12 Markers of Churches on the Downslope

February 26, 2020

By Chuck Lawless

Church growth writers talk about the bell-shaped curve that characterizes the growth of many churches. The left side of the bell curve is exciting (vision, outreach, growth, etc.), but the right side is challenging (nostalgia, decline, division, etc.).

Based on my years of church consulting, here are some markers of churches on the downslope. Every church should be aware of these markers, just in case they’re unknowingly moving in the wrong direction. 

  1. A visionless leader – Often, the primary leader in the church – the pastor – has lost vision for the future.
  2. Unspoken conflict – The conflict may not have yet risen to a raging fire, but the embers of division are beginning to flame quietly.
  3. A “back door” problem – People are leaving the church more rapidly than they’re joining. Sometimes, the difference between the two is stark.
  4. Few converts – Congregations in this state seldom do much evangelism. 
  5. Non-returning guests – It’s not that first-time guests aren’t coming to the church; it’s that they never come back after the first time.
  6. Stagnant, if not declining, finances – Long-term members may be keeping the financial ship afloat, but nothing suggests coming growth in giving.
  7. Fractured leadership – Ongoing conflict among staff or lay leaders is not uncommon in churches going in the wrong direction.
  8. Decreasing funds for ministry – This problem is often the result of maintaining a larger-church staff as the church itself gets smaller. Salaries dominate the expenses as the church struggles.
  9. “Yesterday” conversations more than “today or tomorrow” hopes – “I remember when” statements become much more common than “I’m so excited about what God’s doing.”
  10. Longer-term leaders just “hanging on” – Even the strongest, most faithful members begin to think about leaving when a church is on the wrong side of the curve.
  11. Increasingly a one-generation congregation – Typically, younger families leave rather than wait out any needed changes.
  12. Entrenched hopelessness – Those who remain begin to lose hope, but they remain unwilling to change.

What other characteristics have you seen?  

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27 Comments

  • Feeding the sheep the wrong food or too much of one food. Sheep wander. They usually stay where they are loved. When the super star teacher ( not a Shephard) moves on to a larger flock, the sheep starve, they can’t feed themselves much less others. There is a huge disconnect between the practice of the early church and the practice of modern vocational ministry.

  • Michael Malanga says on

    An unwillingness to change for fear of losing older members even if it means losing younger members.

  • Spiritual abuse. The pastor used faith as a tool to have control over membership.

  • Another characteristic is that most churches that are in decline spend most of their time working in the ministry and too little time working on the ministry. A pastor must have time and resources to continually evaluate and improve the ministry. Church leaders need to read books and go to conferences and workshops where they can learn ways to improve their church’s effectiveness.

    Our meetings need to set goals and make plans for how to achieve the goals. We need to constantly evaluate our progress and be held accountable for the work of reaching the goals.

    This means training, study, financial resources and meeting agendas must be guided by the goals.

  • Gregory Lynn Ross says on

    What do you think?
    I believe churches should merge/unite – staying separate may cost lots of cash – maintaining a failing building, pastor salaries as mentioned, cost of studies showing the church how to improve, etc. The ethical thing for leaders to do is to spend the congregations money in a responsible way. Cut your losses, sell assets, merge, and use savings to clothe the naked and feed the poor. Sadly churches can’t seem to accomplish this. I won’t continue to throw good money after bad. I will give to Doctors without Borders rather than supplement losing propositions. Many pastors need another career.

    • Do us all a favor and stay away from our churches. You sound like the kind of member most pastors can do without.

    • Okay, many should. But it’s not as simple as you make it sound. But who chooses which one assumes the facility. “Making churches better” is not always about streamlining or optimizing. If a mandate was laid down – church 1 and church 2 will combine (no discussion) – that would probably lead to the death of both and others in the denomination or group.

  • Loss of mission to make a kingdom difference in their immediate community. To me, this is number one. Of course, this is often leader-borne, but even when a leader has a strong sense and commitment of mission to the community, the congregation can pay lip-service and never really do anything but get rid of the voice of the leader.

  • Cotton mathis says on

    No evangelism. No heart for lost people.

  • Spot on.

    Sadly, those who need to read this article the most are those least likely to.

  • One thing I saw at the church I now pastor (I lived in the community for 20 years prior, on staff at another church) was a complete lack of interest in inviting others or developing community outreach. We have focused on both and seen growth without having to “steal sheep” from my prior church (a different denomination.)

  • Charlie Moulton says on

    Outstanding!

  • – Lack of first time guests or the number of first time guests annually is lower than the average worship attendance
    – Siloed and territorial ministry amongst staff
    – Fewer people willing to serve in leadership positions
    – An inward focus
    – Unwillingness to accept or even hear about current reality
    – No one is willing to stand up to the often dysfunctional controllers

    • Good additions to the list Tim.
      I’ll add: Little Red Hen syndrome.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Good thoughts, Tim.

    • lovelypeace says on

      These might be implied or said a different way above, but these are the ones that I’d list.

      1) unwilling to receive or hear feedback, insight or new ideas from lay members. Not open or flexible in their thinking.

      2) unwilling to utilize technology. (Quite a few staff people at my church are really afraid of social media (largely because of #1) and outright reject the idea of registering people for activities and paying activity fees online. Program and volunteer sign up is always on paper.)

      3) Pastor unwilling to deal with toxic people on staff. Staff fluctuates a lot because of toxic, dysfunctional behavior. And toxic people aren’t given additional training or reprimanded for treating people badly (on or off staff, doesn’t matter – they are rude to everyone!). Conversations with our pastor on this topic are useless and fruitless. We often talk about staff we have to “work around” to get things done because “so and so ‘won’t change'”.

      3b) An “Us vs Them” mentality (staff vs lay people).

      4) Leadership complaining about people who aren’t in church and not providing leadership to the people who are in church.

      5) Staff is afraid of new groups starting at church.

      5b) Community building and relationships aren’t a priority. Having programs doesn’t equal having a community.

      6) Current members will not invite others to programming or to worship at their church.

      • These 6 points are true for so, so many churches. I think the big question is why do Christian churches attract/keep/create people with this mindset? There must be a psychological reason. It’s this way all over the country.

        And why can’t they see that it’s not people not wanting to be a part of a church community, but an innate inner warning to stay away from this kind of company – (which is actually a sign of being mentally healthy) – that keeps people from going to churches for any length of time.

      • Outstanding insight SH and LovelyPeace!

      • In many cases the person is loyal to either the pastor (where the pastor demands unfailing loyalty above all else) or to an influential group that really runs things.

        Or the person has dirt on everyone and uses that to his/her advantage.

  • Running off pastors who try to right the ship.

    • This is unfortunately a very true occurance. And it’s heartbreaking to walk through.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks for the additional thought.

    • Pastor not knowing how to realize their vision, not knowing steps to get there. Pastor thinking “my congregation won’t….” rather than my congregation hasn’t been led to…”. Prayer not a foundational and realized value.
      I appreciate this list. It’s really helpful. Now what is a layperson to do when their church has been in this slump for over 10 years? Thank you.