News – Personal view 1: Stemming the flow

Robert Lightowler
01 July, 2010 3 min read

Personal view 1: Stemming the flow

How can we stop the haemorrhaging of churchgoers? Robert Lightowler outlines a strategy.

Evangelicals today have many legitimate concerns, including aging congregations, less active memberships and the need for leaders. Perhaps one third of our churches are without suitable leadership.

The statistics are shocking. We are witnessing a decline in 20-somethings attending church; and we have lost 62 per cent of attendees within a generation, down from 520,000 in 1985 to 230,600 in 2005.

How can we stem the haemorrhaging? Here is a suggestion for focussed action. The central idea is that smaller struggling works should receive help from larger churches in the form of dedicated pioneer teams, consisting of two to five families willing to re-locate to help the smaller churches.

Pioneers, mentored by an experienced leadership and given hands-on experience, could be trained in the gospel and sent out in twos, as was Jesus’ pattern. They would be recognised and supported by the sending church, just as the Antioch church sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1ff).


Too often, larger churches do not seem to care about smaller churches. Maybe we are all, as Jim Packer once wrote in Christianity Today, influenced too much by the ‘secular passion for successful expansion’ (12 August 1988, p. 15)? But our aim should be not secular, aiming to build and hold onto an empire based on numbers. Instead, we need a biblical passion that will include working for the successful restoration of small works.

Such a strategy challenges larger congregations to engage their grace gifts in front-line evangelism, sharing their talents and time. It will be deeply sacrificial. Yet did not the Israelite lepers, when they stumbled across supplies that the invading army had left behind, become conscience-stricken and say, ‘It is not right that we keep this to ourselves’ (2 Kings 7:9).

Did not Paul rebuke the Corinthians in showing them how to give generously? He appealed to their sense of fairness and equality (2 Corinthians 8:13). Do we have this sense of ‘equality’ among our churches?

It is also true that smaller churches can be unwilling to receive help. At worst, the attitude can be: ‘We do not want to change’. Is this because some church leaders think: ‘This is my small empire, and I’m not willing to let it go’?

What is the difference between a small church that can be helped and one that cannot? I believe it comes down to a willingness to make biblical changes. There can be no room for ‘takeovers’ by large churches, nor resistant last stands by small, stubborn churches.

About 25 years ago, a dwindling church in the Midlands cried out for help to a larger church. Teams were sent and, within six months, it was healthy. For the past 20 years it has supported its own pastor and continued to grow in Christ, independent of the bigger church.

Of course, our highest achievement is not that we are part of a growing church, but that we strive for a Christ-like character. Jim Packer points out that ‘faithfulness, godliness, and loving service are the divine measure of real success in ministry’.


In 1858, thousands flocked to hear Dudley Tyng preach. At one meeting 1000 men were converted; his text was: ‘Go now ye that are men and serve the Lord’ (Exodus 10:11). During that meeting, he said that he would rather lose his right arm than fail to preach God’s message. That week, his sleeve caught in a cog and dragged his arm into the machinery, necessitating amputation.

Six days afterwards, as he lay dying, he asked his father to tell his fellow ministers to ‘Stand up for Jesus’. He was 33 years old. The Sunday after the funeral, his friend Rev. George Duffield preached from Ephesians 6:14: ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled about your waist’.

He ended with a poem he had written inspired by his friend’s dying words: ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’. We must put aside our own agendas and stand in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ too. Will we meet the challenge and do what it takes to stem the flow?

Full article on

Join the discussion

Read community guidelines
New: the ET podcast!