Church Consultants: How (Not) to Fix Dying Churches

Church Consultants: How (Not) to Fix Dying Churches July 15, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we touched on the topic of church consultants. For the past 15 years or so that Christianity has been in decline in America, this field has exploded — in supply at least, though not really in demand. Pastors hire these consultants to rescue their dying churches. Today, let me show you what these consultants tend to offer in terms of rescue plans — and we’ll see how effective their ideas really are.

an abandoned church
(Luc Constantin.)

“Dying Churches.”

To say the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is deathly ill is not editorializing but acknowledging reality.

 — 2011 letter to the denomination

It’s hard even say exactly how many churches exist in America. Some researchers think there might be 350k or so. Whatever the answer, it is safe to say that most of them are small (under 100 congregants) and struggling financially.

Christians like to talk about their churches as being physical bodies, with themselves functioning as the parts of that body. Technically, in Christianese the phrasing runs as “the Body of Christ.” So when a church hits a point where there’s absolutely no way for them to pay their bills and no hope of attracting enough new recruits to get them back on their feet, they start talking in terms of it being a dying church. That phrase means that sooner or later, that church will need to close shop for good.

Dying churches don’t tend to die quickly, however. Unless a humongous scandal erupts in the middle of their decline, they usually experience a very slow-motion circling of the drain. This slow process might even last for more years than the church actually enjoyed as a vibrant and growing church!

Some of these dying churches’ congregations grit their teeth, set their feet, and hunker down to ride that death out to its bitter conclusion. But many of them strike out to find some way to reverse their church’s coming demise.

In this second group, their leaders might even get desperate enough to hire a church consultant (or appoint one in-house) to figure out what they’re doing wrong — and hopefully fix it so the church can move back to vibrant growth again.

Da Plan, Boss! Da Plan!

(Wow, that reference dates me, doesn’t it?)

It is next to impossible to tell exactly what these consultants suggest to dying churches. Most of them speak in platitudes and Christianese, like this guy from the extremely poorly-named North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC):

“I just loved them immensely as the bride of Christ. I just really tried to get them to warm up to the Gospel and love Jesus again.” [Source.]

But once you get past the unintelligible Christianese, you get more of it:

[John Mark] Clifton started doing the work of a church planter. He built relationships with people in the community, shared Jesus with them and discipled them. He specifically focused on discipling a core group of future leaders, young men between the ages of 18 and 30.

Clifton and the others at Wornall Road also “served the community with abandon” [. . .]

With abandon, no less!

Translated.

So here’s the rough translation of what John Mark Clifton did to get that church back on its feet — for now at least — from a membership of about 18 to an average of 140.

  • He evangelized the heck out of his already-Christian community.
  • He indoctrinated the heck out of a small group of fervent and young fundagelical guys in his church, grooming them for leadership.
  • Most importantly, it sounds like, he began to rent out his church’s space to other church groups and community functions.
  • (I left out talking to the ceiling prayer, but most lists include it somewhere.)

The church still exists. But I can’t find anything about the size of their congregation. I’m guessing it’s close to 100 people on average, perhaps even still 140. They’ve got a slew of staff and deacons, though the guy in the story (John Mark Clifton) no longer pastors there. I guess NAMB had something else for him to fix.

Clifton’s plan appears to be the standard for most of these church-rescue strategies: evangelize, assemble a core group of believers to groom for leadership, and find some other way to make money with the church facilities until tithing stabilizes the church’s finances. 

(Similar plans can be found elsewhere online. Most, however, are utter Christianese gibberish.)

1) How That Works Out.

After the plans get laid out, one of maybe three things happens to the dying churches who commissioned them.

First, the plan might just die on arrival and never get put into practice at all.

To illustrate that point, allow me to reprint something one of our commenters, Catherine, wrote. She described her priest’s reaction to the revitalization plan her then-church’s congregation put together:

For over a year the committee worked hard to put a report together meeting regularly and putting many hours of their own time into it. The people responsible were well educated and professionally experienced in similar real world activities. Finally when it was done it was presented to the church council I was part of. It covered a lot of details and had a lot of researched information. [. . .] Unfortunately the priest was a raging narcissist control freak who just argued with the author of the report over minor details and just filed the whole thing away never to be seen again to save the congregation from divisive controversial ideas like moving the pews around. I suspect it served better to be in a constant state of crisis over numbers than having to do the effort of doing anything about it like engage more with the community in a caring and healthy way and having a safe, sane, and healthy environment for any visitors to come into in the first place. [Source.]

Ouch. Just ouch.

That comment reminded me of something Rachel Held Evans talked about encountering, way back before evangelicals had really gained awareness of their own decline:

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

No doubt.

2) Or It Won’t Work In The First Place.

Second, the plan gets made — but it’s completely impossible and unworkable. 

Commenter Jennny described what that looks like:

The Church in Wales (the official name for the anglican church here) was hemorrhaging members, so a retired bishop was paid handsomely to produce a report on how to get new bums on pews, a real waste of money. [. . .] so along comes our new CAMFO one Sunday and preaches for 25minutes on how to get youth work etc going. She asks us to raise our hands if we’ve heard of Godly Play etc…I’d been doing it for ages and done training sessions for teachers in a church school for it. It was rare for hubby and I to leave church as angry as we did that day, it was one of the last times I went to church. I know that his CAMFO lived in a village with a church with no children…why wasn’t she trying to start kids’ work there? A couple of years later, the CAMfOs quietly disappeared. [Source.]

Ouch again.

2a) Or It’s the Wrong Plan For That Area.

Another problem cropping up here: the church just doesn’t have a population base nearby that wants whatever it’s offering. So the big rescue plan explodes on impact with reality, as Carol Lynn recounts:

The church that my husband attended and was on the governing committee was a huge old thing in a downtown area with hardly any housing anymore, so the congregation was small for the size of the building.. When the downtown was revitalized a few years ago and a lot of young people moved downtown to be closer to tech jobs, they were all excited that so many people would be moving into the area and there their church was, all ready to welcome them! When that didn’t happen, no matter how they worded the sign out front or how many flyers they pasted up or how many ‘social media’ posts they made, they just could not figure out that none of those young people cared. [Source.]

More and more, it seems like the John Mark Cliftons of the church-rescue world just get lucky. The plans they want to put in motion just happen to work with the populations in their areas. It’s not that their techniques are really that good; they usually don’t sound so at all. Most are nowhere near as practical and tangibly-focused as the one Catherine’s church put together.

3) Or Regression to the Mean Ensues.

Third, the plan gets made and then deployed, but eventually the congregation gets exhausted and regresses to its mean.

And hey. I get why. It’s really hard to act kindhearted, gracious, welcoming, and dutiful all the time, especially if that demeanor runs extremely counter to the flocks’ natural one.

See, the flocks don’t join their churches to recruit new people. They join these groups and stick around to get their own needs met. (Ask any church volunteer about that. You’ll get an earful back — if they’re not too exhausted from overwork to respond, at least.)

That’s how churches market themselves in the first place. They don’t recruit people by telling them up-front that they’re going to be busy little bees finding new recruits for their new “church family,” any more than multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) recruiters honestly tell their own recruits that 99% of their future as huns will consist of perma-hunting new downline for their constantly-imploding “team.”

So if an actually-workable new plan comes out to revive the church’s membership rolls, the flocks might be on board initially, sure. After a while, though, they get tired of the demands placed upon them. And once they revert to their usual behavior, whatever new members they’ve recruited might just leave.

Human Nature Wins Again.

There is hope for struggling and dying churches, but the church must be willing to do what is necessary.

An evangelical accidentally admitting his god ain’t doing squat for anybody

Dying churches don’t want to face one truth above all: a lot of groups get settled into an entrenched way of behaving. Once that happens, it is really, really hard to shake things up and institute a new way of doing things. That’s just human nature.

Secular groups can have the same exact problems — and why shouldn’t they?

After all, no imaginary friends stand by to make it easier for Christians.

So yes, obviously Christian groups will suffer the same problems, run the same risks, and ultimately turn out the same way that similarly-run secular groups do. There’s never been any positive difference between Christians and anybody else, nor between Christian groups and any other kind.

And I know this truth from experience.

NEXT UP: That time I helped someone try to make some radical shifts in a roleplaying game online. Wow, that did not turn out well. Nope nope. So we’ll see you tomorrow for a GAMING POST!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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