The Mighty Are Falling

By now, it’s common knowledge that a majority of mainline protestant churches are in decline.

What is a mainline Protestant church? For sake of this entry, let’s consider it to be a major denomination (United Methodist, American Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). Generally, mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Mainline = more liberal leanings. Evangelical = more conservative leanings. For more on what a mainline protestant church is, read

For further purposes, let’s just say in general American Christianity – at least as we know it in terms of church attendance and church influence – is in decline across the United States, be it evangelical or mainline denominations.

As I’m listening to “How the Mighty Fall” by Jim Collins, it struck me how completely relevant his study on companies who were once great had fallen to the decline I have personally witnessed in other churches (and can only assume similar things are happening in other churches).

First, the decline begins during a period of hubris, or pride. I know of two mainline protestant churches who carried themselves (leadership, the people) with a sense of pride that they were the biggest in the area. It was easy to fill the pride bucket when these people compared apples to apples.

“Look, we have way more people attending than that church.”

“Our worship service is so much more lively than that church.”

Overall, this period leads to a sense of complacency. These churches fail to remember the sense of urgency, the sense of mission, the sense of persistent, diligent, hard-praying work.

Let’s me step aside and say it doesn’t matter what size a church, or an organization, becomes to begin the decline with a sense of pride. The fall begins when the leadership communicates that they’ve done enough or are doing enough.

Second, the decline continues when these churches or organizations begin an undisciplined pursuit of more, extending their reach far beyond their core competencies or passions.

Recently, “Simple Church” by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, and “It” by Craig Groeschel, have been tremendously influential within churches who get it. What did these books and studies conclude? That less is more. That “success” within churches would be found by identifying just a few key areas and pursuing them with a laser-like focus.

I’ll never forget when Groeschel, pastor of Lifechurch, said, We examined all the areas within our church and cut everything but five areas. They COULD do a lot of different things; instead, they do five. Really, really well.

This overreach begins when the “solution” to the “fall” (or I might add, to the current “success” churches experience) is determined to be, ‘Well, let’s just do more. Let’s add a preschool. Add more worship services. Double our ministries.’

What Collins found in his research is that companies who fell time and time again overreached into areas either they weren’t competent in, they couldn’t do exceptionally well, or they weren’t passionate about.

The result? A fall.

The third (and final point I’ll make, but not Collins) marker of decline is when a denial of risk and peril overrides common sense. Essentially, after pride, after overreaching, these organizations begin to deny the negative downturn their church or organization is experiencing.

“Well, there are less people attending because of the summer.”

“Ya, our generosity is down because of the economy.”

“You know, if that church down the street didn’t teach the Prosperity gospel…”

On and on and on, the denial of the inevitable situation they find themselves in floats around like an annoying Minnesota misquito.

Also, these same churches fail to understand the risk involved in cutting staff, expanding resources, not analyzing strengths, etc. It is as if the pride, the overreach, the general denial of the downturn clouds their risk-assessment capabilities.

This is a little bit harder of a stage to understand, but if you find that leaders are making more statements than asking questions; if you fail to establish a team who can be honest about shortcomings and criticisms; if you deny or excuse the failure of your organization or church, you are probably in this stage.

In conclusion, I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard of or been apart of where leaders and other members of the team find themselves in a state of decline and have zero idea what to do about it. Paralysis sets in and the stages of the fall continue.

What must be done?

1. Always put Jesus as the leader. No pastor can build anything great without Jesus.

2. Build a great team. Not just that, but this team needs to hold each other accountable, be honest, be authentic, be open to criticisms, ask questions, find regular times to grow and challenge each other, and communicate.

3. Have regular times of confession in front of your church, in front of your staff, personally with God. Confessing our weaknesses and mistakes keeps people humble. Don’t try to hide mistakes. Be open and up front!

4. Simplify, simplify, simplify. The best churches are doing it. Cut back and excel in a few areas.

5. Cut off dead ministries, dead people, and dead structures.

6. Have regular yearly and more intensive every three-year REVEAL studies done. Hire outsiders to come in and take a general census and survey of the staff, the people, and the environment.

7. Don’t excuse away the weak areas.

8. Regularly remind each other of the key focus areas and put leaders into place who can say no.

9. Ask questions constantly. As a leader, put your ear to the ground. The first job of every leader is to define reality. If you are personally unwilling to face reality, than forget it! You shouldn’t lead!

10. Regularly find ways to grow as a team. Calculate risks together. Never make solo decisions that involve risk!

In conclusion, this is in no means meant to be an exhaustive study and by no means am I an expert! I don’t fear the death of the universal Church, but I do fear the decline and lack of influence within American churches.

Further, I don’t believe in cookie cutter approaches to anything, including this blog post. However, I will comment that we must — as leaders — do a much better job of analyzing the past (such as by reading studies like How the Mighty Fall) in order to better change, alter, and improve the future. This is what this blog post is meant to do…Take some data from How the Mighty Fall and use it in regards to the decline in American churches, in general…

May we come to a place where the fall has ended and we analyze “How the Mighty Are Growing!”