80 percent of churches are flat or declining. Pastors are burning out and quitting. The conference offers practical and proven tips for revitalizing churches.
Online PR News – 14-May-2015 – Hudson, Ohio – How are the churches in your city or town doing? Chances are that most are not doing well. And the pastors of those churches are likely to be overworked, stressed out, and even burned out.
Chris Bolinger of Hudson, Ohio aims to change that. Last year, he started Revitalize Ministries to equip Christian church leaders to be more effective at their challenging calling. The organization’s second Vital Church Conference, which will be held Friday, June 5 at Christ Community Chapel in Hudson, will feature church revitalization experts from as far away as Alaska.
“Some U.S. churches are doing great, but most are struggling,” says Bolinger. “80 percent of U.S. churches have attendance that is flat or declining, and at least 5,000 U.S. churches close every year. That means that, in Ohio, two or three churches close every week. These are institutions that have been the backbone of their communities for generations.”
Church struggles have a big impact on pastors and other church leaders. An alarming number of pastors report that they are under tremendous stress, and that stress often leads to health issues such as obesity, hypertension, and depression. In one survey, half of the pastors said that they would leave their profession if they could.
Pastors and churchgoers are not the only ones affected by church struggles. Churches provide and fund critical social services such as food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. Churchgoers tend to volunteer in their communities more than non-churchgoers, so declining church attendance leads to lower levels of community service and involvement.
Most attendance declines are seen in established small churches, those that were started more than 30 years ago and have an average Sunday morning attendance of 200 people or fewer. Newer churches and larger churches are doing better, in part because some people “hop” from struggling churches to houses of worship that are thriving. But many who leave established small churches stop attending altogether. Every year, about three million U.S. churchgoers become inactive, and many never return to any church.
“It’s terrific that many megachurches and church plants are thriving, but they are not the answer for everyone,” says Bolinger. “Established small churches have characteristics – such as unique traditions, intergenerational relationships, bonds in the community, and opportunities for involvement and leadership – that you just can’t get in a large church or a startup church. We need to find a way to revitalize our neighborhood churches.”
Bolinger does not consider himself an expert on church revitalization, so he has assembled a team of experts for the Vital Church Conference. The conference boasts 10 speakers and a dozen partners that will bring attendees practical, proven techniques for growing their churches. The focus is on becoming more effective at fulfilling the Great Commission, which is the final charge given by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Featured speakers at the conference will include:
• David Murrow, author of the bestseller Why Men Hate Going to Church
• Craig Cable, director of a Group Publishing initiative called Lifetree Café
• Evangelism expert Doug Pollock, who wrote the book God Space
• Small-church pastor Karl Vaters, author of the book The Grasshopper Myth
Participants in the conference’s ministry fair will include FamilyLife, The Salvation Army, Group Publishing, Man in the Mirror Ministries, Moody Radio, and the Transforming Churches Network.
To get details on the conference and register for it, visit vitalconf.com.
Why Bolinger Started Revitalize Ministries
Bolinger started Revitalize Ministries in 2014, but the impetus for founding the organization was an experience from five years earlier: the closing of a church.
“My wife and I grew up in small and mid-sized churches,” says Bolinger. “A few months after we got married, she roped me into helping her lead the youth group at a small church in Virginia. We continued as active lay leaders, or volunteer leaders, in that church and other small churches in Virginia and Illinois.
“When we moved to northeast Ohio in 1999, we joined and became active in a 300-person evangelical Protestant church that appeared to be doing well. Five years later, the church was down to 100 people, and five years after that it closed. We were devastated, and so were our three kids.”
Bolinger felt that God was calling him to do something about the experience of a once-thriving church declining and ultimately failing. But he was busy helping to run a high-tech startup.
“When God blessed that startup and it was acquired, I decided to leave the high-tech world and do something different,” says Bolinger. “After six months of prayer, study, and reflection, I felt a calling to start an organization that would provide resources and services to pastors and other leaders of all types of Christian churches, but especially small and mid-sized Christian churches.
“During that six-month period, I learned that what had happened to our church is not unusual. Sadly, it is becoming all too common.”
The Struggles of U.S. Churches
Only about 37 percent of Americans are involved in the life of a church, with 23 percent participating regularly and 14 percent attending infrequently and occasionally giving money. On any given weekend, only about one in six Americans attends church.
And attendance is declining. Every year, between two and three million Americans leave the church and don’t come back. Those losses are not being countered by converts.
Declining attendance is not just an issue with certain denominations. Attendance has been declining in Roman Catholic churches for over a decade. Mainline Protestant churches are struggling more than evangelical Protestant churches, but evangelical churches are struggling, too. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention reports that 80-85 percent of its churches have attendance that is flat or declining.
Issues with declining attendance are most pronounced in churches that have a few hundred members or fewer and that have been in existence for 30 years or longer. Such churches are the vast majority of churches in the U.S., so the vast majority of U.S. churches are struggling. As Bolinger’s failed church demonstrates, even a church that is doing well today may not be doing well tomorrow.
The Impact on Pastors
Church struggles affect not just the people who attend those churches but also the communities that are served by those churches. The biggest impact, however, is felt by pastors and other church leaders. Many pastors today report that they are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and struggling with feelings of burnout.
A Jerdon survey of 11,500 pastors revealed that three out of four reported severe stress causing “anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation”. A 1999 Klaas and Klaas study showed that 20 percent of the pastors in one denomination, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), were in what the report called “advanced stages of burnout”.
According to a 2010 article in The New York Times, long-term stress is having a negative impact on the health of pastors, and members of the clergy “now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
How many? According to the website expastors.com, half of U.S. pastors would leave the ministry if they could but “have no other way of making a living.” That website also reports that:
• 90 percent of pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
• Half feel unable to meet the demands of the job, with 90 percent feeling that they are inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands.
• 70 percent feel underpaid.
• 70 percent fight depression.
• 80 percent believe pastoral ministry has had a negative impact on their families.
• 70 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend.
• 40 percent report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
Increasingly, those pastors who are unable to cope with the stress of ministry are taking sabbaticals or leaving the ministry altogether, even early in their careers. A 2005 survey by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church revealed that the number of pastors leaving the profession in the first five years is four times greater today than in the 1970s. The Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development reports that 35 to 40 percent of pastors last less than five years in the ministry.
Revitalizing Churches…and Pastors
The smaller and older a church is, the more likely it is to struggle. Some believe that the demise of the traditional small church is just part of the natural evolution of the Christian church in America and that the answer is to replace older small churches with vibrant church plants and multisite large churches.
But church plants and multisite large churches have limitations. Planting a church takes a lot of resources, and a church plant has to establish itself in a community and attract enough people to become self-sustaining and eventually have a facility. A multisite large church is appealing to many people, but there are just as many who would prefer to be in an autonomous small church. Those people include lay leaders and people who value traditions and intergenerational relationships.
Not every declining church can be turned around. It can be difficult to change the course of any established church, even one that is healthy and doing well overall. But Bolinger feels a calling to help any church that wants to be more effective at fulfilling the Great Commission.
“We can’t abandon our once-thriving churches,” he says. “We can’t expect other churches to ‘pick up the slack.’ Our churches are bleeding millions of people every year. The continued decline of established small churches will have a negative impact not just on pastors and other Christians but on our country, our communities, and our neighborhoods.
“We have to revitalize our church leaders and our churches. And we need to establish networks and communities of pastors so that they can help each other.”
The Vital Church Conference
Pastors and other church leaders are inundated with requests to attend conferences, workshops, seminars, and other events. Many feature popular Christian authors and pastors of large, successful churches. But few offer practical and proven recommendations for how to revitalize a church.
“I attended a church revitalization conference last year,” says Bolinger. “The sponsors of the conference meant well, but the speakers provided almost nothing practical.” In contrast, attendees of the first Vital Church Conference praised it for providing “lots of good ideas” as well as inspiration and encouragement. One attendee said, “This was the best conference I've ever attended.”
Bolinger has beefed up this year’s Vital Church Conference with more speakers and more ministry fair participants but compressed the conference from two days to what he calls “one very action-packed day”.
One of the featured speakers is Alaska’s David Murrow, whose book Why Men Hate Going to Church has sold 150,000 copies. Murrow, who gave a popular talk last year, will explain how churches often “turn off” men and give practical tips on how churches can become more appealing to men, especially men who didn’t grow up in the church. The morning after the conference, Murrow will lead his popular workshop entitled “Grow Your Men and Your Church Will Grow”.
Also coming a long distance to the conference is Karl Vaters, who is the pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. Vaters will cover some of the topics in his book The Grasshopper Myth, including how small-church pastors should work with, rather than competing with or trying to emulate, pastors of large churches.
Craig Cable, the director of a Group Publishing initiative called Lifetree Café, will speak on non-traditional ways that any church, including an established church, can reach people in its community. He also will show the documentary film “When God Left the Building”. Evangelism expert Doug Pollock, who wrote the book God Space, also will speak on innovative ways to reach people with the Christian message. Other speakers are pastors from northeast Ohio and Kentucky, a revitalization expert from Tennessee, a FamilyLife staff member, and an expert on discipleship.
Participants in the all-day ministry fair include The Salvation Army, Group Publishing, City on a Hill Productions, Moody Radio, FamilyLife, Man in the Mirror Ministries, Church for Men, New Small Church, Touchstone Leadership, and the Transforming Churches Network.
The Vital Church Conference will start at 8 a.m. on Friday, June 5 and end at around 9:30 p.m. A conference pass, which includes meals and beverages, costs $79, but discount codes are available. Call 1-844-VITAL CHURCH to get one.