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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  • @PastorSteveC says on

    few thoughts:

    1. Remnant Theology is bogus, especially when Jesus COMMANDED to go and make more disciples. The last, die hard few, are not there to hold the fort. They are commanded to fill it.

    2. Growth in numbers and revenue, doesn’t necessarily mean growth of the chrurch. It could mean it’s a club, or just ‘popular’. Are lives being transformed to the glory of God – or – are people just happy? Same with decline in numbers and revenue.

    3. There are seasons, as any true leader will determine. Sometimes you sow and have to wait (plateau), other times you are weeding (speaking hard truths, decentralizing power, and you actually see numbers decline), sometimes you’re watering (investing into what you already know to be there – a plateau), and then you’ll see things grow and you’ll get to harvest. Then the process has to start all over.
    To continue that metaphor – different crops (people groups), in varying climates/geography (Location and culture) take different amounts of time to grow and be fruitful. If you’re in a place that’s already been farmed heavily, maybe you need to bring some nutrients back into the soil and do something fresh? Just a thought.

    • Steve Miller says on

      My experience as ex-military (which on a totally different topic, used to be seen as a plus for a pastor, but now is viewed as a negative by many search committees) has helped me see many congregations as being basically full of soldiers who spend all their time at the Non Commissioned Officers club and no time on the frontline. They join church for the perks of hanging out with other church-goers without realizing they have enlisted in a battle. The mindset seems to be, “Let’s have potlucks and social parties, but the hard grunt work is not for us.”

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      And welcomed, helpful thoughts, PastorSteveC. Thanks.

  • Ross Ferguson says on

    Sometimes the church members think the responsibility for bringing new people in is solely the pastors jobs…i.e unrealistic expectations of their leaders

  • How many have seen an open Q&A session with church leadership? How many people believe church leaders know what is going on in a congregation? I think it would surprise most leaders to know what was really going on. Some of the church decline might be prevented if leaders knew what was going on. I can remember being told that church leaders weren’t to be questioned, nor was the preacher. Many people follow that instruction and vote with their feet.

  • #5 concerns me simply because it implies the pastor is responsible for growth and decline. Too many a pastor has tried to lead sheep to become more evangelistic, but those sheep are not willing to be led.

    Maybe I’m just too sensitive…

    • No, you’re not being too sensitive. The pastor is a very convenient scapegoat in situations like this. I personally have little patience for church members who point out problems but offer no solutions. That’s why this article kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

      • I understand not want to hear about problems without offering a solution, but what about a legitimate solution Coming from the wrong person?

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Fair point, Jeff. Few of these churches would say the pastor is solely responsible — though they may live that way.

  • Craig Giddens says on

    In today’s spiritual climate it’s possible to experience an increase numerically (whether that be attendance, giving, …etc), while at the same time experience a decrease in Bible truth. Increasing numbers doesn’t automatically translate to individuals growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If there is one idea that describes American culture it would be the word “success” and to Americans success means more, bigger, better, faster … well you get the picture. This is not necessarily wrong except when the church adapts to the culture. Nowhere in the New Testament is there even any notion of the church being successful, yet we now apply the same standards that businesses do. Now the church must be successful which means we must see profits (attendance, giving, facilities). That’s why churches no longer look for a pastor, but a CEO (see yesterday’s blog). There is only one thing the church is called to do and that is to be faithful to the head, the Lord Jesus, as described in His word, particularly the Pauline epistles since Paul was the man called to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

  • #5 is particularly salient. When they attend because of the pastor, and when he looks happy and expresses no concern for lack of growth, or for decline, most members won’t ever realize something’s wrong. And if they do see it, they’re reluctant to confront the pastor about it. And as long as there’s plenty of money in the bank……..

    • So then is it the pastor’s fault if a church is not growing? I have been in a state convention for fifteen years, and that is their default answer. it is always the pastor’s fault. It’s like the “winning coach” mentality. If the team loses, you fore the coach. If the church is in decline, then fire the pastor. I have seen it numbers of times.

      The largest church in my association called a pastor who was born when I was in seminary, my theology textbooks are older than he is. Yet they felt that if they called a young preacher, the church would grow again. It hasn’t happened. It is not always because of the pastor.

      I have tried EVERY program that LifeWay and NAMB have published except the Net. None of them has lived up to the hype. I have evangelized. I have gone door-to-door. I have done big events, block parties, concerts, revivals and church planting. I have done evangelistic home Bible studies and people have come to the Lord, but they have not come to church.

      The church I now pastor has ten on a good Sunday, not counting my wife and myself. Once we “accepted the call” to help this church, the members dumped every ministry they were doing. I am still a good number of years away from retirement age, and my wife and I are the youngest in the church. Most of the members are old enough to be our parents, and there is only one man besides myself.

      The post mentioned asking for help. Whom do we ask? I was a NAMB appointed missionary who was forced out of my position in 2010 after their emphasis on Church Planting. I had to take a secular job because NAMB would no longer fund non-church-planting missionaries. I work 60+ hours a week in a secular job and pastor the church. Thank God my children are already grown!

      I witness to my colleagues at work. I witness to strangers. I invite people to church and occasionally someone comes. Once thy do come, they look around at all the gray heads and they do not come back. So what’s a pastor to do?

      • I understand your frustrations. Sometimes the circumstances are beyond the pastor’s control. This article, in my opinion, is long on pointing out problems and short on offering solutions.

      • Exactly! Where are the solutions?

      • If people are coming to the Lord but not church then maybe church is the problem. Many people hold negative perceptions of Christians, church and organized religion. Talk to the people who have accepted Jesus. Find out why they don’t come and what would have to happen for them to come. Are they going to other churches? Why? Also, if your church had 10 members when you came it’s probably very unhealthy. Be a good steward of what you already have and address those issues. Help them to become mission minded and therefore willing to make changes.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks, Bob. The person in the pulpit every Sunday really does matter.

  • Sometimes what can you do?
    The neighborhood has drastically changed demographics to non English speaking. We embraced them. But they have their own campus.
    60% of our main congregation is WWII gen. Another 25% are boomers who are retiring to lake and beach condo’s. Our boomer SS class has reduced by 2/3rds in the last 2yr. as soon as they can retire they’re gone.

    • join them.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Individual situations are often really difficult, as you know, Russ. Sometimes any growth will be quite slow — and sometimes the outreach of the church might result in the growth of another congregation (as with the non-English speaking group you describe). Just prayed for wisdom for you. Blessings!

  • Brian Horton says on

    These are all great points. To add to #2, I believe also maybe some churches are lulled into a sense of “false optimism” when the only “growth” they see is transfer growth. It is easy to be excited about 20 new members, but they transferred from another church. Of course, that is to be celebrated. We are glad when people are sensitive to God’s leading to join another church. But a church must be careful not to be complacent and forget that there are thousands of lost people around their church that may not be reached. So I guess it lies in how one defines growth. A church cannot address it if they do not know how to recognize it.

    I also think that churches are not looking long term enough. An honest look at my congregation tells me that in the next 10-15 years, a significant number of our people will be either passed on, or homebound and unable to contribute physically and/or financially. We have to plan now for that. John Dickerson’s book “The Great Evangelical Recession” is a great resource for churches in this matter.

  • Leaders also don’t like to admit failure. And, let’s be honest, a plateaued or declining church is, in some ways, failing. We can twist it any way we want to put a positive spin on it (like, we’re focusing on quality, not quantity…of course, wouldn’t quality disciples make disciples…that’s another issue).

    When a church isn’t growing, there’s a good chance it is failing to fulfill the Great Commission. For leaders or a pastor to admit that their church is in decline is to admit that, in some way that have failed…they have fallen short in being faithful to the call of Jesus to “go and make disciples”.

    It’s more than admitting that we need help. It’s also admitting that we have, in some ways, failed.

    • >And, let’s be honest, a plateaued or declining church is, in some ways, failing.

      If the local population is dropping by 5% per year, but your congregation is dropping by 3% per year, is the church growing, or declining?

      Likewise, if 50% of your congregation is in involuntary retirement, with the associated drop in their income, is the church in decline because church income dropped by 25%, whereas the gross income of the congregation dropped by 50%?

      If the local population increases by 10% per year, but the congregation increases by 5%, is the congregation growing, or declining?

      Likewise, if the church income goes up by 10%, but gross income of the congregation goes up by 40%, is the church growing, or in decline?

      I’d suggest that the first church — the one with the revenue decrease and numbers decrease, is growing more than the church with the revenue and number increase, because the latter, by failing to keep up with the local population, is a church that is dying.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Your point is true in many cases, Jason — and difficult to admit. Thanks for your input.

  • Some people tragically believe that the most faithful will remain and the rest who left turned away from God. Never mind that some died, moved away, went to college, etc. and did not turn away from God. Thus, the congregation of fewer is full of stronger Christians.

    Also, I believe some see growth as a loss of power held by the old families and thus, when shrinking but able to pay the bills, can produce a consolidation of power.

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