Growing up in Tampa Florida, I can remember many different churches that, during my youth, were vibrant, lively, strong churches that were filled with hundreds of people each week. They were known for their strong, charismatic leadership, large facilities, and large influence throughout the greater Tampa area. Almost 25 years ago, I entered full time ministry and have pastored most of those years in the city I grew up in. And there is something that always bothered me as I drive by many of those churches 30 to 40 years later. Many of them are just a shadow of what they once were, and in some cases they don’t even exist anymore. What happened? How did these once thriving, evangelistic churches decline and, in some cases, cease to exist?
It’s called “life-cycles”, and every church experiences them. I don’t think any church or ministry leader wants their church to become unhealthy, but inevitably, the vast majority of churches will, in fact, go through these life cycles, unless church leaders are aware enough to identify the trajectory of their ministry context. Let me briefly explain each phase of these life cycles:
Birth- The first step in life is birth. Every church has a starting point. These can be exciting days as something new begins. These are exhilarating days, when resources are few, the days are long, but vision and mission are crystal clear. They are thrilling days to be a part of as God does a new thing for His glory.
Growth- The next phase is growth. These years are extremely rewarding as momentum is gained, ministry norms and systems are developed, and a strategic core team is built, resulting in many people coming to faith in Christ and growing toward spiritual maturity. These are the glory days of a church’s life. These are the years when much of the difficult challenges have been overcome, and patience begins to yield much fruit expanding a church’s influence and impact in the community. Numerical growth takes place along with the growth of facilities and resources. This is a season of abundance and blessing.
Plateau- The third phase in the life cycle of a church is plateau. This phase reminds me of the early church in the book of Acts. Jesus had given the commission to His church, and in the first four chapters, the apostles had a laser focus on the Gospel. These were years of tremendous growth and blessing, but then something happened. They became complacent and comfortable. Jesus’ command was to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, but they didn’t want to leave Jerusalem. Why mess up a good thing? In the end, God permitted persecution on His Church, to force them out of their complacency and to refocus on world evangelism. This is the most critical phase in the life of a church. If they fail to recognize their complacency, they will inevitably begin the descent into dysfunction and death. This is a tipping point for most churches due to the fact that 8 out of 10 churches are in decline and need biblical revitalization.
Decline- The fourth phase is decline. This is what happens when a church or its leadership refuses to recognize clear signs of a dying church. Mission and values are sacrificed to established traditions, personal preferences, and methods. Change is equal to compromise; the past is valued more than the future.
Death- The final step in a life cycle of a church is death. And the sad truth is, many churches are just one step away. Sadly, I can drive by churches that were once the largest, strongest churches in the city, and in some cases, the buildings were torn down years ago. In other cases, there stands an old vacant building, as a sobering reminder of what happens when a church forgets why they started in the first place.
What can you do? My response is “Revitalize or die!” Statistically, there’s a solid chance your church needs real revitalization, and so you should strongly consider these principles of leading your church to new life and health:
Leadership- It begins with you! For revitalization to take place, it will require bold, fearless, committed, selfless, tireless sacrifice along with lots of strategic planning! Jeff Iorg reminds us that “Some churches are so entrenched and dysfunctional…that anything new—no matter how simple—is fraught with difficulty. Do not let these dysfunctional realities undermine your determination to lead your ministry forward. Recognize when major change needs to happen and courageously lead your followers through the process.” I can tell you from personal experience—this requires a whole lot of Jesus, coffee, and tactical patience.
Mission- Every church exists for Jesus’ mission. Without this mission, no church has a legitimate reason to even exist. This is why so many churches cross the tipping point from the life cycle of growth to plateau and eventually decline and even death. They become inward focused, rather than outward focused. Aubrey Malphur offers a model for missional strategic planning that is fourfold: (1) developing of a biblical mission, (2) developing a compelling vision, (3) discovering the church’s core values, and (4) designing a strategy that accomplishes the mission and vision. You can learn more about this strategy in Malphur’s essential work, Advanced Strategic Planning.
Strategy- A vision without a plan is just a wish. Having a bold mission and vision that is gospel-centric is necessary but having a strategy to lead a church to new life is essential. In closing, I offer Thom Rainer’s four-step model for church revitalization that centralizes around one word—simple. Rainer states:
“A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus). Clarity. Movement. Alignment. Focus. All are necessary.”
You can learn more about this strategic process in Thom Rainer’s book, Simple Church. It is one of my favorite books and has been a tremendous resource as I lead my own church toward renewed life and spiritual health.
In the life cycle of any church, change is inevitable, essential, and often painful. Jeff Iorg reminds us of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 9. You don’t patch up an old garment with new cloth, otherwise the new cloth pulls away and makes the tear worse. Churches in decline don’t need patchwork, they need major change. Iorg calls this kind of change, “all-or-nothing, paradigm-shifting, no-going back breakthroughs.”
Pastor, God is for you! God specializes in resurrection. He wants to see churches restored, renewed, and revitalized, if people are willing to follow him. There is hope for your church!
Ashburn Baptist Church
Lorg, Jeff. Leading Major Change in Your Ministry. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016.
Malphurs, Aubrey. Advanced Strategic Planning: A 21st Century Model for Church and Ministry Leaders. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013.
McIntosh, Gary. There’s Hope For Your Church: First Steps To Restoring Health And Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012.
Rainer, Thom. Simple Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011.
 Jeff Iorg. Leading Major Change in Your Ministry. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016, p.14.  Aubrey Malphurs. Advanced Strategic Planning: A 21st Century Model for Church and Ministry Leaders. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013, p.14.  Thom Rainer S. Simple Church. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2011, p.68.  Jeff Iorg. Leading Major Change in Your Ministry. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016, p.31.  Ibid. p.32.