can you relate or maybe even feel the grief, sorrow, fear, love, and discouragement in his voice? I know I did, and I have eaten the emotional soup since COVID hit. Circumstances keep stirring the pot and that has brought a high level of anxiousness and stress for many pastors today.

So what do you do in this situation?

1. Spend more time with God and others who will support you. When decline happens in the church, it is easy for us to take it personally. It can get unhealthy, but if you are feeling pain, it usually means you care about people’s spiritual well-being and your own. That is a healthy thing. Take more time to let the Word of God shepherd your emotions, thoughts, and soul. Meditate on God’s promises and trust His leadership of His church. You might find it helpful to have someone who knows you and your ministry to speak words of love and encouragement to you. Having a person who asks good questions helps me know what is me or not and to own my part.

2. Accept the fact that church is not coming back to the way it was. God is leading His church to something new, and no one really knows what it will look like. Keep sowing the seeds of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Keep doing the work of an evangelist. There is an old saying that I find to be true: God hits a moving target. God blesses and honors our efforts. I am not saying that if you sow seeds your church grows. In fact, I would argue that if you only sow to grow your church, you need to check your motivation. Sow because that is what we are to do. God will grow His kingdom and we ask the Lord to build His kingdom with us; sometimes that means it will grow. (Also see follow-up comment at the end of this blog.)

3. Losing people is difficult, something I struggled with and continue to struggle with. I think there are many reasons why I struggle. Answers vary, from: The loss hurts me in an unhealthy place of me wanting all to like me. It’s also pride. Me thinking I’m good and better than others, especially in our theology. People leaving also hits my ego because of concern about numbers. Sometimes it crashes my ambition because we can never seem to get ahead. I learned from my mentor to do ministry with an open hand, not a closed hand. The people we serve are God’s people, not ours. God brings people to your church for seasons, not always for life. God sends the people you need when you need them, and if you don’t need them or use them, God moves them on to other churches where their gifts are needed. The other part is that if your hand is closed, trying to hold onto people who don’t want to be there, your hand is not open for God to bring new people into your ministry. The Bible says, He gives or takes away but I will bless His name. So when people leave, I try to ensure they are leaving to another church God wants them to be active in. I see it as my work is done. As the Apostle Paul said, some plant and some water but God makes them grow. After all, you need people who are for the vision, mission, and you – not people who hold you or the congregation back. Lastly, I learned I can’t minister to all, and people need others, not me. So do your best, be faithful, and trust God.

4. This is the best learning I have had in dealing with a loss – It is never bad to go back to basics because basics are what you need. In decline, we often focus on what we are losing (i.e. people, volunteers, programs, ministries, and money). Many of us have shut down a lot of ministry. In these situations, you have to adjust. You need to cut back on budget and ministry to survive. And that is fine, but don’t get into a survival mentality. Survivor mentality is self-preservation. It is circle the wagons, and it puts the congregation in a defensive and inward-focused mode. People die off slowly until there are no more. When we return to basics, we have an opportunity to build ministry again around what God is doing new. And what is exciting is new ministry reaches new people. I ask myself this question: What do I need for the basics or to build? The answer is not money or a building. It’s people. Jesus built a movement with 12 people. Well, how many people do you need? If it got so bad that you had to sell the building and start over, how many people do you need, and what responsibilities do you need them to lead? Who are essential personnel to build again? I have found that when I focus on what I have and how to leverage that, God adds more people, more money to what we need. It’s not as fast as I like, but it is what we need to move the mission forward another baby step.

I think we are in an exciting era of ministry. The world is getting darker and the church is getting brighter. The church has always grown more under persecution or difficult times. We all grow more spiritually when we are being pressed. This is a personal growth season that will lead to a harvest in the future.

The Leverage Network of the Southern District is here to assist you in your mission and ministry. We care about you and your church. Please contact me if you would like to connect and see how we can come alongside with encouragement and resources to help you fulfill your calling. For more information, contact Pastor Jason at j.scheler@southernlcms.org.

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

Follow-up comment on this post from Rev. Jason Scheler, regarding bullet point #2:

“2. We need to accept that churches are not going to be the same.”

I need to clarify this part of the blog. I am not suggesting we need to create gimmicks or change the Divine Service to get people to come back. I acknowledge the cultural shift of how people view church and worship has and is creating many challenges. Churches have fewer people coming back to in-person worship. Many churchgoers are seeing online as acceptable and preferring it because it fits their schedule, etc. I can have church on-demand like my other services are offered. Therefore, the ministry does look different and it will remain different. It is not the same and, yes, churches need to consider how to use the internet to disciple, because that is the new Roman road of the Gospel. I also serve as a chaplain at our local hospital, and pastoral care has gone to a “Zoom” format because of COVID and staffing shortages. I do not have to drive to the hospital to provide spiritual care, and it is 24/7 on-demand.
I love people to be in-person, but the world is changing and we need to think of both avenues. There are many other changes and challenges COVID and culture have created.
It is not all doom and gloom. God is on the throne, and He will build His Church. He builds His Church numerically, put more importantly – spiritually. We see the pattern in the Old Testament.

As it says in Hebrews 10, “23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (ESV) Amen.

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