February 20, 2011 Tony Morgan

Has Your Church Started to Die?

This excerpt from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s recent book Rework keeps reverberating in my mind today:

“When you stick with your current customers come hell or high water, you wind up cutting yourself off from new ones. Your product or service becomes so tailored to your current customers that it stops appealing to fresh blood. And that’s how your company starts to die.”

That’s consistent with one of the key attributes of churches in decline that we talked about a few months ago. When churches become inward focused and start making decisions about ministry to keep people rather than reach people, they have also started to die.

Jesus said it this way:

“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4, NLT)

Why do you think some churches slip into the mode where they’re so focused on keeping people that they neglect trying to reach people who are outside the faith? Join the conversation by sharing your comment.

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Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.
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Comments (27)

  1. Dave

    “When you stick with your current customers come hell or high water…” I think this simple yet true statement points to a stagnation and static environment that does not dynamically change with the ebb and flow of the organization’s intended audience. Continually assessing and re-assessing how the target audience is shifting and changing must help inform the organization’s strategy without losing the DNA or substance of that organization.

    I also think the inverse could be also true. Any organization that does not also focus time and energy on the existing and future leadership will begin to die especially when the leadership begins to sense that it does not have a voice. The leadership within an organization, especially when it is raised up from the target audience, must help shape the future of the organization even if it means putting an end to programs that have existed since the organization’s inception. Some of this breakdown occurs when we value our position over our passion and our popularity over our obedience.

  2. James McLaren (Jersey, Channel Islands)

    It’s a simple matter of resources. If you commit resource to something -evangelistic program, building maintenance, whatever – you have to ensure that the income keeps coming in to provide that resource.

    There are two ways of doing this. One is to live by faith. Now living by faith can – and does – work, but there are not a few people out there who have tried it and come away badly burnt by the experience; in addition, the secular world will put on every bit of pressure it can to move people away from it.

    Faced with that, most churches go the other way about it – they draw up a budget and a plan. Instrinsic to this is protecting the income stream – so the pastor cultivates the wealthy members to ensure they stay onside.

    Cynical? Maybe. Realistic? You betcha. Aligned with God’s way of doing things? I’ll leave you to work that one out.

  3. Tony,

    Much appreciated the post. This is a subject many of my ministry friends and I have been talking about for the past few months. One word which came to mind while reading this was ‘balance.’ I wonder if too many churches and ministries are not balanced. It is easy to fall into the trap of being inward focus but if you don’t have people in your midst who are concerned about the lost then there won’t be a lot of outward focus taking place. Ministries need balance. I love what Ephesians 4:11 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” I believe the local church needs team ministry rather than just one senior Pastor to meet the needs inwardly and outwardly.

    • Tony Morgan

      Sean, one of the exercises I do with churches is have them list every ministry program and event on their calendar as either a “reach” or a “keep” ministry. I don’t allow anything to go in the same column. That forces conversation about what the appropriate balance needs to look like. Generally, though, the vast majority of churches (that’s why so churches are in decline) program around keeping the people who already attend their church.

      In the end, though, this is definitely an “and” solution. Healthy churches are about both outreach and discipleship.

  4. As a mainline pastor, I see this all the time. Its sad and funny, that Boomers would become the generation that does not want to change or give up its preferences or power for emerging generations. However, since they are reluctant to do that in other arenas, the church really is no different. So emerging generations leave to chart their own course and gather their own congregations.

    The congregation that focuses and getting back the members who have left or only recruiting members like themselves, will end up like the Jerusalem Church of the First Century. First irrelevant and then gone.

    Its the rare established congregation that can discern the need to change and open its eyes, heart, and traditions for the sake of others, even when they know the Great Commission and what it means. I have seen it happen a few times, been part of it, but with that shift and hope comes great pain and loss for what was.

    Thanks for the great blogs and tweets.

  5. A great quote from Rework. I think I will add that to my ever expanding reading list.

    What I think is sad is how much more difficult it is for the older, smaller churches in this whole area of inward/outward focus. I am talking with pastors pretty regularly who feel their hands are tied because their key influencers like things the way they are.

    Its a long hard road to shift that attitude and culture to one that embraces ‘fresh blood’ and change.

    Two reasons I see right away that people don’t make this shift include intimidation and feelings of inadequacy or hopelessness.

  6. paul

    One of the many benefits of Mark Oestreicher’s YMCP is that we talk about stuff like this. Adizes life cycles of organizations has great things to say about this.

  7. Rob

    It’s so much easier to deal with what you know then what you don’t know. Ministering to people you know is easy. Ministering to people you don’t know can be tricky and it might take more effort. So, stay comfortable, stay as long as there is money to pay you and leave so the next minister can hopefully turn the focus outward….

  8. James

    I think the main motivation to try and keep people FROM leaving all comes down to money. The fear is, ‘If we lose anymore people, we won’t have enough money to keep the doors open.’. That’s people-focused instead of God-focused. Gotta keep God first.

  9. Doug

    Tony,
    The problem I see is that many churches are convinced that their “keep” programs are actually “reach” programs. They think that the worship service is a reach program because the music is modern so the unchurched will like it, or the children’s program is a reach program because the kids have lots of fun and they might invite their friends. What they don’t seem to understand is that if people have to come to the church’s campus to experience the program then it is most likely a “keep” program.

  10. I’ve got a serious problem with the proposition that new converts are more important than existing Christians. If the church only cares about new converts rather than lifetime faith, there’s a huge focus problem that I don’t want anything to do with. It’s like the church realizes that they have nothing to offer the “midlife” Christian.

    And a lot of times they don’t.

    Way too many churches find it easier to use rock music to attract teens, fear tactics to spur conversions, and evangelism training to bring in even more converts than they do to sit down with a Christian that has been following Christ for 30 years and has serious life issues that only God offers hope for and help him handle that. Most churches want NOTHING to do with that. Thus, they lose a lot of people.

    The problem, period, is when it becomes one or the other, and small churches are left with few choices. Either we minister to people we know, or we throw them to the wolves and try to find a new bunch that doesn’t take so much work and money. Some choose one, some choose the other. Both are subject to criticism.

    Old people need church, too.

    • Tony Morgan

      I agree with you to the extent that it’s not an either/or proposition. However, the tendency for churches is to focus so much on keeping people happy who have already committed their lives to Christ, that they completely lose focus on the people who are outside the faith. We have to be willing to reach the one lost person.

      • In my sincerely humble opinion, the reason this happens is that church people get jealous. They were important to the church when they were outside the faith, but once they convert, they no longer get much attention. That’s a genuine flaw in how we do things, and it’s also a genuine flaw that is due to their sinful nature. As Christians, they still want attention, perhaps unconsciously, so they clamor for it. It’s also a problem that “we” promise them that Jesus will fix all their problems, so they convert, and then they still have problems. So they clamor. At that point, the church is trapped, and the resources to respond to the clamor are limited. It’s a painful cycle to watch, but small churches – and I’m not talking about 250 members (those are large churches to WNC) – often have little choice. No full time staff, only one true “pastor”, deacons who were pressed into service rather than genuinely called of God, and church members that often have very little in common with each other. Willing to reach the lost, yes, I believe “we” are. Yet, worse than being unwilling, almost, we simply don’t know how. But we DO, sorta, know how to try to respond to those that are our friends, and, after all, what kind of “Christians” would we be if we didn’t even love our “brethren”?

        Hope I don’t sound argumentative. I agree this is a huge problem. But I do think that sometimes your Grainger / NewSpring background puts you in an entirely different world than those of us who are truly delighted to see 75 people on a Sunday morning. Steven Furtick admits that he has told people that Elevation is not the church for them. He’s got the “clout” to do that because there are literally thousands of others who take their place. My world is very different. Very freaking different. To just abandon the people who are the founding, enduring core of our church would be an extremely, extremely, non-Christian decision.

        We (at my little church) are indeed very inwardly focused, and I don’t like that. BUT, I believe Luke 15:4 is just as much about trying to preserve a straying member of the current fold as it is about going out and finding someone that’s never been a member of the fold. After all, do we really think that sheep just appeared out there? No, it was once in the fold and was then lost. Hmmmm. Not the standard interpretation of the evangelical message, is it? :)

  11. Richard Hearing

    We live in an age where choice is uppermost is in peoples mindset, choice of school, tesco Asda’s we can approach God, and hence Church in the same way we shop. A new Church has opened it’s Charismatic live music coffee shop to relax with those non Christian friends devolop your ministry here so we go leave the Church in which perhaps we have had difficulty settling in have made a few friends and the semons have lost their edge.. so we go start again when will we see that following Jesus becoming a disciple being where God has asked us to being obeadent along side others who are just as human as you, As a Church we need to be outward looking, whilst discipling those within,encouraging those who God has annointed.This will mean that your fellowship will grow, souls are won for Christ and the Kingdom draws near

  12. Art

    The problem is that we have abandoned the process that works, and that was trumpeted during most of the last decade: commit to the five purposes of the church. The church that has balance in those five areas (evangelism, discipleship, worship, fellowship and ministry) will engage everyone, new and old alike. Balance is the key. We must, as Ed Young, jr. puts it: Build believers and Serve seekers. If you don’t keep believers engaged, you won’t have anyone to serve (and fund ministry to) seekers.

    It isn’t either/or, it is both/and.

  13. Great thought. Something new and fresh always creates momentum. This can be applied to any ministry.

    I’m talking about an infusion of newness not necessarily a reworking of something.

  14. Alejandra

    The church that I used to attend had the same problems. There were (and are) so inward focus that they forget the entire community of unreached people around them. I think that shift appeared when a small group in the church decided to take control and make the church experience about them and their needs even if the pastor was against it. The pastor also did not set the boundaries to stop that from happening. The church is now almost disintegrated. Personally I think the pastor plays a big role in what happens or not in the church.

  15. This not only happens when you “stick with your current customers” but also when you stick with your current programs. Programs that worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow. But people often have a vested interest in what worked for them in the past and create systems to support these programs (interesting thought given your upcoming talk). An excellent example in the business world is Blockbuster. They were so focused on their in-store business because it was successful, and their systems were setup to support this model, that they missed new opportunities like Netflix and Redbox.

    Churches can focus on programs that worked for a previous generation and miss out on reaching the next generation that requires new, innovative methods.

  16. I am in total agreement with this article. I think that at times we ‘stick’ to the same ways of reaching potential members and not realize that the method that was effective ‘yesterday’ may not be as effective ‘today’. There are now so many ways to reach new members which churches can explore. For example, use of technology.
    Peace, love and God’s blessings!

  17. This really is a great thought. Steven Furtick blogged about something similar and used the analogy of an aquarium. Churches tend to focus on taking care of all the needs of the fish in the aquarium rather than going out and fishing. Helpful for me anyways.

  18. I think it is important not to intentionally tailor anything about our worship to any one group. Each church has a DNA, and each church has an innate personality driven by her leadership and culture. However, to stay beholden to any one method of operation due to preference or fear of offending current attenders is dangerous.

    If our goal is to reach the lost and hurting, we will do so through relationships and loving our neighbors enough to invite them. Hopefully, the regular attenders will be OK with that.

  19. Pat68

    Once you’ve got a group established, it’s easier to cater to them. Bringing in new people is hard work. It’s almost like getting complacent in a marriage. You’ve done the hard work to get the prize.

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