What to Do When Your Church Hits a Plateau

( [email protected] ) Jun 22, 2006 09:03 PM EDT

I hear it frequently: "My church has hit a plateau. What can I do to get it moving again?"

While this can be a common crisis, it’s not unfixable. There are several things you can do to help your church move beyond its growth block.

First, though, it’s important to understand that the longer your church has been plateaued, the longer it’s going to take to get it going again. There is tremendous power in momentum. At NASA, most of the energy – the jet fuel – in a rocket engine is used up in the first several hundred yards. It takes all that fuel just to get the thing off the launch pad. Once it's in orbit, it takes very little power to keep a rocket going. But you still have to get the thing going, and that initial push takes a lot of time and energy up front.

If your church has been plateaued for six months, it might take six months to get it going again. If it's been plateaued a year, it might take a year. If it's been plateaued for 20 years, you've got to set in for the duration!

I'm saying some people are going to have to die or leave. Moses had to wander around the desert for 40 years while God killed off a million people before he let them go into the Promised Land. That may be brutally blunt, but it’s true. There may be people in your church who love God sincerely, but who will never, ever change.

I often tell the pastors of existing churches to remember the illustration of an oil tanker. It takes about 14 miles for an oil tanker to make a U-turn. That's like a lot of churches.

For a church to turn around it may take many, many minute degrees of change and a long time to make a complete turn around. I personally believe you have to be called to a church like that.

People ask, "Is it easier to start new churches, or is it easier to take existing churches and turn them around?" My answer is this: "It's always easier to have babies than to raise the dead." However, God is in the business of raising the dead! He's a pro at resurrections, but it just might take some time.

So what do you do with a church that has plateaued? I believe you need to do three things:

First, as we’ve just discussed, understand that it will take time. As pastor of an existing church that needs to be turned around, you must pray for an extra amount of patience. People change very slowly. They are resistant to change because they recognize that life as they’ve known it will cease to exist. So the very nature of the primary group is to fight change. It can take time to win them over.

Second, you love everybody, but you move with the movers. Pastor everybody, hold everybody's hand, don't show partiality, and continue to care for everybody. But you move with the movers.

Jesus spent the maximum amount of time with those who would bear the maximum amount of responsibility. Even though he fed the 5,000, he spent most of his time with the 12. Even with the 12, he had the inner circle with Peter, James, and, John. Paul, in the book of Galatians, calls Peter, James, and John "pillars of the church” because they were the ones who would bear the maximum responsibility.

In every church there are the "E. F. Huttons: "When they speak, everybody listens!" Often they have no elected position. But they are the legitimizers in that church. In a small church, you need to find out who are the E. F. Huttons.

How do you know if they are the E. F. Huttons? They're often the people who are teased the most. It’s an interesting little phenomenon. When they tell a joke everybody laughs. When there's a decision to be made and somebody says something, everyone looks to see how the legitimizer is going to react.

You need to be perceptive of these people in your church. Find out who the legitimizers are; the ones who are willing to go for change. Find these people and start pouring your life into them. Build your vision in them. Love everybody but move with the movers.

Third, be prepared for conflict. It's going to come. Everybody wants a church to grow to a point. When it first starts growing, people will say, "Wow! Look at all these new young couples coming in! They can help pay the bills!"

But when the newcomers start throwing off the traditional balance, outweighing the old timers, then you've got problems. Tension grows, and the battle cry becomes, "We're losing our church!" That's a care/control issue. It's a conflict between the pioneers and the homesteaders. Who was there first, who came later, and who's going to win out?

In every church there are people who were there before you, and there are people who came after you. Then there are people there who are younger than you and there are people there who are older than you.

As a pastor, which of these groups can you most easily lead? Generally, it will be those who are younger and those who came after. Which is the hardest group to lead? Generally, it will be those who are older and those who were there before you. As a church begins to grow, tension comes suddenly.

You must feel called in your spirit to lead a church through change because change is never comfortable. It is almost always uncomfortable. Be assured of your calling, be prepared for the long haul, be ready for conflict, and move with the movers – and you’ll slowly begin to turn the ship around.

Until next week,


This article is adapted from Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church.

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Adapted from Rick Warren's Ministry ToolBox, a free weekly e-newsletter for pastors and church leaders, available at Pastors.com.