I recently had a friend reach out to me for some advice on growing their small town church. His situation is very similar to many others in small rural communities. He was asked to take over a denominational church that had been struggling for years and had dwindled down to less than 30 people attending. At one time the church had been successful, but because they haven’t been willing to change, they were on the verge of having to close their doors. What follows in this post is the advice I gave him and the advice I would give you if you were in a similar situation.
Before we jump in, let me just say, you have a very difficult task ahead of you. It is very hard to build momentum in an established church that has seen better days. Especially one that is apprehensive about change.
Less people attending also means less volunteers and generally less money coming in. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think you’re going to have some days you want to quit and some days you want to run your head through a wall.
If you think you’re up to the challenge, then here is where I would begin.
- Build Relationships. Lots of them, inside and outside of the church. When you have less than 50 people attending, you should know everyone’s name, the names of their kids, and the names of their pets. The benefit of a small church is you really can know everyone. When they miss church, check up on them. When they’re in the hospital, stop by and visit for a minute. You’re not going to be able to do this forever. Eventually, you’re going to need to recruit others to help, but in the beginning stages, this falls on you. Also, make a point to get to know others in the community. Know who works at the bank, who runs the local grocery store, the old guys who are always sitting at the same table at the local meat and three. You get the idea. Make it a point to go to local ball games, hang out at the library, and go to community events.
- Form a Core Team. This terminology is generally used for church planters, but in essence that is what you’re doing. Once you’ve started building relationships, I want you to choose three to six couples to be on your core team. These are people you can trust, people you enjoy doing life with, and people who can help you execute the vision you have for the church. Just call it your small group in the beginning so no one gets suspicious. These are the people who are going to help you turn around the church. Start holding meetings with them to share your ideas, hopes, and dreams, and make it a point to listen to theirs. They’re much more likely to buy into the vision if they’ve played a part in forming it. If you can’t recruit this team, you’re going to fail.
- Get the Right People in the Right Places. Ideally, the people on your core team should be the people leading the most important ministries in your church. The big three in my mind are kids, first impressions, and worship, in that order. In some churches, the entire congregation votes on these positions. That’s why it’s so important to build those relationships and have a solid core team. Unfortunately, in some churches, change is only possible when you overthrow the old regime. Just be careful that they don’t overthrow you first.
- Start Making Improvements. Not only in the way you do ministry, but in the way your facility looks. New flooring, new paint, and new fixtures can do wonders for an old building. If you don’t have the money, you can try to raise some, or just fix what you can. A lot of churches would look better if they just de-cluttered and had a really good cleaning. For instance, if you have fake plants in your auditorium, get rid of them. I’d also try my best to get rid of pews if you have them. You can adjust the numbers of chairs you have to help with critical mass, but you can’t adjust the number of pews. And even if you could, they still scream “traditional out of touch church.” Sorry, pew lovers.
- Rename or Rebrand. Ideally, I would never want the denomination in the church name. Because what happens is that someone who has a bad experience at a church that’s the same denomination as yours will never come to your church. Your church and that church may be completely different, but you’re labeled by that denominational name. Now, by all means hold on to the beliefs of the denomination, just don’t put it in the church name. I know that’s not always possible, so for the rest of you, just rebrand your church logo to make it look more modern. Try to avoid doves, and fire, and those other things that were popular in the 80’s.
- Celebrate the Small Wins and Learn Patience. Realize that this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. For every three steps forward, you’re going to take two steps back. Learn to celebrate the small wins, like a new family joining the church, a person getting baptized, a young couple dedicating their child. My friend has seen 25% growth at his church in the 6 months he’s been there. They’ve grown from 28 to 35. That’s something to celebrate. The church I serve only grew by 5% last year, and you know what, we were celebrating. Getting people involved in church is difficult right now. They have a lot of options, so celebrate the small wins.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There’s so much more I’d like to add, but I’d rather hear your thoughts. What would you add to this discussion? Leave a comment and let us know, and if you’re in a spot where you’d like some help with your church check out my coaching page and see if I could be of help to you.