A reality that we face today is how to know when a local church is a good candidate for revitalization or for closing. In determining best practices for a church to carry out its mission, leaders must answer the following question: will more people be reached for Christ by keeping this church open and leading it through a revitalization process or by closing it and investing those resources in another ministry that is bearing Kingdom fruit?
Seeking objectivity for this discussion, I conducted several months of research to discover what criteria would help church leaders make this decision in a Godly and objective manner. It is important to note that all of this presupposes seeking the Lord, praying for the leading of the Holy Spirit, and submitting personal agendas to the Lord for His greater Kingdom purposes.
One hundred percent of the people interviewed in this research identified leadership (pastoral and lay) as the most critical element in making this decision. John Maxwell has long affirmed that “everything rises and falls on leadership." It is critically important that both pastoral and lay leadership are strong in order to move a church that is “stuck” into a revitalized life of effectiveness. It takes leadership, commitment to the mission, and strong ability to lead people to change patterns that have been established over many years, and perseverance to lead through resistance that will come.
2. Geographical Location
Several people interviewed made statements like, “If we didn’t already have a congregation in this location, does the surrounding community have enough potential that we would plant a new church here in the future? If not, what does that lack of potential say about the likelihood that this congregation can be revitalized?”
One church that I recently consulted with was in a community that had less than 500 people within 3 miles of the church, and that population was declining. It would be difficult to think that this church could be revitalized and led into an effective ministry.
3. Community Demographics
What is the makeup of the community? It is helpful to interview organizational leaders in the local community to help you better understand where the community is headed. Another resource for learning about your community can be found at http://www.perceptgroup.com. This organization makes available studies of your community, providing solid data to better understand who lives in your community, the challenges they are facing, and the religious practices of the people.
4. Conflict: History, Quantity, and Depth
A history of church conflict may continue to impact churches long after the initial disagreement(s) took place. If the church is to move ahead in effective ministry, the conflict must be addressed in a healthy and Godly way to rid itself of the roots of this conflict. It is not easy to navigate conflict and bring healing for the future of the church. Outside leadership may be needed to navigate this journey.
The intensity and duration of the conflict become important factors in this decision-making process. The more intense the conflict and the more long-term the conflict, the greater the chance the leadership will not invest in resources for revitalization.
As you evaluate this area of conflict some questions to consider are: have there been any church splits in our history? Are there various “camps” within the congregation? Is there a genuine spirit of acceptance of people who are not like you and/or are not from the families of the church?
5. Condition of the Facility
Costly repairs can greatly affect churches, such as mold removal or structural repairs. Other times the facility is fantastic but the church has lost a sense of mission. In the latter situation the facility may be an asset to help the church, with new leadership, to develop a new and preferred future. It may be worth asking an outside inspector to do a facility evaluation to help you get objective data about the facility condition and what it would take to bring it up to an appropriate condition.
6. Financial Viability
Financial viability is defined by four categories. One, is the church paying a reasonable salary to a pastor? Two, is the church able to pay its operational bills? Three, is the church able to pay its denominational assessments? Four, is the church able to maintain its facility appropriately? One additional item to consider is whether the church is sending any of its money to a missional cause outside of itself. If these questions were answered in the negative, it increases the possibility that leadership would consider closing the church.
7. Health of the Core
Is there a core group of people who are able to articulate what it means to be on mission for the church? If you have a renewed pastor and a group of leaders who have experienced personal renewal, then you can handle the pain necessary to revitalize. However, what if there are not good strong leaders in the church? Is there a guiding coalition for redevelopment? Is there a ‘we’re exhausted’ spirit? If there is a major fatigue factor, it may be time to close the church. This may also require outside help.
One final note, it is also important to consider how all of the factors work together and if the combination of factors leads in one direction or another.