5 Ways to Help an Aging Church Revitalize – Wisdom for Pastoral Transitions
Did you know that the average American church stops growing after its founding pastor leaves? To be specific, most churches go into a permanent plateau between years 17-21 years old. After this, the average church generally only grows by a measly 1% a year. And usually, 80% of this 1% is transfer growth – not conversion growth.
As a result, many church experts argue that the “Great Commission life-expectancy” of an American church is about 20 years. Don’t get me wrong: churches can stay on life-support for decades. But we’re talking about churches who remain fruitful as it pertains to “conversion growth.”
Obviously, as my church just celebrated 10 years of life, everything in me wants to resist this tendency to “age.” I’ve been rather obsessive about studying churches who’ve defied the odds – who’ve discovered the “fountain of youth” so to speak.
Recently, my daughter found an app that morphs your picture into an “older you.” And after morphing me into Jabba-the-Hut, I found fresh new motivation to change my diet. In the same way, I’ve been studying a lot of “legacy churches” who defy the odds. I’ve been asking the question: What do these churches do differently? How can “non-founding pastors” defy the eternal plateau? How can a church stay strong in conversion growth several decades into its life? And what are the top statistical predictors of church longevity?
Fortunately, there are churches who DO defy the norms. And they have many things to teach the rest of us. After studying “come-back churches” for the last two decades, I’ve noticed 5 major disciplines that almost all of them embrace. In other words, if we want to be the exception, here are “five cures” that will give us a statistical advantage in reversing the aging process:
(1). Keep the Median Age of your Church Platform under 45 years Old: Like I shared in chapter nine of my book Pharisectomy, whenever the median age of a church goes over 45, its odds of growing and reaching unchurched people plummets.
I suppose I could point out a few obvious reasons for this: Younger people have more kids – which grows a church. Or, younger pastors attract younger families. But it’s important to note: Church attendees tend to mirror the median age of its platform ministers and top leaders.
Or consider this: Most receptive unchurched people are under 22 years old. Yet, the average church decision maker is often 3 to 5 decades older! And we wonder why there’s a huge generation gap killing the American Church? It’s a simple demography issue.
In the book of Acts chapter 6, they solved a similar problem. Grecian Jews were feeling disenfranchised next to Hebraic Jews. Rather than an “age problem,” they faced an ethnic disparity. To solve it, they found seven Grecian Jewish leaders who “are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). I.e., They raised up people from within who represented the under-represented demographic.
In the same way, we need to ask: “Who’s NOT coming and why?” (which is the easy part). Then comes the bold step: Change the budget to empower staff and demographics who don’t have a voice.
Notice, I didn’t say “recruit” leaders out of other people’s churches. I’ve noticed that, whenever churches try to poach out of other churches (to fill their gap), it never usually works well. It’s a lot like losing your spouse and then paying someone to suddenly step in and pretend to be “Mom.” Families and churches aren’t corporations. The church never ends up embracing the outsider. And mercenary hires like these usually won’t stay longer than a couple years (as someone will give them a better offer : ) Thus, it’s critical a church “raises from within.”
Also, keep in mind, I’m not implying that “old is bad.” On the contrary, once you fill up your church with dysfunctional young people, older mentors become indispensible. Multigenerational churches like Hillsong have done an amazing job keeping a continuum of ages in their congregation; yet, they’re always empowering a new generation on their Sunday platforms. And we’d be wise to do the same.
(2). When the Founding pastor resigns, pick a pastor who has another 20 years in them: Statistically, it usually takes about 6-10 years before a non-founding pastor can “begin turning a church” (to cause it’s finances and attendance to consistently trend upwards.) Most churches go through a “honeymoon bump” when the new pastor steps in. (I.e., Disenchanted members get curious and come back to see the new horse and pony show.) But “wowing the people” from the platform is quite a bit easier than finding a leader who’s got the emotional intelligence to take over the politics.
Keep in mind, churches in transition are usually quite insecure. They tend to look for candidates who will “maintain traditions” and keep everyone on board. Thus, most non-founding pastors win the job by being politicians who make the most promises. They make unsustainable promises to “keep everyone on board.” This is quite the contrast from the risk-taking innovator who planted the church.
And even when a church finds an innovator, it still takes 6-10 years. And why? Family clans and boards become twice as powerful after the founding pastor (to stabilize the church). Unfortunately, this creates a leadership structure that is slow, diffuse, divided and risk averse.
Unfortunately, most non-founding pastors have a hard time trying to run through this gauntlet. Many of them resign right before their influence hits critical mass. And sadly, the church enters a new 6-10 year transition.
Thus, don’t invest in a new senior pastor who won’t be around for at least 20 years. This isn’t the NFL. Churches cannot afford to rotate senior pastors in increments less than 15-20 years — unless you’re intentionally trying to clean your entire church out every couple years.
One way to cut down this 6-10 year transition is to look for candidates who are already inside your church. Their political awareness and relational clout can pay huge dividends. In fact, the majority of successful “non-founding pastors” came from the inside AND, they were transitioned into their new role over a 3-5 year period by the founding pastor. In my experience, churches that fall outside of these circumstances should generally be looking for a merger, not a senior pastor (see point #5).
(3). Be Willing to Lose a Few Members & Prune a Few Ministries: Like I mentioned above, transitioning churches are often quite insecure. Many of you know, I took over a sizable church in Wisconsin that had a huge legacy to it. It had a K-12 Christian school. It had a Bible school. It had conferences and outreaches that were attended by thousands. But, when I took it over, I quickly realized: There’s a lot of people who hate me: The reasons were varied. Many thought I was too young. I wasn’t charismatic enough for some. I was too charismatic for others. I knew that I would have to gracefully prune certain leaders; but, every time I tried, leaders would chide me – as if I was hurting the church because I wouldn’t cater to everyone’s agenda.
We had several wealthy families who had some super bizarre agendas for worship. I knew we’d never grow until we got rid of them. No one would invite their friends because we were too spooky. Yet, the church was simultaneously dependent upon the money that these power families gave. If I asked these families to leave, it would kill our budget — which would cause me to lay off more staff — which would kill our budget even more. But if I didn’t ask them to leave, our church will never grow. We’ll continue to become more self-centered in our worship. And our young people will totally abandon us (as they are way more sensitive to religious diseases). It was a catch-22. But it changed the way I led.
I was always taught that a “Great Commission Leader” targets people who aren’t currently coming – which usually makes certain long-timers – or people with agendas –feel ignored. Thus, when self-centered families (who are accustomed to being catered to) throw a fit, pastors can’t be afraid to confront these agendas. (& in some ways, I realize, this is “Pastoring 101″ – but, it’s amazing how many churches have non-existent pastoral structures.)
But I quickly learned, it’s impossible to truly pastor people when you’re dependent upon their money. Here’s why: Every decision (good or bad) will cost you at least five families – about $30,000 in income (the one offended family and the 4 sympathizer families). So if your church isn’t able to lose 100k this year, you’re probably “financially codependent” upon the people you lead. This means you’ll make political decisions rather than healthy ones – making “strategic pruning” a luxury in the very season when it should be a necessity.
Thus, a church turn-around is extremely unlikely without (A). a strong budget to sustain it; and (B). A leadership core who isn’t afraid to allow healthy transition without demonizing people.
(4). Get a Decent Church Government: When I consult with a church, I ask them about their governance structure, their median ages, and their attendance. Usually, I can predict an incredible number of problems with accuracy – without meeting a single person. A lot of pastors freak out at my ability to describe their politicks – as though it’s a prophetic gift. But churches tend to age in very predictable ways – especially if they have certain forms of church governance.
As I like to say: “Bad forms of church governance tempt good people to behave badly.” There are certain governments that maximize fruitfulness and accountability without increasing politics. And if you’re interested, I wrote a nerdy book called “Church Government Revolution.” And it’s free to download here! It’s basically a nerdier and longer version of this blog. But my point is this: Statistically, Congregationalist or “single board-run” churches have a significantly shorter life-expectancies than other types of churches – especially after the founding pastor is gone. So, if a church isn’t willing to change this, revitalization is like running up a slippery creek bank.
(5) Consider a Merger: One of the fastest ways to create momentum in a plateaued church is a merger. However, “merger” is probably a misleading word. After all, I’ve never seen a “merger of equals” work.Usually, the aging church uses their assets to leverage a younger church into taking over all of their cumbersome ministries, traditions and sacred cows – which sucks the life out of both churches. It’s a lot like rescuing a drowning family who won’t let go of their suitcases full of diamonds.
So, let me rephrase this fifth option: “Find a vibrant growing church that has enough momentum and staff bandwidth to healthily absorb the aging church.” The benefits are many: It enables a church to skip the classic “6-10 years of plateau” caused by switching senior pastors. And if the absorbing church is vibrant enough, the aging church is usually so delighted by all of their new programmatic options that, the loss of a few traditions can be worth it. I.e., People get so addicted to the fruitfulness of the merger that the formatting changes just don’t matter as much.
In the end: Most of us would set aside our preferences to be a part of a church in revival. Unfortunately, many Christians have forgotten what that feels or looks like. I.e., We believe in the Great Commission, as long as it doesn’t interrupt our self-centered worship experience or sense of control.
I love being a part of a church that sees radical conversions every single week. Over 41% of our current attendees didn’t go to any church 2 years ago. Freshly forgiven people are some of the most contagious people on earth. So, don’t waste your life participating in some holy huddle.
Wherever there’s a dead church with lots of assets, there’s always a crazy group of new recruits who believe they can “turn it around” – even though they ignore all 5 of the statistical predictors I mentioned above. Don’t allow your life to be siphoned away by leaders who can’t embrace reality.
However, there’s something special about leaders who square with reality. God can breath new life into dying places. He’s a God who raises the dead. And no matter what season your church is in, these five ideas can bring about new life.
For More Research or stats related to this: Check out the Following books: Breakout Churches – Thom Rainer; The American Church in Crisis – David T. Olson; “Planting Churches for the 21st Century – Aubrey Malphurs