How to shrink your church from 175 to 20, even when you want to grow

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
— Acts 16:5

Being in the shoes of a congregant before embarking to build one's own community or ministry has been invaluable for me.  I am able to learn from both the good and the bad.

One of the churches I was a member of under Pastor A grew from 10 to 200; the teaching and experiences were life/changing and life giving.  Some of those relationships continue to this day.

When it changed to Pastor B, the church lost 50 people in the first 3 months then declined steadily to 20 over the past several years; my own growth stagnated (till I dived into Scripture and God more deeply as a survival mechanism); after over 6 years, there is no lasting relationship except with others who left.

The church under Pastor B provided a stark, cautionary tale because the the new pastor had good intentions, is a genuinely nice person, reads a lot of Christian and theology books, and is part of an incredibly supportive denomination. 

However, I saw patterns which contributed to the church's decline.

What's important about these patterns is that any leader can fall into these traps

1) Take offense to, rather than problem-solve around, constructive questions

Asking questions (questions are not criticism), even if it about the content of your teaching or leadership style, is not automatically rebellious or toxic. 

However, when I used to read up on pastoral leadership articles to prepare for launching my own community, I saw a common thread of pastors making this same assumption. 

Here's an example:

The pastor began teaching that certain people selected by him were to identify those congregants who were "persons of peace". Those who were persons of peace would receive an invitation to join small groups. 

Without an invitation, a congregant would not be a part of a small group. 

He referenced Luke 10:1-10. When someone approached both the pastor and the leadership team asking clarity about the practice, given that those who were not considered person of peace have the following fate: "I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day." (Luke 10:12)

But rather than diving into Scripture and seeking truth in a collaborative, noble way as the Bereans (Acts 17:11) , the pastor said that those who do not submit to him should leave. 

Not all questions are bad, attacks, or toxic. 

The questioner even said, "I will submit to your leadership, but I would like to understand why we are using this when people are hurt by this."

No response.

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2) Pick accountability partners who coddle, but do not challenge

No one is perfect. The sharpening of iron involves confession and correction. 

Unfortunately, a natural instinct can be to find like-minded people to seek advice from.

I am all for people who support. But, when it shuts down outside perspectives, it can lead to insular echo chamber. 

When the same pastor was approached separately about the decline of the church, he replied that he only took advice from his selected "persons of peace."

One of those advisors, one year later, shut down his own church.

I believe the best guidance for leaders may not be the person who is the person of peace, who he described as someone who likes and serves him. 

Nathan was not a person of peace to David. 

Moses was not a person of peace to Pharaoh. 

Jonah was not a person of peace to Nineveh. 

But should David have not listened? Didn't Nineveh greatly benefit from listening? 

What is interesting is the phenomenon happening with pharaoh is common in pastors: a hardening of the heart. 

3) Blame-shift instead of accepting responsibility

Growing a ministry can be hard. In this case, the pastor had an enviable running start of hundreds of thousands in the bank, a staff, and 175 people.

Does the massive decline rest 100% with him?


Does the decline, alone, mean the church is unhealthy? 

No necessarily. 

But when asked on separate occasions what he felt the problems were, this pastor responded:

  • "It was really hard to get and keep a worship leader"
  • "Everybody wants a speaker like Tim Keller"
  • "The members who left didn't submit"
  • "People are too consumerist"

When asked about what changes would help provide direction and growth, he took the following, major initiatives:

  • Changing service to have people sit in a circle
  • Change the location of the service
  • Institute the above "persons of peace"
  • I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure I am right.

As I work with other leaders, the healthiest people and organizations have humility to look at themselves, their sin, and their responsibility. 

The pattern for the declining church was blame shifting.  Not once during the conversations did he say, "I need help.  The church has not been doing well since I took over."

No one is immune to these three behaviors. Everyone is susceptible. 

An approach that seems to always work: humbly desire for and seek out external people who know how to challenge you.

Not your elders.

Not your friends.

Not your board.

The Gospel is not just something to be preached.

It is something to be reflected in our leadership style by dying to our own pride and humbling seeking help outside of ourselves.