April 26, 2023

The Challenges of Church Decline – Episode 293 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

the challenges of church decline

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The Challenges of the Church Lifecycle (Part 3)

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Regardless of their uniqueness, every church has the potential to go through a very similar lifecycle: Most churches start, grow, thrive, decline, and eventually end. But God’s plan for our churches is to mature to a place of sustained health and to help more people follow Jesus. 

churchlifecycle sustained health
The Phases of the Church Lifecycle

The majority of churches today self-assess that their church is currently in decline and on the right side of the lifecycle in maintenance, preservation, or life support.

Of course, the leaders of those churches are asking what they need to do to turn things around before it’s too late.


When it comes to the declining side of the lifecycle, the overarching challenge is this: Churches on the right side of the lifecycle must overcome the challenge of finding clarity of mission.

In this episode, Amy and I will wrap up our series by walking through the key challenges of the declining side of the lifecycle and offering next steps for moving back to health.

Listen in as we discuss:

  • Reversing complexity constraints of the maintenance phase
  • Addressing unity constraints of the perseveration phase
  • Overcoming survival constraints of life support
  • Why there is always hope for churches who are willing to change

Unsure where your church sits on the church lifecycle? Take the free Unstuck Church Assessment.

Change demands intentional leadership—it’s not possible to keep everyone happy and experience the changes that produce health. [episode 293] #unstuckchurch Share on X The key to moving out of the declining side of the lifecycle is to abandon any methods that don’t serve the mission of reaching new people, and to be willing to do whatever it takes to reach your community again. [episode 293] #unstuckchurch Share on X If you’re willing to change, then God can still use you—but what led the church to decline will not make it healthy again. It’s time for God to begin a new work. The question is: Are you willing to join him in that mission? [episode 293]… Share on X To return to healthy growth, you must address this key question: What are we willing to do to reach people outside the church and outside the faith? [episode 293] #unstuckchurch Share on X Unfortunately, many churches would choose to die rather than experience a rebirth—and it’s that attachment to the past that leads to the church’s ultimate demise. [episode 293] #unstuckchurch Share on X
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This Episode is Sponsored by PlainJoe Studios:

PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital, and spatial stories that lift the Spirit. 

Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as Sacred Storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. 

To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. More than 80% of churches self-assess that their church is currently in decline, and most are asking exactly what they need to do to turn things around. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy finish up our series on the church life cycle with a conversation on the declining side of the life cycle and what churches can do to get back to health. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, we want to invite you to head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s conversation, including our Leader Conversation Guide, some bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:56):

PlainJoe, a Storyland Studio, partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital and spatial stories that lift the spirit. Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments and more, PlainJoe champions churches as sacred storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

Amy (01:43):

Well, welcome back to The Unstuck Church Podcast. If you’ve been following along with us the last two weeks, you’ll know that we’re in a series discussing the challenges of the church life cycle. In episode 291, we detailed the challenges of the growing side of the life cycle: launch, momentum growth and strategic growth. And then last week’s episode, we discussed the unique challenges of sustained health.

Tony (02:05):

So I guess, you know, what comes next is the declining side of the life cycle, Amy, and it’s not nearly as fun to talk about. But it certainly is a very necessary conversation to have, and I think we’ll be able to provide some encouragement today, too. So I hope it’s not too depressing, but I won’t, I won’t be ashamed if you, if you end up saying, “Ah, let’s just skip this episode and wait for 294.”

Amy (02:28):

Tony, this is the prime way you’re gonna have everyone just turn this thing off. There’s some good stuff in here.

Tony (02:34):

Yeah, there is some good stuff here.

Amy (02:36):

All right, well, we’ll try to do that. Keep it engaging. But the phases of the declining side or the right side of the church life cycle, they are the maintenance phase, preservation phase and life support. And obviously, churches that are in decline are facing some challenges. Would you say there’s one overarching challenge or constraint for churches on this side, Tony?

Tony (02:56):

Yeah, of course. These three phases have a few things in common, and if I had to sum it up, I would say the biggest challenge for churches on the declining side of the church life cycle is finding clarity of mission.

Amy (03:08):

Yeah. We see that when churches take their eyes off their mission and the people they’re trying to reach they just inevitably begin to decline. Right? So let, let’s dive deeper, starting with that maintenance phase, Tony. What does that phase look like?

Tony (03:21):

Well, when a church is in maintenance phase, the attendance growth typically plateaus or begins to decline. The church over time has just become insider focused, and their vision has become stale. But oddly enough, the church tends to remain financially healthy, which is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why a lot of churches don’t realize that they’re on this phase until it’s maybe too late.

Amy (03:46):

That’s interesting. Tony, can you explain why that would be the case? Why their finances are still strong?

Tony (03:51):

Well, I refer to this as the giving lag, Amy, and maybe you’ve used that language as well. And it’s probably easier to understand when the church is growing because as the church is growing, more people are attending, but because it involves a lot of new people connecting to the church, the giving tends to lag behind the growth of the church. What we don’t take into consideration, though, is when churches begin to plateau and decline, the giving lag still exists.

Amy (04:19):


Tony (04:20):

And I think largely that’s because the people that are leaving the church initially in decline maybe aren’t as connected. They’re, they aren’t as bought into the mission of the church. They don’t own the mission of the church, like those that stay behind, and it’s the people that are kind of staying behind that are the ones that are most fully invested, not only with their time but also with their financial resources. In other words, they’re the more mature Christ-followers, and because of that, their giving reflects that maturity as well. It’s interesting, though; in this season, you know, I mentioned that usually attendance starts to decline in the maintenance phase. But in reality, this is an unusual time for the church; coming out of the pandemic, there are churches that are in the maintenance season, that their attendance, if you were to look at year-over-year attendance, that would actually show that they’re up, but it’s because it’s, we’re comparing today’s attendance to coming out of the pandemic when maybe fewer people were attending church. And so I would just caution you, even if you see attendance growth, look at some of the other factors around what it is to be in maintenance phase. Because even though you’re experiencing some attendance increase right now, it’s still might be kind of hiding the fact that you really have entered this season of maintenance as a church.

Amy (05:47):

Yeah. And you probably don’t say that to be discouraging. You just want people to look at the whole picture to really diagnose where they’re at. We’ve always said that there’s no one data point. Well, one or two, two positive vital signs obviously can’t tell us whether or not our church is healthy. We have to look at that big picture. What would you say then, Tony, is the biggest challenge of the maintenance phase?

Tony (06:06):

Yeah. I, I think the biggest challenge, Amy, is complexity and those complexity constraints. As more and more ministry programs are added to serve the needs of, needs of people who are already a part of the church, it just, we’ve seen programs get added over time and that creates this complexity. And churches in maintenance end up being heavily insider focused, which usually means they’re also over-programmed. And then because of that, they’re overstaffed. Everything is geared towards keeping the people who attend the church happy. And it’s kind of like we get into maintenance because we’re trying to maintain the status quo.

Amy (06:46):

Yeah. And I hate to say it, but that insider focus is something you and me we see pretty often. And at the end of the day, it leads to declining further and further. So, Tony, what can churches who find themselves in the maintenance phase, who are dealing with these complexity constraints, what can they do to get back towards sustained health?

Tony (07:04):

Yeah. So three things come to mind. Let me try to run through these really quickly here. First, renewing the vision has to be a priority; as I like to say, we need to embrace the change before the emergency forces us to change.

Amy (07:18):


Tony (07:19):

The vision, when we clarify that where we’re going in the future as a ministry, when we do this, it begins to help us get beyond the plateau we’re experiencing. And that really is the critical first step to returning to health. Secondly, we need to prioritize reaching new people. This needs to be a, become part of who we are as a church, and we need to fight against that insider-focused mentality. Churches that are moving forward towards sustained health, they focus on reaching people outside the faith and outside the church. And so to return to healthy growth, you need to address this key question, “What are we willing to do to reach people outside the church and outside the faith?” And then third, of course, the most common form of complexity we see in churches is that they’re over-programmed and they try to do too much. We recently did a three-part episode on pruning, so I won’t focus too much on that. But it really is such an important practice for churches in maintenance. It’s much easier to add a program than it is to redefine a strategy, but a unified ministry strategy actually helps you determine how to use space, how to invest money, how to leverage leaders and engage volunteers in ways that will fulfill the mission your church is called to. From there, you can decide which programs and events are most needed and create a simple path of discipleship.

Amy (08:46):

Those three steps are obviously not easy to take, but if we aren’t willing to take them and get our focus back on reaching new people, we can’t really be a healthy church. Well, the next phase after maintenance is preservation. Can you explain that phase a bit, Tony?

Tony (09:01):

Yeah. So the, the core theme of this phase can be summed up in this question, “How do we keep people from leaving?” That’s the question we hear when churches land in preservation phase. And in this phase, both the attendance and the finances are certainly declining by this point. Most of the strong leadership has left the church. And because the church really is just because it’s not willing to change, their ministry methods have become sacred to them even above the mission. And in this phase, they start reminiscing on the good old days of the church.

Amy (09:36):

Well, obviously, there are several challenges, but what would you say is the core challenge of churches in preservation?

Tony (09:41):

Amy, I think the core challenge is unity constraints because there is more and more division about how to preserve the past. So if there are any leaders left at this stage who are trying to make positive change, decision-making gets bogged down in multiple committees and divisive church boards, and it makes it almost impossible to implement healthy ministry change. There was just a prevailing pull to go back to the way things used to be, which is never healthy for any organization, including any church.

Amy (10:16):

Yeah. Tony, I worked with the church years ago. It’s the only church I’ve ever worked with that was in preservation stage. And unfortunately, fast forward four years, they didn’t make it. That that disunity eventually caused them to close their doors. Do you think it’s too late for churches once they’ve hit preservation, or are there ways that they can turn it around and get moving back towards health?

Tony (10:36):

Well, Amy, you know, we always hope that we can help churches when they’re in maintenance make the changes cuz the changes are much easier in that season than when you get to preservation.

Amy (10:46):


Tony (10:46):

But it’s not impossible. It’s just not easy because the, the change demands intentional leadership. It’s, it’s just not possible to keep everyone happy and experience the changes that are necessary to produce health. And that’s why churches in the preservation phase need to create urgency around change and then address the warning signs of decline before it’s too late.

Amy (11:09):

What does that look like practically?

Tony (11:11):

So the most important thing to do in this season is to hire a new leader or empower a new approach to leadership, either way, to implement a fresh vision and that turnaround strategy, strategy that’s necessary. Most leaders believe if they lead well, everyone will stick with them. But the reality is you’re going to lose people after each phase of implementing change; it’s gonna happen regardless of how well you lead through that change. And change, though, is essential to get out of preservation. So we can’t just avoid change for fear of losing people. We need to lean into it, knowing that we probably, probably will continue to lose some people before we experience health again. The second thing these churches need to do is to look backward in order to move forward. And here’s what I mean by that. We need to look back at the vision that shaped the health of the church back in the early years. What value did the leadership embrace when we were experiencing health? How has the leadership and community and culture shifted, and how do we need to respond to that? What ministries had the biggest impact in the past when the church was at its healthiest? I mean, this, this practice of looking back isn’t to return to what the church used to do, by the way, it’s to recognize what contributed to those seasons of health in the past and will help us then going forward to return to health again as a church. The final stage is related to structure, and we talk a lot about, we, if we’re gonna make strategy changes, we need to also make structure changes. And churches with a complex governance structure typically lack unity and trust. And so this is one of those places where for churches in preservation, you’re gonna have to make some governance adjustments in order to move the church forward with strength and health, as well. And we’ve seen it work best if churches only have one lay leadership board. So it’s one unified board usually made up of maybe five to nine people. And then that board is strategically focused on the big picture rather than the day-to-dayness of leading ministry. We, we trust the pastor and the staff team, the volunteers to actually lead the day-to-day. In other words, simplifying governance helps move more people out of meetings and into ministry. And it really is one of the critical factors to help churches get out of preservation.

Amy (13:45):

Yep. All right. Well, we reached the final phase: life support. And you said that for churches in preservation, there’s still a chance of renewal. What about churches in life support?

Tony (13:54):

Well, unfortunately, Amy, once a church ends up in this last phase of the church life cycle, they either need to close their doors or they need to experience a total relaunch. And the fact of the matter is, many churches would choose to die rather than experience a rebirth. And it’s that attachment to the past that leads churches to their ultimate death as a church.

Amy (14:20):


Tony (14:21):

Tradition wins over life transformation. There’s no fruit from the ministry, and yet no one is willing to change. And their main challenge can be summed up as a, a survival constraint because the church is doing everything to keep the doors open and financial decisions unfortunately begin to supersede ministry priorities.

Amy (14:43):

You mentioned that churches who’ve reached life support need to close their doors or relaunch. What, what does relaunch, what does that option look like?

Tony (14:51):

So, of course, this is our hope is that rather than closing their doors, churches will consider a relaunch. But the church must embrace a new mission and relaunch into a new life cycle through one of three options. The first is firing themselves (and we will explain that in a second), hiring a new pastor or giving the keys to their building to another church. Ultimately, though, there must be a consensus that the church will never drift back into health and that a new plan of action is required. And in some cases, it’s just not possible. I get it. But if you’re able to take these steps, you can lead your church through the season.

Amy (15:31):

Well, if a church is willing to do that, if they’re, they’re willing to take that step. Can you unpack that just a little bit more,? What that looks like?

Tony (15:39):

Sure. So first, they need to embrace a new mission and reestablish why the church exists. You must clarify the why before you begin to move forward with changes around the what and the how we do ministry. That’s a key at this pivotal moment. That’s, and that’s the challenge for churches stuck in life support. When revisiting your mission, you need to go back to two key challenges that Jesus gave us in the greatest commandment. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And then love your neighbor as yourself.”

Amy (16:14):

I love that. I mean, you can’t go wrong if you design your church’s mission around loving God and loving others.

Tony (16:19):

That’s right. And once you’ve reestablished the mission, it’s time to relaunch into a new life cycle. And I referred to these three options a moment ago, but let me unpack them just a little bit. One of the ways that you can relaunch is by firing yourselves and not literally firing yourselves. But imagine that your entire leadership team has been removed and then a new team is going to start in your place. What would you tell that new team? I mean, help that new leadership understand what’s working, what’s broken, what’s missing currently, communicate the new initiatives that they need to tackle, and the things the ministry needs to stop doing in order to experience a relaunch. Once the departing team has confirmed that new direction, then you become that new leadership team. Start over, but this time follow through with everything that you just talked through. Let go of the old attachments. You need a fresh start. So fire yourselves, but then you become the new leadership team. The second way that we can relaunch is actually to hire a new pastor and give that person the appropriate authority to initiate changes. It’s most likely going to be difficult for your team that’s been involved in the church for years to make the changes necessary to create this new start. But the current staff and lay leadership team really do need to give this new leader, this new pastor, the freedom to chart a new direction. And then the third way that we can relaunch a new life cycle is to give the keys to another church. At some point, a conversation needs to happen around the stewardship of God’s resources. And if your church owns its facilities, you have an asset, a valuable asset that the right church could use for kingdom impact. Either they could relaunch the ministry in that location, or they could sell the property and reinvest those kingdom resources in new ministry initiatives. Either way, it would be better for those resources to be used in a way that’s producing kingdom impact, producing fruit in people’s lives. And so those, Amy, are the three ways that we could, if we find ourselves in life support, that we can relaunch into a new life cycle.

Amy (18:44):

Yep. And that last way we see it work a lot as long as we don’t try to merge with another church and we actually hand the keys over.

Tony (18:49):

Yeah. We do.

Amy (18:50):

Well, we’ve reached the end of the life cycle and our series, and I know that this episode might be a little disheartening to some leaders, so I just wanna leave them with this. Leave you listeners with this. If you’re willing to change, then God can still use you. But what led the church to decline won’t make it healthy again. So it’s time for God to begin a new work. And the question is, are you willing to join him in that mission?

Tony (19:15):

Amy, that’s so good. The key to moving out of this declining side of the life cycle is to abandon any methods in old ways that don’t serve the mission of reaching new people and to be willing to do whatever it takes to reach your community again. I mean, God can always use that willingness.

Amy (19:33):

Amen. Hey, Tony, do you have any other final thoughts today as we wrap up today’s conversation and wrap up this series?

Tony (19:39):

Getting healthy again begins with an honest assessment of where you are now. So if you haven’t yet, I strongly encourage you to take The Unstuck Church Assessment. It’s a free online tool to help you self-identify where your church is on the church life cycle today. And if you need help moving forward towards health, our team has worked with over 600 churches to clarify their mission and commitment to finding health again, and you can learn more about our process or start a conversation today at theunstuckgroup.com.

Sean (20:12):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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