The following is based in experiences I've had with churches I've consulted with over my nearly 20 years of service in ministry. Over that time, I have become convinced that we have perfected the pathology by which we can accelerate the decline and eventual demise of a local church. I've seen the following happen in different orders, with different emphases, and I can guarantee that if you implement these five things, you will be pushing the nuclear button on your congregation. I've seen it happen enough times, and western evangelicalism has developed habits that have perfected this approach.
1. Perpetually send an unclear sound. Make sure that key leaders remain clueless, and divided, when it comes to the identity, purpose, vision, and direction of the church. Speak in spiritual euphemisms that seem holy, like "we just want to love Jesus and each other," or "we just want to follow the Bible." These sorts of nebulous statements, absent of any contextual application, are a way to sound thoroughly Biblical without actually being Biblical. Furthermore, they are the perfect way to stay adrift in a sea of irrelevance, and never identify who God created your local church to be, and what He wants her to do. The result, of course, is that the church will do nothing.
2. Invest More Time in Needy People than in Leaders. You know the old saying; "The squeaky wheel gets the most grease." In many local churches, those who "squeak" the loudest seem to get all the grease! And the grand mistake of church leaders is to give inordinate attention to the loudest and most needy people in the congregation, rather than invest in those God has gifted to lead the church. This sets up an environment in which people learn that the most attention will always be paid to the loudest complainers. And this is precisely the kind of environment that will suck the life out of any real leader--or inadvertently push leaders right out the door.
3. Try to Please Everybody. Almost without exception, in every church I've ever consulted with that is in decline, decisions are never executed without the final question of "who will be upset by this?" Inevitably, good decisions are always sabotaged by someone suggesting that "doing this might really upset . . .[fill in the name of your preferred group.]" In fact, the one way to ensure that #1 above takes place, is to assume this posture, because you can't make a clear decision about anything if the number one concern is always about someone not being pleased. Guess what? THERE IS NO SIGNIFICANT DECISION THAT WILL EVER BE MADE IN A CHURCH THAT MAKES EVERYBODY HAPPY! This means of course, that if you are trying to please everybody with decision and direction, you will never make a substantive decision, and you will never have clear direction. Atrophy is the inevitable result, because in the attempt to please everybody, you have displeased God.
4. Refuse to Confront Troublemakers. Principled dissent is one thing. Saboteurs are an entirely different matter and in too many churches, they are allowed to run free and do what they please, no matter the negative impact they have on the rest of the body. They may come in the form of the lady who "holds back" her tithe because she doesn't like a decision that was reached. They may come in the form of the guy who presumes the right to "pull the e-brake" on anything church leaders have decided on that he doesn't agree with. It may come in the form of those who use the phone or internet as a corridor for gossip to undermine the forward progress of the church.
Strong leadership is needed in these situations. The gossip has to be called out and confronted. The self-proclaimed "devil's advocate" with his hand on the e-brake needs to be told that the church isn't interested in Satan's opinion. And the lady who steals from God needs to be reminded that she isn't just "punishing the leadership," she is breaking her covenant promise to those in her church family, and to her God. Without strong leaders to confront such nonsense, troublemakers will be free to throw additional anchors over the side of their drifting ship to ensure that it goes precisely nowhere.
5. Seek to Live in the Past. Churches actually do this in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is to be highly suspicious of any sort of change. Music styles, architecture, structural paradigms, and cultural engagement in general are all evolving concepts, and if the church does not reflect the culture in which it finds itself in all these areas, the result is far worse than simply an unclear Gospel. In the end, the church may lose the Gospel altogether, because they have identified its delivery with certain cultural accutrements rather than a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
But there is more than one way to live in the past. As with any social system, churches over time develop corporate patterns of behavior, and some of these patterns are not healthy. If they are not repented of and clearly dealt with, they become the growing snowball that leads the church in one direction; downhill!
One thing is for sure though. If you want to ensure that you don't exist in the future, then just refuse to think about it.
Roughly 3500 churches in North America close their doors for good each and every year. The vast majority of those I've seen close with my own eyes did so by following the strategy I've outlined above. Many of them were not even aware of what they were doing, and when their subconsiceous path was pointed out, they simply chose to deny it . . .and keep dying!
So if you are following the principles above, and refuse to repent, I can guarantee that your church will eventually be included in that number, and you should be!