12 Reasons Why Churches Don’t Address Decline

By Chuck Lawless

I have never met a church leader who said to me, “I really want my church to die. I’m not that concerned that we haven’t grown in years.” At the same time, though, most churches in North America are plateaued or in decline. Many of those churches have been in that state for years, if not decades—sometimes under the same leadership.

Why do churches wait so long to address decline? Here are twelve reasons I’ve seen in my church consulting work.

  1. Nobody is counting the numbers. I realize numbers are only one means to evaluate growth, but they are an important means. If no one is keeping a record of growth and attendance patterns, few leaders recognize the first signs of decline. No one is monitoring health, and disease sets in.
  2. Leaders in “growing” churches don’t always recognize decline. This situation especially occurs when a church is experiencing additions, but the back door is even more wide open. The congregation sees people join often, but they fail to see the greater numbers of people leaving. The decline may be slow, but it’s still real.
  3. Members live in their own relational bubble. That is, most members have only few persons with whom they build strong relationships. As long as their friends are still present, they don’t get too concerned about others leaving.
  4. Leaders have given up on growth. Maybe the community is changing. Perhaps the young people have already left. It might be the leaders are just tired after unsuccessfully striving for growth for years. The need for rest trumps the call to reach others.
  5. Members love their pastor. Sure, they realize the church is declining – but their pastor has been good to them. Their lives are marked by his care and concern. No one would ever want to hurt him. Consequently, they remain loyal to him even as the church dies around him.
  6. The leaders don’t know what steps to take. They know how to parse verbs and formulate theological positions, but they do not know how to redirect an organization. They are captains who don’t know how to steer the ship into the right channels. Efforts end in failure, and failures become discouragement.
  7. The church still has a sufficient number to survive. The larger the church was in its heyday, the more likely this situation occurs. The church that averaged 300 five years ago may still appear to be comfortably full at 200 now. The crowds are large enough to ignore the decline, at least for now.
  8. Leaders over-spiritualize the situation. If you’ve read my posts before, you know how much I care about prayer – but “we’re just praying right now” can be a copout for leaders who fail to strategize. “God’s just reducing us to His remnant” may be true, or it may also be theological jargon to avoid taking responsibility for poor leadership.
  9. The church has money in the bank. As long as the bills are being paid, lower attendance numbers don’t matter as much. If the church has a strong reserve account, that’s even better.
  10. The congregation equates activity with life. Programs continue. Somebody gathers in the church building most nights of the week. The weekly bulletin is filled with events. The website carries current announcements. If all of these activities are going on, surely the church cannot be in decline.
  11. Ministries are siloed in the church. Individual ministries may be doing well. Some small groups really enjoy their fellowship and teaching. The choir or praise team is prepared every Sunday. Members cocoon themselves in a few successful ministries, and few people see the overall church decline.
  12. Even Christian leaders are filled with pride. That’s a primary reason leaders won’t seek guidance when the churches they lead are declining. “Surely,” the leader thinks, “I can come up with the solution. After all, I’m called. I’m trained.” And, ultimately, he may find himself alone because of his unwillingness to pursue help from others.

What other reasons would you add to this list?

Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.


Posted on September 23, 2014

Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
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  • This list is telling for a lot of churches, including the one that I am currently pastoring. It has been extremely challenging to help folks see that we are not plateauing, we are declining. We are one of those churches in the 200 attendance range. However, I am having significant difficulty getting our leadership to see that we are in need of some significant change.

  • i too have tried the whole list of revivals, mothers day out, home bible studies, concerts in the park, community wide picnics, and a very long list of other thing that everyone else has tried. the thing i have drawn from this is that i wonder if i had left out the main purpose of the church as spoken of in the great commission. yes, the list was meant to fulfill it in various ways but did i lead in the main thing being the main thing and personal responsibility to share the gospel.

  • the early church was in a very sinful multi-cultural world with great resistance to the church. so we cannot blame our world today since we look the same. where can we put the blame? after many years pastoring and semi-retired at age 70 I have seen a lot of different reasons for failing churches, ie leadership, dieing community, changing environment, and the list could go on. I think the answer is perhaps different for each situation. ultimately the leaders are responsible to recognize the problem and address it. the rest of the church is responsible for responding to the leadership of both the Lord and church leadership. is this the solution? not necessarily since there can be a breakdown in any of those areas. all we can do is reassess our relationship and service to the lord and pray, pray , pray.
    notice i said “i think” so that automatically puts this in perspective
    thanks pastors for your faithfulness and thank you church for your faithfulness.

  • Daniel Moore says on

    There are way to many factors involved in the decline or plateau of a church. My first church was in a declining and aging community. Young folk would graduate and leave. The number of high school aged population declined every year I was there. The economy was also in the tank. I was bi-vocational. We grew from 12 to 35 in two years. The town had a population that was moving downward from 1500. One third “attended” a Methodist church. On third “were on the rolls” of a Catholic Church. I know. I went door to door. The remainder attended churches in the nearest large town. The average age in the community was 50. We found ways to connect to the people and stay the course.

  • I agree with your reasons wholeheartedly. That’s where we are now. My question is, what can we do to end the decline? I am encouraging our leadership to fast and pray. Any other suggestions?

  • Thank you for the list. As a Sunday school teacher, I see kids come and go, and I get a good feel of the church attendance. I think a lot of the problem may begin with the fathers being lazy in teaching their youths doctrines. Whenever there is an outreach where teachings and sermons and modern praise songs are promoted, the teachings and sermon rooms are nearly empty while the dancing and rock concert type during the evenings are overfilled with teens. Youth have become weak in their pursuit of smartphone apps and games where instant gratification are always present. They need guidance in training and discipline by a mentor like their fathers, and those fathers need tools and know how to do it. Ministers could assist in this endevour, and perhaps the children will seek the God of their fathers and invite other families. I have also heard from search committee members that the recent seminary grads are not into memorizing verses or preaching verse by verse and would rather use the latest fads to draw the crowds. It’s lazy. It’s people seeking a quick fix to get them through the week on high emotion. They need to know God and the joy in knowing Him.

    • David Gagnon says on

      Samuel you can complain about the culture we live in today or you can embrace it. Yes teens and young adults today have shorter attention spans. Yes they are in to technology and they do not have the patience to wait for things like older generations. You can embrace and change your approach to make disciples of these people or you can throw your hands up in the air and make excuses and belittle there generation. The belittling only seeks to make the divide between generations larger. Personally I have no problem adapting since discipleship is lifelong so I know I have a lot of time to work with this generation and will change the methods I’ll use to present the gospel.

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