Church Impossible: Can a Failing Church Be Turned Around?

Some churches seem impossible to turn around. While at one time the congregation was thriving, it now has the enthusiasm of a funeral parlor. Things that once made the church successful now weigh it down. The neighborhoods and culture around the church have changed drastically but the leadership, programs, music, décor, and outreach haven’t changed in decades. Attendance slowly declines while the gap between revenues and the budget grows. Small changes are made with the hopes of producing big results but instead only produce more committee meetings.  Fundamental changes are rejected because no one believes the church can fail. More and more church members are worshiping with the angels in heaven than are worshiping with the saints on earth.

I saw a picture of this as I watched Restaurant Impossible, a show on the Food Network hosted by Chef Robert Irvine. His goal is to save the most desperate restaurants in America in just two days with only $10,000 dollars. On the first day, he gives them a thorough assessment by watching it operate at full service. Then he springs into action, updating the menu, retraining the staff, redesigning the aesthetics, and promoting the new restaurant. At the end of the second day, he reopens the new and improved restaurant to flocks of new customers and to triumph or failure.

In a recent episode he went to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to turn around a restaurant named “Dodge City”. This steakhouse had been open for 30 years but was on its last leg. The Wild West theme in the dining room belonged in a low budget 1960s cowboy film. The owner spent most of his time cutting meat and micromanaging his staff. There were five different menus filled with below average selections. Even though it was evident Dodge City was in serious trouble, the owner didn’t want a restaurant makeover but only a few tips to help them improve – preferably with some compliments mixed in.

Dodge City is like many churches. At one time they understood their community and knew how to reach them. Today, fewer and fewer are bothering to walk through the front doors. Both live in denial of the real problems.  Therefore, some of the same steps Chef Irvine took to turn around Dodge City can work in the context of a church.

First, times and communities change even if you don’t. The cowboy décor of Dodge City may have been a sensation in 1980, but in 2011 the deer heads, pictures of Indian chiefs, porcelain pigs, and dim lighting scared more customers away than it drew in. If a church is still using the same outreach, programs, and music that made it successful in the past despite a changing community it is time to reevaluate. Sermons that connect with the current congregation may be gibberish to visitors from the community. Programs enjoyed for decades may fail to connect with and meet the needs of new members. Music that blessed a generation fails to inspire a new one.  In other words, the décor of the church makes the gospel look like a relic of yesteryear instead of life-changing truth for today. Do the outreach, programs, and music of the church faithfully communicate the gospel to the culture and community or do they just warm the hearts of the remaining congregants? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23:

I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

We don’t change these things for the sake of change or to be attractive, but for the sake of communicating the gospel.

Second, make it about what matters again. Dodge City was a steakhouse with five different menus. The choices were overwhelming. But in trying to do everything they did few things well. Many menu items came right out of a can or a box and left customers uninspired. Churches that began with a passion for the gospel, the Word, and reaching the lost can slowly lose focus and make bigger deals out of smaller things. Everyone is on a different mission, championing their own cause whether it is the women’s ministry, Sunday school, choir, missions, youth ministry, or the annual Easter picnic. The church is heading in every direction but making no progress. Instead of a menu which focuses on making disciples through the power of the Spirit and Word, visitors walk away with a taste of everything but Jesus. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:2:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Churches must exist to exalt Jesus and make disciples for Him. We must cut our menus – even of good things – to make sure the church has a clear message and a clear mission.

Third, raise up leaders. A problem at Dodge City was the owner’s micromanaging of his staff.  Chef Irvine constantly had to return to the kitchen to make sure the owner was allowing his cooks to do the work instead of doing it himself. Though they had worked at Dodge City for decades, the staff had no freedom. Many churches struggle to reach their communities because only a few long-time members have real responsibility and influence. New perspectives are rarely heard because one must be in the church a decade to be taken seriously. These leaders are often praised for being overworked but their activity secures for them a louder voice and suppresses others who God may be calling to help move the church forward.  Some leaders may even dislike growth because it will mean a loss of their power and control. While leadership should never be given lightly, the best and brightest will not join a church where their talents and insight are shelved. A church must give real influence and real opportunities to raise up younger and newer leaders. Paul wrote 1 Timothy 4:12 to young Timothy as he assumed his leadership:

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

Churches must raise up and equip new Timothy-like leaders who can multiply the ministry of the church so it may effectively reach out and avoid burn out.

One of the most difficult parts of Robert Irvine’s renovation of Dodge City was the need to demolish thirty years of hard work. Several times it appeared the owner wouldn’t be able to continue with the project even though his restaurant was failing. What often makes the turn-around of a church impossible is the things that once blessed people, changed lives, required hard work, and brought celebration and enjoyment must be changed. Many simply aren’t willing to let go for the sake of the future. Chef Irvine told the distressed owner of Dodge City that, even though his restaurant had worked for 30 years, it now had to change. If he didn’t, the dream that was Dodge City would be no more. And for churches, even where God has done great things and the doors have stayed open for decades, we must be willing to change to reach a changing community and culture. It’s worth it for the sake of the mission of sharing the gospel. Let us not fail.


(image credit)


2 thoughts on “Church Impossible: Can a Failing Church Be Turned Around?

  1. This has been on my heart for awhile now. I’d love to see a team go from church to church making the “CHURCH” relevant and appealing to the culture. One thing I noticed about Robert Irvine is that when he does something he does it the right way. He does not candy coat anything tells it the way it is and does not compromise on the menu or what must be offered. Thanks for sharing this compelling message.

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