It’s estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of American churches have either plateaued or are in decline. In Mark Driscoll’s book, Confessions of a Reformission has a section where he talks about the four stages of church decline. Read the following stages that Mark discusses and honestly ask yourself, “Which phase are we in?”
Phase 1 – Creative, the dream stage
The creative phase is the beginning of a new church or a new project within the church. This phase is marked by enthusiasm, hope, and numerous ideas that are considered for implementation, which causes momentum. The early days of our church plant were filled with this kind of creative energy, and the young and motivated people in our church were filled with ideas for all that we could do. Once we lost our building, we were thrust into another creative phase as we struggled to survive. And we returned to a creative phase when we acquired the two buildings and were able to again dream of ways to grow our ministry. I noticed that each time we were in a creative phase, our church attracted more entrepreneurial types of skilled leaders who were excited about the opportunity to try something new and make a difference in our city. This indicates that chaos and crisis can be leveraged to a church’s benefit.
Phase 2 – Management, the reality stage
In the management phase, the ministry project becomes a reality and requires a great deal of organization, management, and problem solving to make it successful. This phase can be a lot of hard work and is not as enthusiastically pursued because it is tedious and difficult. But without managing the creative ideas, success is not possible. We spent a few years working through very difficult management issues, such as obtaining and renovating facilities, opening a concert venue, maintaining ministry homes, and starting new services. Each of these ministries succeeded, which required increasing management, such as funding, facilities, systems, leaders, theology, and technology. The hope for every church is that they work through their management issues, thereby enabling them to return to the creative phase, where they dream up a new project and enthusiastically undertake it and raise a whole new set of management issues to overcome. Therefore, the goal of the management phase is not to get the church organized or under control. Rather, the management phase is needed to eliminate the inefficiencies and barriers that are keeping the church from refocusing back on the creative phase and creating a whole new set of problems to manage.
Phase 3 – Defensive justification, the failure stage
In the defensive justification phase, something has gone terribly wrong and has failed at the management stage. Or the church succeeded at the management stage but never returned to the creative phase and got stuck with a bunch of well-organized managers running the church but no creative and visionary new ideas to move the church forward. When this phase sets in, the church begins to stall, plateau, and slowly decline. People are less motivated to serve, money is less generously given, and a cloud of lethargy and complaint begins to settle in. This is because some leaders in the church start to act defensively and justify their failures rather than finding creative or management ways to overcome them. In this phase, time, money, and energy are used to explain problems rather than to fix them, which is the primary clue that organizational death is on the horizon unless changes are made. Because the church is in a defensive posture, people start to leave the church, and the best and brightest people are no longer attracted to the church because it has lost sight of any risky mission that calls people to rise up in faith. The peculiar truth of the defensive justification phase is that many of the excuses provided in this season are in fact valid. But whether or not they are valid, the fact remains that they need to be overcome.
Phase 4 – Blaming, the death stage
An organization that remains stuck in the defensive justification phase for too long inevitably then declines to the blaming phase. In the blaming phase, it is obvious that the church or ministry is going to die, and excuses and explanations for the death have been devised. This does not necessarily mean that the church will be closing its doors; effectively dead churches have been known to keep the doors open on Sundays for many years to welcome a handful of people who have no mission. In this phase, the focus of the church is determining who will be blamed for the failure so that another group of people can escape responsibility for the failure. Some churches blame the pastor and fire him, others blame Satan and spiritualize everything, and still others blame the outside culture as being too hard for a church to thrive. Rarely does the leadership of a church in this phase rise up to repent of the things that are preventing the church from returning to the life-giving creative phase, and eventually the church dies. It was precisely this kind of church that gave us the free building after they died.
Mark continues to share a lot more details and gives some practical ways that his church (Mars Hills Bible Church in Seattle) has continually returned to phase 1; and how they have dealt over the years as they have moved from phase to phase. Mark’s book in my opinion is a great read; and I would encourage you to get a copy for yourself.
So… where is your church? Phase 1, 2, 3 or 4? If you’re in phase 2, what needs to be done for you to re-enter into a creative phase? If you’re in phase 3, what excuses need to be overcome? And if you’re in phase 4, how can you stop the blame game and begin to get back to a place of health rather than death?
These are important questions to answer… where did you find yourself? Please take a few moments to share your thoughts in the comments section of where you are now or maybe your experience from past churches that you have been part of or know people are part of now.