It’s a tough question, isn’t it? I have an idea or two — all of which have actually been field tested.
Here are my thoughts. Please add yours.
1. You have to start with a theology check. If the congregation is eaten up with legalism, the first step is teaching, hopefully followed by change.
2. I think you next consider looking for a merger partner. I think we need lots and lots of mergers — even when a congregation’s survival doesn’t depend on it. There’s just no reason to spend money on two buildings, two preachers, and two power bills when one is enough. And why be divided when greater unity is so readily available?
Now, this only works if there’s a nearby congregation that is compatible. My own congregation is the product of a merger beween a larger, growing church and a smaller struggling congregation. And although it was a marriage of unequals (in terms of size), it was no act of charity. The smaller church brought much need vitality to the larger congregation.
You see, the larger church was a university congregation, filled with professionals and academics. The smaller church was more blue collar. The merger brought balance and a better blend of talents. The resulting church was much stronger than either of the merged churches.
In many parts of the country — especially here in Alabama — there are multiple congregations nearby that a struggling church could merge with. People are much more willing to drive a while to get to church than used to be true (we have a family that drives 1 1/2 hours one way to our church!). Many thousands drive past one or two Churches of Christ to attend their “home” congregation. Merger partners are often plentiful.
And unlike a few decades ago, many of our members are looking for a larger church, with a good youth program and well-run ministries. Whereas a church of 100 used to be plenty big enough for most of our members, today the younger members especially are looking for something bigger. Merging to reach a more attractive size is no defeat and no shame.
In fact, mergers allow churches to dedicate more resources to Kingdom business, and so merging should be highly missional.
3. Your merger partner doesn’t have to be a Church of Christ. An independent Christian Church would often be glad to add an a cappella service as part of a merger strategy (it’s happened more than once).
4. Merger partners don’t have to be the same race. There have been successful mergers of predominantly white churches with predominantly black churches. Mergers that cross denominational and racial lines are very attractive and very missional — they demonstrate the power of the cross. And such churches tend to grow.
5. But suppose there’s no merger partner nearby. What’s another choice? Consider this “Letter to a Dying Church,” by James McDonald. This post describes a dying church that agreed to become an additional campus for a larger, growing church — and they soon grew to over 1,400 members with 200 baptisms. Wow!
You see, many larger churches have become multi-campus churches. They have one preacher whose sermons are delivered to the other campuses by satellite or on DVD by courier. The ministers at the away-campuses thus are freed from sermon preparation duties to minister to the flock, equip the members, etc. The members receive a higher quality of preaching, and the congregation benefits from the combined talents of the ministers at all campuses. And when done right, it works.
In fact, it even works across state lines. There are some multi-campus churches that are also multi-state.
Now, some in the Churches of Christ will wonder whether this structure is scriptural. Obviously, there are no First Century examples of sermons being recorded and couriered across town! But there is plently of evidence that many churches met is multiple locations under a single eldership. In fact, I have less trouble finding authority for multi-campus churches than for 20 single-campus churches in the same town, each teaching a minutely differentiated doctrine and damning the others, while the members drive past three churches to get to the only church that affirms exactly what they want to believe.
6. Finally, of course, there’s the very real possibility of growing where you are. The Remel congregation in Arkansas did just that. They changed their theology and their hearts, became servants of their community, and went from near death to vigorously alive and growing. It can happen.
These are strategies that work — and that have actually been tried and proven.
There are also some strategies that have been proven to fail —
a. Blame the other churches in town. If your church is bleeding families, it must be the preacher or elders down the road who are sheep stealing. It’s certainly not your failure to feed your own sheep.
b. Blame the TV. Post articles on your website against entertainment because your members are leaving for churches with powerful, moving worship. You have all 5 acts of worship every single Sunday. What else could a congregation need or want — that is, if they hadn’t been corrupted by the entertainment industry?
c. Blame politics. If people are leaving, it’s because of discontent being spread by that former deacon you removed for being unhappy with the direction of the church. Were does the Bible even say we need a “direction”?
d. Blame the neighborhood. We knew how to grow when the neighbors were just like us. Now that they’re different, well, we prefer to ask our members to drive 20 minutes into a culturally unfamiliar neighborhood so that the church can keep on being just like it’s always been. I mean, it’s not that we don’t love our new neighbors. It’s just that we love staying the same more.
e. Blame God. If you’re following God’s instruction book and it doesn’t work, it must be God’s fault. Very convenient, isn’t it? Refusing to change may also avoid the necessity to re-examine beliefs and may even let you avoid taking the blame. I mean, it’s so much easier to blame God for not giving the increase, when the real problem is not sowing any seed.
The church that turns things around is the church that points the finger of blame at itself. Humility leads to change. Pride leads to destruction. Once a congregation sees itself as the problem, then it can honestly evaluate its shortcomings and reconsider what role it should fill in God’s Kingdom in this place.
Is it easy to change? No, it’s actually much easier to hire a realtor, sell the building, and take communion by yourself at home. But imagine the joy of helping a struggling, failing church turn around and thrive. Imagine the feeling of knowing you were a part of the change.