Thursday, September 29, 2016

Understanding The Plateau.
Practical helps to understanding what needs to be done to help your church move from plateau or decline to vitality and growth

Dr. Robert Orr
President California State Christian University
Dr. Bob Orr

This post is written to help in understanding the plateau and what can be done to keep your church thriving on its mission to see our world transformed by the power of the gospel.

The Life Cycle of The Church (and other organizations as well)

Right now in America, according to the latest numbers, American Churches are struggling. 80% of churches are either plateaued or in decline. An additional 14% are growing but growing so slowly that they are not keeping up with the population growth of their ministry area. Church attendance has dropped in the last 25 years from 43% of the population attending church weekly to 17% today. These are national figures and there are local churches and communities that defy normal. The bottom line is we cannot continue to do what we’ve always done and expect a different result.

The beginning section of this post will deal with the theory of the lifecycle, and the later part will deal with how to know if you are approaching a plateau and what to do if you are on a plateau.

The Normal Life Cycle

Churches for the first 15-20 years of the cycle are normally growing. Their conversion growth rates are higher, the excitement of the new, the willingness to risk and change, all contribute to health and vitality

Churches in the 20-40 year age range usually are plateaued. Growth tends to come more by transfer than conversion; the resistance to change begins to grow, institutionalism and traditions grow and start competing with the values of the earlier years.

Churches more than 40 years old tend to be in decline. This decline is characterized by a backward focus that devalues vision, not enough new people are coming in to replace the normal losses and the traditions already developed are rarely changed. Fully 95% of churches over the age of 50 are in decline.
The chart below illustrates this cycle

A Normal Lifecycle

Observe the chart and note the normal but not inevitable pattern

Critical Point A.
How churches get started, their initial vision and leadership have a lot to do with whether the church started will ever enter this normal time of growth. Knowing what the DNA of health is and insuring that there is a strategy to insure these critical elements are included is a primary task in the early months and years. These are sometimes called healthy systems. Let me outline a few of these:


  1.   A system for attracting new people (Outreach)
  2. A system of assimilation (Including small group development, visitor retention etc.
  3.  A system for training developing and deploying people in ministry
  4. A system to develop the stewardship of the constituents
  5.   A Worship system that is conducive to seeing the believer edified and the unchurched drawn to Christ




Critical Point B
The church is still growing but if you look at the diagram, the rate of growth is starting to slow, meaning the church is becoming less effective in fulfilling its mission. It’s easier to make adjustments here than it is to wait until things have slowed or until you are plateaued. A church that asks and answers critical evaluative questions can keep the church growing and avoid the upcoming plateau. Changes are going to become necessary and the level of resistance to change that the congregation has may make this transition difficult.
Congregations will often say “if its working don’t touch it”, when the question that should be asked is; “if its working how could we make it work better’ (1st generation change) or “Is there a better way of accomplishing the same objective” (2nd order change).

It is at this juncture paying attention to the evangelistic values is critical. Evangelism values tend to erode over time and leaders who want to see the church continue to thrive need to work hard in this important task. (For additional information on values and their impact on growth see the article on my blog on values www.drboborr.blogspot.com.

Critical Point C
This point occurs after the church has been on a plateau for a number of years. The congregation has normally become older the barriers between insiders and outsiders are felt particularly by the newcomers. The resistance to change has grown and the evangelism values although given lip service rarely affect individual or corporate behavior. This is the point that if a critical evaluation of what is done is not taken the church may very soon start going into the downside of the cycle. It has been said that the price paid here is the choice of change or slow death.

Critical Point D
After a church has been on the downside of the cycle there comes a point at which the diagnosis is that the church has a terminal illness. The lack of evangelistic passion, the power structures that prevent change, the irrelevancy of ministries to all but current participants, and the cutback in the doors of entry.

Lifecycle Observations
·      It’s natural not inevitable
This cycle has been seen in churches and other social organizations. It is also well know what the church needs to do to see it's self-reborn to a new season of growth and vitality.
·      Acceleration is possible
A rapid change in the community, or a crisis in the church are just 2 examples of this reality.
·      Barriers affect it (75, 200, 400, 800 etc.)
There are natural barriers that tend to be the places where churches get stuck. For example a church grows quickly to 75 or 200 and then starts a plateau although they would still be considered on the upside of the cycle. If the changes organizationally are not made to help a church move to the next level the church will start the next phase. Peter Wagner notes that churches that don’t have at least 75 people in their first year probably never will have. There are numerous books on this subject and if your church is stuck because of one of these barriers I would recommend getting ahold of one or more and going through it with your leaders.
·      It’s interruptible
Sometimes something that is unexpected such as change of pastors, can change the trajectory of a church either positively or negatively
·      It’s understandable
It is important for any church facing this cycle to understand that they are not the first church to have travelled this road. The good news is we know not only what do but also what not to do. Because it is understandable that give to all of us hope.
·      It’s Repeatable
There are hundreds of churches that are over 50 years of age that are proof that the cycle is repeatable. No matter where you are on the lifecycle there is hope.
·      There are strategic interventions that affect the lifecycle.
Strategic interventions can shake to existing paradigm and cause a reevaluation of what we are doing and why. Some of these may include; a change of pastors, a community transition, a relocation of the church etc.
·      The farther along the lifecycle scale you are the more difficult and the longer it takes to change
We are all aware that resistance to change increases as we age. What is true for individuals is also true in organizations.
·      Dynamic
The church is a living organization and organism and because of that it has the qualities of life imbedded in it. Church illnesses may need to be cured, problems may need to be addressed, and changes may need to be made but as long as were are, we are!


Signs Your Church Is On The Downside

I have worked with over 3000 congregations and have noticed the following signs that a church is already on the downside of the lifecycle.


  • Survival behavior as the church and its future are threatened
  • A cutback in budget, staff, and programs 
  •  Rapid pastoral changes
  • No or few new ministries are launched
  • Rise in informal power groups
  • A Crisis that results in major loss (i.e. a major donor leaves)
  •  Increasing conflict over change and direction to take
  •  Openness and transparency are limited (denial)


The Church Is a Dynamic Paradigm

·      A church’s “paradigm” defines what the church is and how it operates.
·      That paradigm - a set of habits, attitudes, and approaches affects everything we do: 
·      If you’ve ever heard the words, “this is how we do things here” you have discovered the paradigm of the church.
The Pardigm Lifecycle
·      If we continue to do what we have always done we will observe that the law of diminishing returns begins to set in.
·      Like the lifecycle we can note that whenever there are problems or issues that cannot be addressed there is a new paradigm that needs to adopted. (A)
·      Again the best time to introduce the new paradigm is not when the crisis occurs but whenever there are new problems that the old paradigm does not answer (B)
  • If we wait too long the number of problems that the old paradigm cannot solve becomes so great and the resistance to changing it is so strong that the organizations paradigm brings its mission accomplishment to a halt. (C)  



The Lifecycle of the Dream

We are aware that the scriptures admonish us that “without vision the people perish”.

·                                                                   Vision answers the question that starts with the Divine. “What would our church look like (1,3,5 years) if it lived up to God’s expectations” Vision ultimately comes from Him. Good ideas are good but God ideas are better.
·   You cannot have a clear vision and continue to do what you have always done.
·  The fear of change is the number one vision killer.
·   Robert Dale in his book To Dream Again contends that we need to understand that every dream has a life and that we need to be in a constant pursuit to assure that we are on the same page as our true Leader





Lifecycle Conclusions

·      When there is no dream, and when the paradigm is not longer effective and the organization is sociologically on the down side of the lifecycle the combination of these factors we know the fix is not easy as it demands organizational, procedural changes and a new vision for the future. Until all 3 of these are addressed the decline will continue
·      If you keep doing what you have been doing you’ll get more of what you’ve got. Can you live with that?
·      Time is of the essence. If not now, when?

Are You Approaching A Plateau?

There is an old proverb that tells us that preventing a problem is easier than solving one. Once a church has lost its growth momentum it often takes years to recover. In fact, according to life cycle research, the plateau is more often followed by a decline than a period of growth.

There is an interesting illustration of this principle. When the Shuttle and other rockets are launched from Cape Kennedy almost 90% of the fuel is spent just getting the Rocket launched and clearing the launch tower. That’s the price to be paid to overcome the inertia that has set in. Once however the Shuttle or rocket has cleared the tower and is now traveling thousands of miles per hour in space, all it takes is some minor adjustments to alter its course or keep it on course.

When considering the future of your church there are numerous signs that the church while still in its growth cycle may be approaching a plateau period. These signs can point out the remedial issues that need to be addressed before the church enters this period of plateau. Addressing these issues early will allow the church to continue its effectiveness in ministry. If you are already in a plateau or even a period of decline the issues raised here may provide a clue as to some of the issues your church must face if its future is to be better than it's past.

Top Ten Warning Signs That You Are Approaching a Plateau

Rising median age.

·      Lyle Schaller points out that a rising median age is a sure telltale sign that the church is approaching if not already in a period of plateau or decline.
·      Seeing the median age of members drop however is harder than wishing it to be so. Generational differences including preferences regarding style of music, programmatic needs, etc., may demand more change than many churches are willing to make. It was Freud who pointed out that people would rather live with the squalor with which they are familiar than move to a better yet unfamiliar place. Transformation Ministries a Missional movement used this concept for plateaued churches that we either face the price of change willingly or we will be forced to change unwillingly through a crisis. 

2.    Rising Median Tenure

·      The concept of median tenure refers to the point in time where 50% of the membership/attenders began attending the church. The farther that date is from today the more likely it is the church will either be plateaued or in decline
·      Growing churches tend to have that tenure point around 7-8 years, plateaued churches around 11-12 years, and declining churches 15 years or more.
·      There are practical sociological reasons why a church when it is primarily composed of people who have been there a long time will not grow. New persons will be more attracted to a church with a lower median tenure date.  When this rate is higher even if new people visit the retention rate of visitors returning is normally too low to even replace the normal losses every church has.

3.    Conversion Growth Ratio Direction

·      Churches see a normal attrition rate depending on their size from death, transfer out, and reversion of between 6 for a smaller church to up to 12% for a larger church. The rule of 72, which is a mathematical formula, states that if you take either your rate of growth or your rate of decline and divide it into 72 it will give you the number of years it will take to either double (if it’s a growth rate) or die (a decline rate)
·      The Conversion Growth Ratio is a specific formula that asks how many members did it take to win one person to Christ in the past year. For example if the church had 100 people and saw 5 first time conversions the ratio would be 1:20. In other words it took the effort of 20 people to win one person to Christ.
·      While there has been some variation growing churches normally have a ratio of 1:8 to 1:15. Plateaued churches normally have ratios in the 1:30 to 1:50 range and declining churches are in the 1:70 plus range. Southern Baptists noted that the average conversion growth rate for churches over 50 years was 1:88.
·      It is important to note that the data on conversion growth should not be construed as a point in time fact. The important thing to note is the trend this ratio is taking. It can take a few years to see if our evangelistic efforts are paying off or if our evangelistic fervor is waning.

4.    Shrinking Evangelism dollars (total & %)

·      Bob Schuler used the illustration of the 10-10-80 principle in teaching his congregation how to manage their money. The first 10% should be given to God as a tithe and an act of gratitude to Him for all his goodness. 10% should be invested in your future through savings. If you don’t invest in your future it creates long term problems that are many time unsolvable. We should then learn to live with contentment on the 80% left.
·      Assuming all churches give a portion of their money to missions not all churches invest dollars in their own future. The result of that is their future is put at risk.
Dr. Win Arn
·      Win Arn pointed out that in his examination of the budgets of hundreds of churches, growing churches invested 10% of their income on training activities and programs to reach the unchurched
·      The pattern of little or no money being invested in the churches own growth may take time to reverse but like a farmer who plants no seed we cannot expect a return in the harvest if we invest no resources in this endeavor.


5.    Stable or shrinking infrastructure

·      Infrastructure refers to the number of groups or places where people can not only be involved but also develop meaningful relationships with others in the church.  
·      Some of you have heard the comment “what good is it to bring new people into the church if we squeeze out the people who have been here for years”. This is a sure sign the infrastructure has reached capacity or what some call the saturation point.
·      A good and workable ratio is seeking to have about 7-10 groups for every one hundred people in your congregation. This gives room for not only the existing congregation but also room for new people.
·      One additional caveat is that after groups have been in existence for more than 2 years they close themselves off to outsiders. There are a variety of reasons for this but it is a good idea that is well researched and documented that keeping about 20% of your groups “new” (that is they have been created in the last 2 years) is a simple way to insure openness to new person joining the church.
6.    Reduced % of ministry involvement.


·      To quote Lyle Schaller if a new person has not accepted a role or task or become part of a small group within the first year they are already inactive.
·      Research done by the Institute of American Church Growth pointed out that:
o   Growing churches averaged 60% involvement
o   Plateaued churches averaged 43% involvement
o   Declining churches had an average of 27% involvement
·      Monitoring the involvement of your congregation and watching the involvement trend is part of the diagnostic work that will enhance your ministry.
·      A simple philosophical shift will take the focus off the institution and it’s survival. Instead of asking, “How can we find somebody to do everything we need done?” instead ask “ How can we find something for everyone to do?” This will take the focus off the institution and get it on people; every individual in your church has been gifted and called of God to service. That needs to be our focus.
7.    Reduced number of visitors.

·      It’s a truth often ignored but true none-the-less; “No one joins a church without visiting it first.”
·      Most churches have two problems:
o   They don’t have sufficient visitors to replace the normal losses seen annually
o   They do not retain a high enough percentage of the visitors to grow.
·      Charles Arn from Church Growth points out that declining and plateaued churches rarely hold on to more than 10% of first time visitors.  Growing churches rarely hold on to less than 20% of their visitors. He also observed that growing congregations have around 5% of their congregation as visitors (1st or 2nd time) every week. (I’ll do another article at a later date on proven strategies for visitor retention)
·      Developing a strategy that both attracts more and retains more visitors is critical for any church wanting to maintain its growth momentum.
8.    Closed power structure.


·      I had an interesting experience at a church in New York where I was consulting. The conversation went like this;

Me: “How long would it take me if I joined this church today to become part of the official board?”
Response: “Would you attend regularly?”
Me: “Yes!”
Response and would you be willing to work in the church and give?”
Me: “Yes, I’d love to serve and would be more than willing to tithe all I make to help the church.”
Response: If you did all that it would probably take 12-14 years.

·      One of the needs new persons feel when they become part of any new organization is to believe that their insights and opinions really matter.
·      People around the church for a long time believe, rightly or not, that the problem with new people is they are always trying to change things. To prevent change the easiest solution is to close the power structure to new people.
·      Growing churches on the other hand believe new people bring a wealth of new ideas and are invaluable in helping the church achieve its mission and so they open the power structure to new people.
·      Win Arn noted that growing churches had about 20% of their formal leadership team come from people who had been part of the church 2 years or less.
·      If your power structure is closed it is a sign that your ministry may become more and irrelevant to the people God calls you to reach.
9.    Reduction in new program units



·      In most churches you can identify approximately one program unit for every 15 persons. These may include classes, groups, children’s, youth or adult activities and a broad assortment of other programs.
·      In declining churches what has been called the “cut-back syndrome” emerges. Fewer and fewer options for involvement are offered and fewer and fewer people are given a reason to participate.
·      Growing congregations are always looking a new ways to reach the unreached and minister more effectively to people. They listen to the dreams for ministry that God places in the hearts of His people.             
10. Shrinking Class II involvement



There may be additional factors but if you find 3 or 4 of these items being true in your church you are headed for a period of plateau. Fix these issues quickly and you will regain the vibrancy that characterizes growing churches.

Lyle Schaller’s 10 Steps To Help A Church Of A Plateau

When your church hits a plateau what are the best options to get it growing again? There are some practical suggestions Lyle Schaller the Dean of Church Consultants gives that will help you analyze what are the best options to get your church back on track in the wonderful task of making more and better disciples.

Before we get to these practical steps I wanted to lay down a few foundations that are critical for the church that really does want to get growing again.

The first of these is to understand that the church is both an organism and an organization. The Church has been described in the Scripture as an organism and we are a living body of believers. It is also described as an organization and we are a building that is being put together by the Master-Builder Himself. These images of the church as both body and building help us understand that the church has both health problems because it is a living organism and it has organizational problems because it has structures that either help or hinder its growth and development.

Very often the mistake that a church on a plateau is trying to answer is to try to solve an organizational problem with a spiritual solution or an organism problem with an administrative solution. This violates a foundational concept that organizations need organizational solutions and that spiritual problems need spiritual solutions.

Complicating this understanding is that rarely is a problem so simple that answers in one category or another is sufficient to solve the problem. Most church issues are a mix of changes that need to be made in both the spiritual and structural areas.

For example; Let’s assume the diagnosed issue is a lack of conversion growth and the existing biological and transfer growth rates are just sufficient to cover the normal attrition common in any church.

If the leadership saw the solution as only organizational they might get a new evangelism program and find themselves frustrated that it doesn’t seem to work for them as advertised.

A more comprehensive analysis’s might point out that the value of evangelism has been eroded over time so that lost people although mattering to God do not matter to us. It may also point out that very little prayer for lost persons is part of the personal and corporate prayer of the church family. Rebuilding this value and crying out to God would be essential if any program or structural changes in evangelism are to work. Therefore looking at the issue points out that the solution had a little bit of both the organic and organizational side.

So as we look at Lyle’s main points it is helpful to acknowledge that they will work in any church that really wants to grow, and is willing to do whatever it takes to see that happen

Schaller’s 10 Steps Off A Plateau

1.    Use a “both and” rather than an “either or” approach
·      Most persons will accept change that comes as an addition to what is already begun but will resist the change if it is seen as a replacement of the familiar way of doing ministry.
Lyle Schaller
·      This characteristic of human behavior explains why churches in an effort to bridge the generations replace the existing traditional service with a blended service which inevitably is still to modern for the tradition loving folks and not contemporary enough for the contemporary loving component.
·      Using “both and” increase the scope of your ministry and avoids most of the anger and angst that change by “either or” is sure to bring

2.    Broaden the base of goal ownership.
·      A wise proverb tells us people oppose what they don’t understand. Increasing the base of persons who have a commitment to the goals of the Church in its missiological pursuit will result in both a greater enthusiasm and also a greater participation by the membership.
·      Listening to and giving people an opportunity to participate in the setting of the goals is also a great tool to increase involvement. I have heard it said is that the difference between good goals and bad goals is based on who set them. So good goals are my goals and bad goals are your goals.

3.    Focus on the possibilities and opportunities not the problems and limitations
   Every church has an abundant opportunity to grow. Looking at who the unreached persons in a community are will open up a myriad of opportunities
·      Every church has problems. Rarely if ever does problem solving move the church off the plateau. It is the focus on the possibility that drives an organization forward.
·      Talk to any growing church and they will tell you growth brings with it problems but these problems are welcomed as opportunities to enhance our effectiveness

4.    Concentrate your planning in the areas where you have control not on the areas you don’t have control
·      The “somebody else” syndrome will paralyze any church quickly.
·      If the leaders will take control over what they can do that will make a difference instead of making excuses as to what they can’t do a great deal of progress can be made.

5.  Monitor the program to insure people are being given real choices

·      The choice most churches give people is “take it or leave it”. Increasing the options available for people to experience the grace of God will increase the scope and effectiveness of your ministry
·       Some examples might include; adding an additional worship service at a different time or of a different style, or increasing the homogeneous appeal of the church by adding ministries that appeal to a new group of potential disciples.
Encourage tolerance (if not acceptance) of new programs and activities



·      Rarely if ever will a leader be able to get total acceptance for any change. If however the assumption is that I need total acceptance to make changes then the church will remain plateaued
·      Toleration underscores the principle is that people need real choices and while they might not like everything they recognize that what is liked and enjoyed may be different for different people.
·       It is also a helpful suggestion to institute change for a specified trial period to see if it really will work. 6-12 months is normal here. If it works almost everyone will now believe it needs to be continued. If it did not it gives us an opportunity to discard it or rework it. As a leader knowing new programs have an evaluation and sunset time built in gives an additional impetus to insure we give what we are attempting our best effort.

7.    Plan and program for specific subgroups of people not the entire congregation
·      Donald McGavran observed that the church by its very nature is heterogeneous but also having many homogeneous groups within it.
·      Simple examples might include old or young, rich or poor, men or women, married or single, married with children or without. As you can see the list could go on but it does point out that rarely is a church solely homogeneous.
·       Expanding the appeal by adding additional ministries or programs that meet the needs of those whose needs are now unmet will increase the appeal of the church both to its members and potential members.

8.    Celebrate positive accomplishments
·      Organizations have a self-image of themselves. That image it built largely by two factors,
o   What they do and the results of what they do
o   What is said to them and about them
·      Celebrating the accomplishments of what God has done not only encourages people to do more of it but over time builds a positive self identity that moves the church from maintenance and trying to hold on to a “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength”.
·      You have a choice you can either build people up or beat people up. What you do determines the kind of congregation you will have and the achievements of that group of devoted followers
9.    Identify your strengths and specialize your ministry around them.


·      Every church has both strengths and weaknesses. Focusing on what God has blessed you with (your strengths) makes you a good steward of your talents and treasure.
·      Looking at the few things you can do well and doing them well will pay dividends in both achievement and self-identity, as you will find God has uniquely gifted you to do something different and better than the other churches around you. These gifts are your “Acre of Diamonds” (See Russell Conwell’s great little book on the subject)
10. Carefully and regularly review the actual purpose of the church


·      What you devote your time talent and treasure to tells the real story of the churches understanding of its mission.
·       Jesus told us that where we put our treasure would be the telltale sign of where our heart was.
·      Would a stranger looking only at what you do be able to tell whom you serve and what cause or purpose you are trying to fulfill.

As you look at these 10 steps Lyle Schaller suggests which of them spoke most directly to you and your current situation? What could you do in the next 30-60 days that will make a big difference in the church 6 months to a year from now?

I deeply believe that God wants his church to grow in every way. In our love for one another, in our growth as disciples and in our mission to the lost Christ would have us be fully devoted as his disciples.

My study has shown that the majority of churches who are plateaued never take the steps to turn things around unless a crisis forces the issues. Change by choice is always a better way to go.

Conclusion
If you deeply believe that God wants and has provided everything you need as a church to fulfill the mission before you, never allow the contentment of meager or no results to deter you. Make the decision you really want to grow, agree that regardless of the price, you will do what it takes and apply the principles of growth all for the sake of seeing lost people found.


Never forget as Donald McGavran said over and over again; “it’s God’s will that His church grow and His lost children are found”