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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  • We’re all responsible for church decline. We all get comfortable, self-distracted or tired, for whatever reasons. Witness the pastor who works to get a sound salary, and when that finally happens, he relaxes in his work. But also witness the congregation so determined to maintain a building they can no longer afford (maybe just due to age and decline in income), that when the pastor wants to move to a “storefront” venue to save costs and also reach a needy neighborhood, the congregation insists on staying, because the costly old building is too important to them for sentimental reasons. Then witness the church leadership that’s so “youth” oriented, that anyone over the age of 40 can find no comfort or identification there. I could go on–church leadership just has to be willing to self-examine on a regular basis, assuming there is any heart for reaching those outside the doors, and self-examination is uncomfortable. On a related note, a missionary friend once told me of one area of the world where it took literally 14 years to make any breakthrough with the native people there. Perhaps there are areas of our country that are in that place now. Were the efforts made until that breakthrough a waste of time? I can’t believe so. Do we want to reach the lost with Christ? Then we will strive to do so in our homes, work places, and churches, anywhere the lost exist. If it’s more important for us to be comfortable, then that’s what we’ll work toward instead, in church or outside of it.

  • Chase Martin says on

    Until ministers or religious organizations are willing to engage directly with the growing irreligious population in the U.S., it seems to me as if churches are fighting over an ever decreasing sized pie of church goers. There are no known bloggers, youtube posters that I know of who engage this issue directly. The proselytizing evangelical movement seems to have completely abandoned the online format and the entire younger generation.

  • Matt Lawrence says on

    Many today want a personal relationship with Christ and believe he will inspire in them a desire for a personal ministry. They look to a church to facilitate that. Churches that want to fulfill this role are apt to thrive and grow.

  • When people become too lazy to reach out to the people in the local community, when focus is on themselves vs. external, then they will dwindle and die. What is even worse, when members fail to reach out to each other and it becomes a family-click, a routine drop in with family sticking with family and not caring for each other, they will absolutely shrink and die.

    • Many times people are not lazy, but very, very busy with internal activities. But as one comment said — they have lost sight of the main thing.

      Typically what the Pastor is excited about, emphasizes, and practices the church body will be excited about and practice.

  • Steve Miller says on

    When the main thing is no longer the main thing it is hard to notice it is missing. A church which is no longer operating as a disciple making Kingdom of God centered community won’t see a need for change as long as what THEY want from church is still there. When things like social friendships and moral based behavior modification self help pep talks are what the congregation wants they won’t notice things like evangelism, discipleship, leadership training, community outreach and regular ongoing repentance are missing.

  • It seems to me this article is cursing the darkness instead of lighting a candle. I don’t know about other pastors on this thread, but I tend to lose patience with people who constantly harp on problems without suggesting solutions. I fail to see what this article accomplishes other than giving people more reasons to complain.

    • You light the candle because you recognized there was darkness. If you don’t recognize the problem, it is difficult to come up with a solution.

      This list does not cast stones, but is more like a measuring tape that reveals the darkness. Problem – church is not grow. Measuring tape – are of any of these things our problem?

    • Ken:

      What this article does is to encourage intentionality. According to God’s Word we are to – “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” So are we “children of God” or just Christians? When we are born again, we are adopted into the family of God. The demands of a consumer driven multi-tasking unattached society has robbed men of close propinquity with even our brothers and sisters in Christ. This blog simply list many thoughts for reflection as we examine our own situations.

      Obviously, all local churches will rise and fall, but “the Church” will live forever. When John the Baptist was ministering to the world he had many followers. Nevertheless, John the Baptist understood that “He who comes from above is above all.” John said that his joy was made full because Jesus would increase and he would decrease. This blog reminds us that God created all men in His image and that He loves them all. Therefore, we, being a part of His family, should seek to do the same. Only God has all the answers. We just seek to please Him through obedience to His Word.

      Number 8 for example, which in my opinion should be listed 1st, because the lack of prayer is the number 1 reason churches fail, nevertheless, prayer isn’t to empower God, it is to empower us. We pray and then God uses us to accomplish His purposes. Therefore, Dr. Lawless does give a biblical solution – pray in faith and then act in boldness, relying on the promises of God, and knowing that God will answer – through you. ASK – Ask , Seek, and Knock.

  • A thought: King David counted his people in 2 Sam 24 and for doing that “foolish thing” (David’s words in retrospect), God judged the entire nation through a disease that killed 70,000. Why then are churches so obsessed with counting people? I strongly assert that growth or decline in the Kingdom of God cannot be measured by counting bodies.

    I am not suggesting that King David’s actions are an excuse for a dying church to stick their head in the sand, but I am suggesting that some of the churches that are having some of the greatest Kingdom impact globally/generationally are nowhere to be found on the “100 largest churches” list.

    can’t help but notice that Jesus was not interested in counting heads either. He was always making it hard for the crowds to stay, and easy for them to leave. “Eat my flesh, drink my blood” is just about the most offensive thing you could say to a Jewish crowd (NOT a recipe for church growth), and it in fact had Jesus’ “church” in SEVERE decline (“after that, many of His disciples no longer followed Him”). Pretty much only the 12 remained. Jesus seemingly cared more about the faith of the 12 than the headcount of the crowd.

    Paul does nothing to counter Jesus in this respect – He is always addressing the spiritual maturity of the church; never addressing the headcount. Never once does Paul give Timothy instruction on how to “grow his church” numerically.

    Even if we go back to the OT, God did more with Gideon’s 300 than He could have done with 30,000! This is seemingly an age-old God principle – that He chooses to do more with less! That way, He gets all the glory (to point #12 on this list).

    So, if the right measurement for church health is not people counting, then what is?

    I keep coming back to this: Faith is the currency of the Kingdom of God. How many times did Jesus say, “If you only have faith…”??? In fact, faith is the one thing that Jesus is looking for when He returns (Luke 18:8). …not belief. …not hope. …but FAITH. The SUBSTANCE…the EVIDENCE of an unseen, supernatural realm.

    Surely faith level is much harder to quantify than headcount…but maybe we were never meant to quantify it in the first place.

    • If counting converts is a sinful thing like King David counting the people of Israel, why then is it mentioned in Acts how many folks were added to the church after Peter shared the gospel message? I think we’re comparing apples with oranges when we try to connect the account of King David with keeping an eye on numbers in the church.

      • The reason for counting – the heart behind it – is critically important. David counted out of self pride. Luke’s report of the 3,000 saved in Acts 2 was to declare the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. It’s like when the Pharisees pray. Praying isn’t bad…but when it is done out of a motive of self promotion, it is sinful.

        If we count so that WE can assess OUR impact or to strategize on how WE will stem the decline (absent of seeking God’s divine direction and hand), we look more like 2 Sam 24 than Acts 2.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      I don’t think counting heads is the only way to measure the health of a church, but I do believe it is a biblically justifiable way. Thanks for the input, Justin.

      • So Lakewood Church must be pretty healthy, huh? …it is the largest church in America after all. 😉

        I’d like to know where the Bible justifies weekly head counting. I’ve heard pastors make this argument before and they cite the feeding of the 5,000 or the 3,000 converts at Pentecost. And to that I say, the next time God miraculously moves in your midst either through signs and wonders or an outpouring of revival…by all means, take an accurate count of everyone who was there!

      • I am a business executive at a Fortune 50 company – one of the largest in the world – and I have been a deacon at one of the “who’s who” SBC churches that enjoys being at the top of Lifeway’s list. I GET the desire to count – is is quite natural, rational and logical. It makes all the business sense in the world. But God says that His ways are higher.

        Isn’t it high time that we become the head and not the tail? …that we lead by God’s direction alone rather than the best methods our numbers can lead us to? Isn’t it high time we started building His Kingdom instead of measuring the size of ours?

  • I have served in many dead or dieing church. The prevalent issue I have noticed it that most dieing churches are afraid of change. They keep doing the same things expecting different results. I have addressed area where growth and life would help the church and they were totally unwilling to incorporate them.

  • I have been in many dieing churches, and most of the time I think the people in the church are afraid of change, or doing what is necessary for the church to revive. Even though you share with them keys to revival, or church growth, they don’t want anything to change. “You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect anything to change”!