Strengthening struggling churches
What follows is taken from my personal experiences, not from a text book. It may therefore lack balance and not be as objective as it ought to be! But here are some principles which I hope will be of some help in considering this subject.
Ask the right question
‘What are your weaknesses?’ is the wrong question to ask. Those in a struggling church will already be despondent and it is cruel to torture them further. ‘What are your strengths?’ is a far better question. Build upon your strengths and from there you can address your weaknesses. It does people good to know there are positives in a desperate situation. When I came to Machynlleth, it was to an elderly congregation in a rundown building but there was an opportunity to preach the gospel. As the ministry was blessed, more people started attending. Our strengths grew and diversified and we are now able to do much more than before.
Causes of weaknesses
There is no such thing as a perfect church in this world. We need to recognise that every church has weaknesses and some of these are more debilitating than others, such as:
- Extreme disunity – a congregation pulling in different directions will not be blessed.
- Domineering personalities – these stifle discussion, cause a sense of fear and prevent believers maturing.
- Social mobility – if a few key people have to move away this can disrupt a growing work. In addition, our mobility can move us away from worshipping in our local church. Too many believers live in A, work in B and worship in C, then wonder why their influence is restricted.
- Holding on in office for too long – it often seems to take more grace to stop doing something than to start it in the first place. This stems from a failure to involve and train others for the future.
- Denominational indifference – liberal theology has led to starving congregations. There are believers to be found in many denominational churches who have never been encouraged and built up.
- Poor teaching – not only in liberal denominations but also in evangelical congregations where the breadth of the faith is not taught. Too few doctrines are majored upon, while others are neglected, so that unbalanced believers are produced. Remember the apostle Paul proclaimed the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).
- Non-pastoral elders – they rule, sometimes with a rod of iron. They instil fear, not encouragement. We need shepherds with a burden to see the sheep blossom and flourish.
- Finances – everything costs more. Yet, how many Christians have been taught the blessing of regular, proportional, sacrificial giving?
- Ageing congregation – we have failed to pass on the faith and now have congregations physically able to do less and less. Christian witness in some places is in danger of being extinguished.
- Lack of prayer – here is the most important cause of weakness. Too many prayer meetings are just shopping lists, where God is not worshipped and adored.
Back to basics
How then can these weaknesses be addressed and struggling churches strengthened? We need to get back to basics. Remember that prayer is the powerhouse of the church so encourage individual and corporate prayer. Why not produce a prayer diary, based on the prayers of the Bible, where all the members are covered? Teach people to worship God in prayer and to be grateful. Pray specifically for individuals and situations. Let local councillors, politicians, group leaders, teachers, etc. know that you are praying for them.
A Christ-centred ministry unites a congregation in the basics. Only an exalted Saviour can do sinners good. All messages should exalt the Lord Jesus Christ. Be systematic and if you are dependent on visiting speakers, ask them to preach on particular passages. Adopt a people-friendly approach. I know of a young boy who likes coming to church because the people there are kind to him. The opposite can also be true. How friendly and welcoming are we? Try to involve as many believers in the work as possible, giving people a sense of belonging and identity. It is not a healthy situation when a few people are doing all the work. Also show that you care for people in your community by getting involved in their needs. Encourage your members to do so, to rub shoulders with unbelievers and win them for Christ. How can we expect people to come in if no-one invites them?
Be patient. Have a long-term view. Change may be needed, but changing too much too soon may mean losing people. Patiently work towards where you would like to be in five years time. Be wise in how you introduce any changes. Expect to see God at work – He’s opening doors and taking you through situations. Remember that the devil never opens doors for gospel proclamation. All such doors are opened by God. How can we expect God to give us more when we do not use what He has already given us?
Learn from my mistakes
Don’t send all of your most useful and supportive people away to strengthen another work. Remember that numbers are not everything – don’t hold on to those who are disruptive or are pulling the church in a different direction. Be prepared to take a stand. Some issues have to be faced head-on or they will become festering sores. Don’t rely on those who only have a sentimental, glamorous, romantic view of the work. And be realistic – not all things will work. Here are some things to avoid:
- Viewing the ministry as a career structure.
- Hopelessness – with God all things are possible.
- Unwillingness to change – apply biblical principles to your situation.
- Lack of courage to go through the doors that God opens.
- Being oversensitive to what people think of you – it is more important to be concerned about what God thinks of you.
- Looking over your shoulder to see if other evangelicals approve.
Large parts of Wales are bereft of any evangelical witness. There are many struggling denominational chapels but little if any gospel preaching. Liberal theology is showing itself in its true colours – no God, no hope, no future and no message. Look at the collapse of the mainline denominations. Managed decline seems to be their only strategy. There are opportunities to step in and salvage strategic places. How can this be done? Some possible ways worth considering could be:
- on an organisational level – AECW/EMW contacting and offering to help another organisation. What has happened to all the people who have completed theological training courses? Where are the men who could make a real difference?
- on a local church level – offer to help. Show concern and support. Provide speakers, etc. Who knows what could grow from this?
- on an individual level – settle into a struggling church. Become accepted and increasingly useful. Have you the vision to get your hands dirty (without compromise) for the long-term benefit of a struggling cause?
I realise that given the historical background of many of our congregations who have seceded from the mainline denominations, what I have suggested here could seem to be a step too far. I understand that position. However, if we do not step in to rescue Wales, who will? We run the risk of having the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the main and, in some situations, the only spiritual influence in many strategic places. We will answer to God for the ways in which we respond to the needs of our nation.
Richard Davies is pastor of the English Presbyterian Church in Machynlleth.