How to Breathe New Life into a Declining Church

By Steve Scoggins

This article is not about the programs that can be used to help a church grow. There are many dynamic programs to choose from. Since each church is unique, different programs will be needed for each situation. Programs may be tools in helping a church grow but will never be the underlying reason for a church's growth.

This article is not aimed at the laity of the church, even the lay leadership. Involving the laity in ministry is an important part of turning around a declining church. However, no matter how enthusiastic the laity may become, a church basically will not rise above the level of its pastor. The pastor is the key ingredient in turning around a declining church. (This has been proven in many local churches. I have often heard a pastor complain about a church and list the many reasons that it will never grow, only to have a new pastor come and take the church to new heights.) This article is geared to sharpen two important aspects of a pastor's ministry: his preaching and his motivating principles.

I. The kind of preaching that turns a church around:

Not long ago I had the privilege of doing a workshop on variety in worship styles and programming in a local church. I shared with the participants some of the creative things that we are doing at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville. We now have five Sunday worship services using three different worship styles. A host of ministries have sprung up over the past few years meeting needs from Christian dieting to surviving a divorce. After the workshop was over, I felt convicted by the Lord that I had given the participants the wrong impression. I had led them to believe that if they will start new types of worship services or if they will involve themselves in creative ministries their church will automatically grow. These programs and worship styles had enabled us to meet the needs of those coming into the church, but they were not the reason why people were coming and staying. People came because their needs were being met in the preaching. It was the power of God's Word that was bringing them in and bringing them life! Preaching is God's primary method of bringing life to a declining church.

God reminded me of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel saw the valley filled with dead men's bones and asked, "can these bones ever live again." God's answer was, "Start preaching!" As Ezekiel preached, he saw the most amazing thing. Bone joined together with bone, and skeletons of people began to emerge. Ezekiel asked God what to do next. God replied, "Keep preaching." As he continued preaching, the bones took on flesh and began to breathe again. Ezekiel asked God what to do next. God replied, "Keep on preaching." So he continued preaching and the valley of people became a marching army.

A. Preaching that turns churches around is Biblical

Spurgeon was once asked if he spent time defending the Bible. His insightful answer shows his confidence in the power of God's word: "Defend the Bible? Why you might as well defend a lion. You don't defend the Bible, you just let it loose!" Paul expressed it this way, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation."

Baptists have always been known for their Bible preaching. One of the healthiest emphases in our seminaries has been the stress given to expository preaching. When people come to church they want to find it necessary to open their Bibles and dig in with real study. A sermon that breathes life into a congregation is one that is filled with constant references to the Biblical text and its principles.

Though most Baptist preachers are preaching the Bible, not all churches are coming alive. There are three other ingredients in this Biblical preaching that must be there as well.

B. Preaching that turns churches around must be relevant

My task is to give out more than Biblical information. I need to make sure that the Biblical principles I share are the ones the people need in their every day lives. Too often we preachers are answering questions that nobody else but preachers are asking.

A few years ago I began a series on Galatians. In my introductory sermon, I thought about dealing with some of the scholarly issues, such as when was the book written-before or after the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15? As excited as I was about seeking out the answer to this question, it dawned on me that no one in my congregation was sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for my opinion. I realized I was going to be preaching to people who were surviving cancer, facing business struggles, praying for wayward teens, or going through divorces.

Preaching that changes lives has a balance that is hard to maintain. In order to produce relevant preaching, I must spend both time with God in my study and time with the people in my church field. If the preacher spends only time in his study, he becomes out of touch and irrelevant. If the preacher spends only time in the field with his flock, he soon becomes shallow in his preaching.

A preacher needs to find ways to find out what his people are needing and thinking. I ask God to alert me in the course of my pastoral duties as to what people need at any given time. If someone comes to me with a puzzling question or a difficult problem, I assume that there are hundreds of others who are facing the same things. Periodically, I pass out note cards and ask people to share with me either problems they are facing or questions they have about the Christian life. I have used their responses as bases for special series of sermons. By doing this, it gives the people a sense of ownership in the preaching of the church and lets me know that I am "scratching where they are itching."

C. Preaching that turns churches around is understandable

A preacher who preaches over the heads of his people isn't smart. He just has bad aim. My job is to communicate the truth so that the people will be able to obey God's word.

One of the best ways to make a sermon understandable is to use good illustrations. Steve Brown, the teacher on the Key Life Radio Network, once said, "If you can't illustrate it, don't preach it." The fact that you can illustrate it means that you have grasped it. For every point I make in a sermon, I tell a story to illustrate the principle. That was Jesus' method of teaching!

D. Preaching that turns churches around is passionate.

I've heard too many preachers who preach with all the enthusiasm of reading a two-week old newspaper. Our message is the best news the world has ever heard. We have the high privilege of preaching the most exciting Book in all the world.

When I say that someone must preach with passion, I am not necessarily talking about how much volume is being used. There are some who preach with great gestures and shouts, but are obviously imitating some other preacher they have heard rather than preaching from their heart. More than ever before, congregations demand sincerity from the pastor and in the sermons.

I ask myself two questions each time before I preach? First, "Do I really believe what I am about to say." Secondly, I ask myself, "Is what I am about to say really important?" If I am convinced of both of those issues, a fire and sincerity flows through my delivery. It will be a message from one person's heart directed to another's heart.

II. The Principles that turn a church around:

A. A church that turns around is one that becomes more intensely spiritual, more Jesus centered

For some reason we have tried to soft-peddle our religious nature over the past few decades. In order to gain favor with the world, we have tried to appear as little more than a Christian social service agency or a Christian social fellowship with programs to enrich all ages. We forget that the church is the only place with the spiritual answers to meet the needs of those spiritually hungry in this world.

I am convinced of two truths: 1. People are hungry to know Jesus. The fields are still white unto harvest. 2. If Jesus is lifted up, He will draw all people unto himself. When the pastor and the people spend more time, focusing on Jesus, loving Jesus, lifting up Jesus, the church will turn around.

B. A church that turns around is one that makes new efforts to be warmly expressive in its love

Without knowing it, many churches are considered to be cold to outsiders. Their own needs are met since they have known each other and loved each other for years, however, they do not realize that they are not welcoming or accepting of new people. The pastor can do a lot to change this perception. It is important for the pastor to be the pacesetter in expressing love and in giving out warm welcomes.

C. A church that turns around is one that majors on the majors, not the minors

We Baptists have a reputation for "watering the lawn while the house burns down." Since we only have a limited amount of time and energy, the devil would like to get us to waste our resources on secondary matters.

The way we most often major on the minors is by concentrating on "fruit issues" instead of "root issues." If I have an apple tree that is producing bad apples, I can pick all of the bad apples or cut it down at the root. Our root problem is that we are not walking with Christ. If I can get people to walk with Christ, He will take care of all the side issues.

A second way we major on the minors is by being dogmatic over secondary issues. I consider the "majors" to be those things that determine a person's eternity. I allow diversity in options in other doctrinal matters within the church. When sincere Christians disagree over matters such as the timing of the return of Christ and the doctrine of predestination, I feel it wise for us to allow for differences under the unity of allegiance to the Lordship of Christ.

D. A church that turns around has a pastor who knows how to plow around stumps

No church will ever be a perfect church. God has chosen to place his heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. (2 Cor. 4:7) If you look long enough at any Christian or any church, you will soon see some clay. A wise pastor tempers his idealism with love. Ephesians 4:15 tells us we are to "speak the truth in love." I am to hold up God's word without compromise, yet I am to love the people right where they are, unconditionally. If you stay at a church long enough, you will find areas in which they are not willing to change or groups that will not cooperate. Rather than spending all of your time fighting battles that cannot be won, plow around those stumps, love those who won't change, and work with those who want to go further. Since God called you to that church, and since you have done all you could, the problems that cannot be fixed are now God's problems, not yours.

E. A church that turns around fans flames instead of throwing water on people's fires

I believe in the body concept that is taught in the New Testament. Every member has a gift and a special contribution to make to the body of Christ. Some today give the impression that the pastor has a pipeline to God-that is, if God is going to speak to a church, it has to be through the pastor. I believe that same Holy Spirit who lives in me lives in every Christian in my church.

Most of the new ministries started by churches I have pastored were not my ideas. I developed a "permission giving atmosphere" where people felt free to dream and step out in faith. By fanning flames, instead of throwing water on people's ideas, God has birthed many new ministries that have aided the growth of the church.