What can the former assitant director of the national Council of Churches tell you about growing your churches?

In 1973, Dean Kelley took a sabatical from the NCC to study the decline in member church attendance.  The resulting book, titled Why Conservative Churches are Growing, took the stance of an outsider looking in.  His question was “why were some churches growing and others contracting?”  He wondered if there were denominational differences, differences in practices, differences in form.  Or was there something more fundamentally different, something that was universal within Christendom that would apply to any church. 

What he found was that churches had become lax in teaching their core values.  In the push to be more ecumenical in action, churches had become less distinctive in doctrine.  They were forgetting who they were.

It is the principle that you only retain 70% of what you hear, and remember barely 10% after a week.  Without systematic study, parishoner were retaining less than half the Gospel stories.  As they taught their children, the half was halved, continuing through succeeding generations until barely a sliver remained of the original.  As Dorothy Bass describes it, they had lost the shared language and legacy, and had become more like the world than the church ideal, leading many to drop out.

What can you do?  Consider your congregation.  As your average member to find some minor prophet’s book or to explain it’s theme.  If they can’t recognize the story of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, or the handwriting on the wall, it’s time to begin again.

In my seminar on “Back to the Basics, ” I describe the various models for organizing, training, equipping your church for dramatic impact in your community.  I feel this topic is essential for creating vibrant churches.  It is useful for congregations or study groups of any size.  it will transform and amplify existing outreach efforts.

I have long felt a need to share more, be more, do more for the Kingdom.  I know God did not intend for us to flounder, wither and die.  This seminar begins the restoration process.

I’ve found that most in the church share my longing.  Seminars and programs souncded good, but the people are often unable to sustain the results.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying.  But like trying to run a race car on low-octane fuel, the efforts fall short of the goals. But when these fundamentals are added, people catch the why as well as the how and begin to take the actions that restore the church.

The Christian Science Monitor has published an editorial about the decline and perhaps demise of modern Evangelicalism.  Titled “The coming evangelical collapse” Michael Spencer gives current examples and reasoned predictions that validate what Barna has been warning for some time.  I disagree with some of his predicted outcomes (or maybe I don’t want to listen), but he does make a point that “fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.”

The crux of his argument is that Evangelicals have gotten distracted with social issues, and

“Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture wars, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures. “

This is not a new finding.  In his 1972 work Why Conservative Churches are Growing, Dean Kelly quoted Franklin Littell’s The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (1964).  Kelly and Littell say that parents – even at that time – hadn’t fully passed on their faith, so the children did not even have a full faith to teach their own children.

“In churches in the US, they have not only ‘halved the covenant’ for their children again and again until there was scarcely a sliver left, but also progressively relaxed the standards of membership … members often had only the vaguest notion of what the church they were joining believed or required. …As a result, Littell observes, the churches became filled with baptized pagans, who soon far outnumbered those who had gained and kept some understanding of the obligations of discipleship.”

Even in 1972, Kelly, who wrote the book while on sabbatical from the National Council of Churches, noted “Renewal does not take hold unless it is embodied, exemplified, lived out by a particular group, who show the way to a stronger faith by taking it themselves.”

And that is exactly the problem Michael Spencer is addressing. He claims that “denominations are going to become largely irrelevant” and “many marginal believers will depart.”

Spencer is spot on when he says that if churches survive they must move from maintenance mode to a “new evangelicalism” that returns to the authority of what the Bible says instead of what we want it to say, while continually reinterpreting the form for our culture.


Barna, George “Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions” Barna Seminar, 9/30/03
Kelly, Dean M, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), p104, 114
Littell, Franklin H. The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (NY:Macmillan Co., 1964) and From State Church to Pluralism (NY: Doubleday, 1962)
Spencer, Michael “The coming evangelical collapse” in The Christian Science Monitor, 10 Mar 09, http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0310/p09s01-coop.html

“Half of SBC churches could die before 2030,” says former Southern Baptist Convention President Page Patterson.

Pretty dramatic. The largest protestant denomination just a few years ago, is the Baptist behemoth is in danger of fading into history? In a in a conference call with South Carolina pastors, Patterson says the Convention could drop from 44,000 to 20,000 in 22 years. Patterson blames himself and other pastors for the demise. “People rarely rise above the level of their pastor’s spiritual life, and it is critical that pastors maintain a vibrant walk with Christ.”

This is not a new revelation. Doing research in the 1970s, Dr Gary Farley discovered the natural life span of a church to be around 50 years, noting that if a church did not change it’s focus and remake itself for a new generation by the time it reached its 35th anniversary, it would quickly dwindle after that point and all the members would have died or moved on in little more than a decade afterward.

The Southern Baptists were strong in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But societal changes in the mid- to late-70s were too much for many, and they stopped where they were, metaphorically. 1980, plus 50 years, gets us to 2030.

When Dean Kelly wrote Why Conservative Churches are Growing, he reported that “small churches often are because their leaders are unwilling to change.” The fire of missional passion has died down, and they like church just the way it is.

Of course, there will still be the other 20,000. Some of them are strong, will continue to be strong. Readers of this site, and my forthcoming book, will know how to keep themselves in that half that survives, even grows stronger. With God’s help, you and I can prove Dr Patterson’s fears groundless, stemming the tide of failing churches. Who’s in?

Reference: Associated Baptist Press, Published May 6, 2008

I recently read a pastor’s blog about problems in his church.  He quoted Gene Wood’s book Leading Turnaround Churches, and lamented the book’s contention that that churches will not successfully turn around without a major, significant fight.

But I don’t agree with Gene Wood. When I read his book, I was annoyed with his underlying assumption that the problem with struggling churches was always some person or group that was out to control the church.  His solution seemed to be for the pastor to get the complainer to leave, and things will get better.

I have been part of churches that turned around when the pastor led the congregation into shared discussion about who they were to be as a church.  No fights.  No recrimination.  None of the few dozen members left or were ushered out the door. All contributed an opinion, and a shared solution was constructed.  That is now a significant, thriving church in its community, and was recently honored as having one of the best youth programs in the country.  (It runs around 200 on a Sunday.)

If you read Seth Goodin, you will come to understand that complainers care.  They are usually well-meaning people with a desire to help, but they’ve been ignored for so long they’ve gotten used to shouting.  I, too, get tired of listening to the complaints, but I try to listen – or get a deacon to help listen for me – to HEAR their concerns and look for truth underneath the complaint, and find a way to address at least some of their observation.

I have found that preachers who only pretend to pastor, and only sweep away the prophets in their midst, will not achieve the radical transformation they desire.  Instead, they focus on the beam in their congregation instead of the speck in their own ministry.

Instead of Wood’s book (and while you’re waiting on my book to be published), I commend to you Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing and Christian Schwartz’s Natural Church Development.

Over the weekend, I did my first reading of Thom S Rainer’s Surprising Insights from the Unchurched . Rather than simply looking at growing churches and copy what they do, or survey people who don’t attend church, this book describes the attitudes of the formerly unchurched, now active in a local congregation. And that’s who we all want – new believers excited about the faith.

(Too many of the “fastest growing” churches do so with transfer growth. Members of small or dull churches leave and join the one with lots of programs. Rebaptizing the current population based on the emotion of a revival moment.)

What Rainer found was that the formerly unchurched used to ignore church because it was dull, or wimpy. Why take time out of their schedule to sit through an unprofessional hour? He found that they are willing to listen to more deep theology than we give them credit for. As one lady said, she didn’t understand all those financial terms when she started watching CNBC, but she kept at it because it was important to managing her investments – so why shouldn’t she take a little time learning Christian concepts to satisfy a spiritual need?

I was thrilled he quoted Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972). Kelly also found that the most successful churches were unapologetic about doctrine. Rainer found that formerly unchurched actually indicated greater interest in doctrine than those who had been in the church a long time. And he found that churches that stressed “doctrinal certitude” hold onto these converts and are more successful in teaching the new people how to evangelize.

If you haven’t read Rainer’s book, do so. It’s not the best available, but certainly worth the read. Once you’ve got the introduction from Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, go find a copy of Kelly’s book.

And go spend more time on your sermon. The unchurched next door are counting on it.