Church in green field.

What to Do When God Shrinks Your Church

A friend of mine got a pastoral position that required him to move his family from California to Indiana. Apparently in Indiana they just give you a gigantic 3,000 square foot house when you move there. In California you have to sell an internal organ just to cover the down payment on a shed. I had very little sympathy for him as he talked about his struggle to keep his giant house adequately heated and furnished. Sometimes he would lose one of his kids in his mansion.

After a few years in Indiana, God called him back home to California. That meant he had to downsize! He went from living in a 3,200 square foot house to living in a 1,100 square foot apartment. It was a rough transition. His whole family had to make a lot of changes. They had to get rid of a lot of stuff, they had to adjust to sharing rooms, and they had to adjust their budget to fit the cost of living in California. Imagine how silly it would have been to try and cram every piece of furniture from a giant house into a tiny apartment! Changes were necessary.

Very often, and for many different reasons, God will shrink a church from one size down to something much smaller. Sometimes the reason a church shrinks is because they have made some poor choices, but often the reasons are totally unavoidable. Changes in employment, changes in the community, changes in denominational affiliation, or a new church opening up down the street are common causes of church reduction. It is very common to find a church that has shifted from 1000 members to 500, or 300 down to 100, or from 100 down to 20. When that occurs, changes are necessary!

I’ve interacted with a number of pastors and churches that have undergone this shift and they just don’t know what to do about it. Often the change happens gradually over the course of a few years. Most churches respond to shrinkage in a couple of unhealthy ways.

  • Denial. They just keep denying the fact that they are now a smaller church and keep pretending that they are the same 300 member church that they always were. This stage can last for years!
  • Debt. Because of the denial they rack up debt so that they can try and maintain their old level of ministry.
  • Anger. They are mad at that new church plant that seduced away all their members. They are mad at their old leadership that drove people away. They are mad that everyone moved away from the church and into the suburbs.

It is very easy for a church that finds itself in this place to lose sight of its overarching mission of sharing the gospel. Instead, the focus of the church becomes regaining those lost numbers. They think, “If we could just get a few more families to stick then our giving would increase and we could get back to normal.” The good old days become an idol and every effort is made to go back there.

Coveting the past will make us poor stewards of what God has entrusted to us right now.

But what if God doesn’t want you to go back to the way things were? What if God is calling your church to be something different? What if there is something that He has in store for you that can only happen through a small church? What if your fixation on the past is keeping you from answering God’s call in the present? Coveting the past will make us poor stewards of what God has entrusted to us right now.

I recently talked to a youth pastor whose church went through a decline in attendance.  They were forced to move out of their church facility and into a storefront. In the years following that transition church attendance shrank from around 400 down to closer to 150, and the budget shrank with it. The problem was that the church was still acting like they had 400 members. The facility was huge and the rent was over a third of their total budget. They were still doing two tiny services. They were still trying to maintain every ministry that they had back in the glory days, but without the same staff or energy or effectiveness. The sole mission of the church had become getting back to the size they once were and the leadership seemed to be in denial of the fact that they were now a small church. This youth pastor was very candid about his frustration with seeing people as “giving units.”

Downsizing is not an easy thing to do. It takes a ton of humility, patience, and the ability to learn new things. There’s a fear that if too many changes are made it will only lead to more decline. But refusing to make necessary adjustments will limit your ministry effectiveness. The goal of the local church is not to perpetuate itself at a certain financial level, but to accomplish the will of God. There might be a season where it is God’s will for your church to be small. That’s okay.

If you are a part of a church that has experienced this kind of decline let me offer a few suggestions…

  1. Accept it. Spending a little bit of time in denial is inevitable, but don’t hang out there for 5 years! At some point you have to acknowledge that you are smaller. This might seem like an obvious step, but I’ve met a lot of pastors whose pride traps them in denial. An unfortunate side effect of the church growth craze is that when a church shrinks the pastor feels like a total failure. But it is God who is in control of the size of your church. There was a reason He wanted your church to be bigger ten years ago and there is a good reason why He wants your church to be smaller today.
  1. After accepting your current size, it’s time to shift your focus. Shift your focus off of the past and onto the present and future. Shift your mission off of numbers and back onto gospel proclamation. Spend a lot of time in prayer asking God to give you wisdom and guidance. Seek His will for your church. Stop idolizing the past; instead look ahead to what God has in store for you next.
  1. Get Help. Churches struggle needlessly when they become too isolated and independent. We tend to be focused on ourselves and our way of doing things and never stop to think that maybe there are some other churches out there that could help us. It seems like the churches that could benefit the most from outside help are the most resistant to it! Go get some advice from your denomination, or from other pastors, or from one of the many church assessment organizations. There might be some huge reasons why your church is shrinking, and all you needed was an outside set of eyes to help you see them. I know it takes a lot of humility to go ask for help, but any pastor who refuses to seek out help from others will be a stunted leader.
  1. There are a lot of churches that are trying to do the equivalent of cram all the furniture form a 3,200 square foot house into a 1,100 square foot apartment. Even though the church is much smaller, they still try to offer all the same programs- men’s ministry, women’s ministry, college ministry, recovery ministry, kid’s ministry, youth ministry, small groups, Sunday school etc. The regular attenders are stretched way too thin and nothing is done well. It’s time to simplify and make some changes.The book Simple Church can help with that process. It’s built around the premise that the church needs to develop some intentional and straightforward methods of moving people through the stages of spiritual development. In other words, focus more on discipleship than programs.

    The old classic Good to Great introduced “The Hedgehog Principle”; figure out what one thing you can be the best at. This principle has a lot of value for churches. Figure out what specific need your church has the ability to meet in your community. Stop trying to do everything. Eliminating some longstanding traditions will feel like tossing out an old, comfy couch, but all the old stuff just won’t fit in the new place that God has called you to.

    As a church grows it will need to make changes to the budget, the leadership structure, and the ministries. As a church shrinks similar adjustments need to be made. This is just a part of being a good steward of what God has given you, whether it is a lot or a little.

    Find a smaller venue, talk to another small church about merging, eliminate dead or dying ministries, revamp your budget, set new ministry goals, and ask God to give your congregation the courage and grace to navigate the changes.

  1. Lead your church. Transitions of any kind require strong, humble, effective leadership. It takes a good leader to help a church move from small to big. And it will take a good leader to help a church navigate the transition from big to small. It’s not the size of your church that makes you a good leader, but how faithful you are at stewarding what God has entrusted to you. Helping a church to downsize is no easy task. It requires a leader who can cast a vision, patiently guide change, and constantly seek God’s direction.

I might be biased because I am a small church pastor, but I think that God wants there to be churches of different shapes and sizes. I don’t think small churches are bad. I think God uses smaller churches to accomplish things that maybe a larger church can’t. And He uses large churches to do things that smaller churches can’t. If God has determined that He wants your church to be smaller for a season, stop arguing with Him about it! Stop trying to go backwards! Instead, trust that God has some great things in store for your church in the future!

About Andy Flowers

Andy has served as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California since 2007. He graduated from the Doctor of Ministry program at Western Seminary in 2016. Andy is the author of Leading Through Succession: Why Pastoral Leadership is the Key to a Healthy Transition.