The U.S. churches of Christ are for the most part a "small church" fellowship. Only about 6% of our congregations have an average attendance over 300. Less than 10% of our congregations have an attendance of 200-300. That means that about 84% of our congregations have not overcome the "200 Barrier," that is, they have an average attendance of less than 200. Flavil Yeakley estimates that about 70% of our congregations have fewer than 100 members. This shared size-characteristic means that we for the most part have common expectations and experiences with regard to church culture, church processes, church structures and organization, the roles of the leaders--elders, deacons, and ministers, decision-making, and leadership styles. These give most of our churches a traditional church culture that is seldom reevaluated. Research in a Tennessee church of 600 members showed that the church operated with the characteristics and style of a small church.
U.S. churches of Christ are declining in membership and attendance. This is reflected in the experience of most of our churches. Small is acceptable and a normal part of planting and growing churches. Growing smaller (an oxymoron!) should raise red flags. About 3 out of 4 of our congregations are declining. A few are plateaued; very few are growing. Church growth is often misunderstood. Growth must be measured across several years since variations of 10% (+/-) are quite normal. A good goal for measuring church growth is decadal growth rates. A decadal growth rate of 20-25% is only about 2% annually. A decadal growth rate of 10% may not represent real growth. Many of the congregations that are in fact growing are in urban areas, and are not growing by evangelism but are growing by swelling, that is, by membership transfers.
Many of the U.S. churches of Christ are weak. They are weak numerically, organically (as reflected in the quality and amount of shared fellowship), spiritually, and in maturity. George Barna says that a major factor in the decline of U.S. churches is the lack of strong spiritual leadership. Leaders determine whether the church looks inward or outward, backward or forward. Leaders determine what the church does with the resources it has. Leaders are charged with keeping the church on task and on mission. Leaders are charged with shepherding the flock and maintaining the involvement and spiritual vitality of the members. Leaders are responsible for the spiritual life of the church. A study of "comeback churches" [Stetzer and Dodson, Comeback Churches, 2007, p. 203ff] concludes that "leadership is the most important factor in making a comeback. "
In order to survive, the local church must develop strong, spiritual leaders. Too many churches have no candidates to advance as those who will provide leadership when the current group of leaders is gone. Many churches are only a "move" or a "death" away from no formal leadership. What can the church can do to develop strong spiritual leaders?
First, understand the nature of and insist on spiritual leadership. Insist on leaders who are spiritually strong. Seek and develop leaders with spiritual maturity (more than secular success). These are leaders who know God and devote resources to meet spiritual concerns. Strong, spiritual leaders are those who know the Scripture and demonstrate how to apply the Word of God in their daily lives. These are examples to the flock--in demeanor, priorities, personal goals, and relationships. These are examples of Bible knowledge, prayer, and spiritual discipline.
Second, insist on leaders who are scripturally strong. Spiritual leaders are people of the "Book." Seek and train leaders who can teach others. Leaders are teachers; leaders are mentors. They train and teach others, both formally and through shared activities and demonstration. Biblical leaders lead in spiritual activities and involvement-evangelism, teaching, benevolence, missions, care and concern for the flock, visitation, attendance, and in a host of other ways.
Third, insist on leaders who are "service" strong. Spiritual leaders are servants who willingly get their hands dirty in ministering to others. Seek and develop leaders who will help the church by facilitating the ministry and involvement of the membership. Paul describes these leaders as equipping the saints for service (Eph. 4:12), so that all grow to spiritual maturity and the church functions smoothly with the involvement and contribution of every member of the body (4:13-16). This kind of leader understands and is continually focused on God's mission for the church. This kind of leader exercises genuine leadership and not management. This kind of leader is people-oriented and not program-oriented. There is a need for those who will make certain things work, but that is not the function of God's strong, spiritual leader.
Finally, insist on leaders who are willing to share leadership. Seek and develop leaders who will develop other leaders. This is cross-generational, and at its best is multi-generational. The church needs spiritual leaders who will develop the next generation of leaders. The result of a leader is another leader. Even more, the church needs spiritual leaders who will develop leaders who will develop more leaders, as Paul charged Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2.
The church faces great challenges. Let us pray for strong, spiritual leaders who will help the church escape its decline and begin to grow again.