I read a blog by Brian Croft the other day who asked some questions concerning our assumptions on decline that got me thinking. Like him the more I hear the push “to overcome” the “plateau or decline” the more I pause and think of scenarios where a church’s decline in numbers is not necessarily a sign of trouble, but may even be a sign of real spiritual health and fruitfulness. Here are a few that he mentioned, all of which I have experienced in my own church and to which I have added my own thoughts:
1) Unconverted people leave because the gospel is being preached. If there are many unconverted members in local churches (I believe there are) they will not want to hear a minister replace the typical “law light,” feel good, better yourself message from the pulpit with the true gospel of Jesus Christ that is the only source to bring true spiritual life to a dying church. Unconverted church members will leave or stay and cause problems, even if they are in leadership. Preaching the gospel is where you begin and is the right thing to do all the time and is the only thing that can give life to a church. No minister should ever be discouraged if he loses people over that.
2) Older church members die and go to be with Christ. Each year we lose several dear elderly saints and have several dear elderly unconverted members come to know Christ in their final months. Some years the amount of those who died was more than the new members who join. A minister should celebrate faithfully leading sweet saints of Christ to their eternal home and who are now in the glory. Let that joy of those saints eternal rest dislodge any anxiousness about “replacing them” at the same time.
3) New ministers are discerned, affirmed, and sent out. In these same years we have experienced a decline in numbers we have also sent three families out into the ministry that we had invested in and trained. We have lost their time, talent and treasure but in God’s eyes these may be our most fruitful years ever, but we may not know the fruit until we stand before his throne.
4) An intentional process to take in new members. Raising the standard for membership and protecting the front door a bit might cause you to have fewer members join the church in the beginning, but God is honored in ministers making sure believers in Jesus Christ are the only ones that become members of the church, even if the church numbers do not boom like hoped. A biblically intentional process can actually become the most controversial change you make and is the “last straw” for many who then seek the exits. Raising the standard and expectation for membership puts pressure on the unconverted, even those in leadership, as your process reinforces the gospel preaching: that there are two types of people – converted and unconverted.
5) Factors that brought decline took years. If you take a church as I did with at least a decade of decline and generations of liberalism, it is a HUGE challenge to change that pattern and to teach biblical Christianity. It takes time and many years. Patterns that brought much of the decline run deep in the souls of the unconverted around you and a spiritual war must be fought. Always remember what you have inherited and if it had 50 years of liberalism and 15 years of decline to get your church where you found it when you arrived, it might take 65 years to change the pattern over several generations of ministers. God’s gospel and word is powerful enough to do just that over time but according to his will, not yours. Richard Baxter’s fruitful ministry in Kidderminster was built on 2-3 generations of godly ministers that preceded him who were similarly active, but saw little fruit at all.
6) You grow spiritually through suffering. You will continually ask yourself if you are the cause of the decline. This is right. Take this to the Lord in prayer constantly. Search the Scriptures. You must take a good hard look at yourself before God and ask for those blind spots to be revealed. God is working out his own sovereign purposes in your congregation and in your ministry so that there is so much more going on than whether your numbers are “higher” this year than last. Only prayerful repentance and faith before your heavenly Father can help you see God’s ways and not your own. Decline can reveal many problems and cause great personal suffering for a gospel minister, but it is also a source of great encouragement and true joy as you see people are converted and lives transformed by the new birth in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, dear fellow gospel ministers, labor on. Hold the course. Preach the word. Go to your closet in prayer. Love those people. May God give you grace to know his ways to determine what your “decline” should say and share that with your congregation.