5 Keys to Denominational Survival

June 22nd, 2011

USA Today reported last week on the decline of the Southern Baptist denomination. Last year, Southern Baptist churches baptized around 5% fewer people than in the preceding year. Their total membership numbers also dropped for the fourth year in a row.

So much for the theory that conservative evangelical churches and denominations are immune to net membership losses. I still believe that evangelical congregations are more likely to grow, but clearly there’s more going on here than just theology.

Every denomination does things a little differently, so it’s difficult to write a one size fits all prescription for reversing negative trends for every kind of church. But there are some steps churches can take to survive.

1. Stop trying to survive. The sooner you face the fact that the Kingdom of God won’t grind to a halt if your denomination vanishes, the better off you’ll be. Even your theological distinctives will survive without you if they’re worth their salt. Self-preservation mode is a dangerous place for any Christian group to be, because it means that the organization has gone from being a movement to being an institution. Institutions don’t capture people’s imaginations-- movements do.

2. Cut bureaucracy. In business, there are cost centers and there are profit centers. A profit center is a unit or department that contributes to the overall financial results of a company. A cost center is a department that doesn’t produce direct profit and adds to the costs of running a company. Cost centers are created for the sake of the profit centers, not the other way around! If a cost center isn’t indirectly creating more profit than it’s spending, a smart company reduces the size of that cost center or eliminates it altogether. But in the church, we’re afraid to do this, partly because we don’t want to be responsible for good people losing their jobs.

The reality is that a leaner bureaucracy would create more opportunities for ministry (and even some ministry jobs) at the local level, which is where church growth actually happens. It’s not the local church’s responsibility to worry about saving jobs at a church agency. It’s the church agency’s job to do everything it can to help the local church grow, and to do it in the most efficient way possible. When that’s the priority, all the boats should rise.

3. Get rid of national marketing. It doesn’t work well, especially if brand consistency is non-existent within your church. Instead of running expensive, inefficient national campaigns, denominational communications agencies should focus their energy on adapting successful local church campaigns for use by like-minded churches in other markets. There are innovative, growing churches in every denomination, and it makes much more sense using field-tested marketing from the trenches than trying to use a top-down, one size fits all approach.

4. Rethink and simplify the ordination process. As a member of the United Methodist Church, I’m thinking about my denomination here, but I’m pretty sure there are other denominations that would benefit from this advice. Four years of college and several additional years of seminary followed by a grinding mill of boards and committees is overkill. Yes, I know it’s supposed to weed out the unsuitable candidates, but I suspect it weeds out just as many good candidates. Some megachurches, multi-site churches, and church associations are developing alternative tracks to ordination. If denominations don’t address the red tape and problems with their ordination processes, they’ll continue to lose gifted potential pastors to nondenominational churches.

5. Plant more churches, especially in cities. More people live in cities than in rural areas, yet for some denominations, most of their buildings and resources aren’t in urban areas. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, correctly points out that the United Methodist Church, for example, is essentially sending pastors to buildings rather than to people. Good stewardship of Kingdom resources means using those resources to plant and nurture new churches rather than keeping the dying ones on life support. And churches should be planted where the people are. That’s common sense.

What prescriptions do you suggest for stimulating denominational growth? And does it matter whether denominations are growing or dying anyway?


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