By Brian Boyles
There are countless causes of panic for a church leader. Church finances, disgruntled congregation members, and over-commitment—to name a few.
And then there’s declining church attendance.
The idea of a sizable decrease in the Sunday morning attendance gives most church leaders a bit of heartburn. There can be a number of reasons as to why the pastor responds this way.
Maybe the people are unhappy with the pastor and have chosen to leave. Maybe the pastor fears he will be held accountable (by people) for the size of the attendance. Or maybe there’s a compelling vision God has given him and losing congregants negatively affects that.
Either way, when attendance declines it’s easy—and dangerous—for the pastor and the rest of the leadership to begin to lose motivation.
When motivation in ministry begins to drop, it can quickly devolve into a pity party where people begin to point fingers, make bad decisions, and create an atmosphere that makes even more people want to leave.
For this reason it’s imperative to stay motivated when attendance begins to decline. Here are a few ways you can begin to do this.
1. Join the club.
Not to make light of your situation, but every church in America has experienced times of declining attendance, including the big-name churches with well known pastors who have well-led ministries.
Decline happens, even among the best churches.
When this happens in your church, reach out to a few pastors who have been in ministry for more than 15 years and ask them about times of declining attendance in their history. Ask them how they navigated their ministry during those times and take notes of what they say.
As one of my mentors often says, the best way to learn is through other people’s experience. So don’t get upset, don’t lose heart, and join the club.
2. Seek and celebrate small wins.
This is helpful for a number of reasons. It is going to be almost immediately obvious to you when the attendance declines. Once this happens, finding anything positive to celebrate may take a little more intentionality.
This doesn’t mean you need to pretend like something is bigger than it really is. Rather, this means you need to see where God is still moving in your midst regardless of the attendance.
Have there been any salvations? Has anyone joined the church? Have new people become involved in discipleship groups? Has God still provided enough for you to make budget? Have you been able to pay off debt?
If you can see where God is still moving in these or any other areas, then point it out. Make other people aware of it. Whatever you do, look around the ministry and seek and celebrate small wins.
3. Remain focused on the task at hand.
Regardless of whether attendance is up or down, you have a responsibility to which you need to remain dedicated. Consider this: Gideon had tens of thousands of soldiers, but God whittled him down to only 300. Even with the fewer, Gideon had to remain focused on the task.
Consider Jesus when He went to the cross. Earlier in His ministry there were thousands who would follow Him. But at the cross there were only a handful. Jesus had a task to accomplish and He remained focused.
The same must be the case for you. God has given you a task and even during the seasons of attendance decline, which are bound to happen, you must remain focused!
4. Let Jesus be Jesus.
Here’s what I mean: In Matthew 16:18 Jesus was speaking with Peter and said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Did you notice who would build the church? Not Peter, but Jesus. Jesus will build His church.
Your job is not to build the church. If you try to do what Jesus was called to do, then you place yourself in competition with Him. That’s not a good place to be.
Be who God called you to be. If you are a leader in a local church body, God has called you to preach the word of God, love the church body, reach the lost, and disciple the saved.
Let Jesus be Jesus. He’s better at it than you are.
Brian is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga.