Can a Dying Church Find Life? Six Radical Steps to “Yes”

In a previous article, I presented the findings of my “autopsy” on a church that just closed its doors and died. I knew the church well because I had been their consultant ten years earlier. The only surprise I found was that the church kept its door open five years longer than I had anticipated.

The post generated much interest. Indeed it is still buzzing today. Many church leaders and laypersons saw early warning signs in the post that related to their own churches. Many are concerned. Many want to know if there is any hope.

The title of this post has a bit of irony. If a church is dying, it cannot then by definition find life.

I must say from a pure statistical perspective, most churches with the symptoms I noted will die within a matter of a few years. Though I don’t have hard data, I would be comfortable suggesting that the percentage exceeds 99 percent.

But among the American churches on a death march, there is that rare exception, that one in 1,000, that extraordinary situation where a church defies all the man-made odds and moves from near death to health. Those churches are rare, but they do exist.

In the midst of the gloomy news of terminal churches, I took a look at a few churches that had all the signs of impending death and then turned around to life. All of them of which I have knowledge were located in dramatically shifting demographics.

They weren’t merely churches that were unhealthy; they were dying. Even the most casual observer would have predicted the imminent demise of these congregations. They were truly sick unto death. So how did these churches do it?

Though each of the stories I examined has its own nuances, I did find some common themes. Please take careful note. My brief article is not a quick-fix solution to dying churches. To the contrary, it’s the story of six radical steps taken by key members in each of the churches.

  1. A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs to him. That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.
  2. A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be their sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.
  3. That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with “our kind of people.” They saw the church to be a place where their needs were met and personal preferences catered.
  4. The group must have an utter, desperate, and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they’ve always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.
  5. The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can’t assuage their guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable, and give sacrificially of time, money, and heart. The community must be amazed by these church members.
  6. The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church. This attitude is radically different than welcoming the outsiders to “our church.” It is an attitude that says it is now “your church.”

Most readers likely understand the low likelihood of such a transformation taking place. It is so rare that, when it happens, it is often given the name “miracle.”

But we serve the God of miracles. Maybe we should expect more. Maybe we should do more.

What do you think?

Posted on April 27, 2013

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Denny Fusek says on

    1, 2, 4: I agree if the radical transformation (and all items in these three paragraph) is the renewal of the mind through the Scriptures (Romans 12:2). If it is radical transformation to something else or for radical transformation’s sake, then I disagree.

    3. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a passage that discusses the church “confessing guilt”. I would never, as a pastor, encourage a church to do something that is not even found in Scripture

    5. I’m not sure if this can be supported Biblically. I don’t see this happening in any of the churches in the New Testament. Jesus said to go out and make disciples of all nations. Paul tells the churches at Galatia, Rome, Collosse, Corinth, Ephesus, and Phillipi to love one another. I don’t see where it says to go out and share our possessions with non-church members. I see where it says to teach them, but not to give stuff away to them. Also, the word “community” is misleading here. What is the community? In rural areas, it may be easy to define, but it is certainly not in places like California where 150 cities abut each other with little sense of separation of community at those city borders.

    6. Nowhere in the Bible is there an example of the church “relinquishing control” to the community. In fact, I would say that this is patently unbiblical. Paul doesn’t just get a bunch of guys off the street and let them decide how to run the church. If he did, it wouldn’t be a church – it would be a social club – which is what inevitably happens to churches that let the sheep dictate how the church is run.

    • Bruce Garner says on

      On the other hand, didn’t Jesus actually pull a “bunch of guys” off the streets and with little instruction, send them out? When the 70 were sent forth, what credentials did they really have other than their love of the One who sent them forth? The early church, at least per Acts, was a community where folks didn’t even own possessions as individuals. All was owned by the church and distributed according to need. That, in itself, is a why of relinquishing control to the community. We do not “follow” a lot of the structure and form of the early church as described in Scripture. And, as I recall, Jesus did tell us to share our possessions and He didn’t specify that they had to be church members: He who has two cloaks is to give one away. And more clearly in the 25th Chapter of Matthew, near the end, Jesus is clear that when we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned and clothe the naked, we do this for Him. He is equally clear that when we fail to do these things, we have failed him. The former stand with the sheep, the later with the goats on the day of judgment. We focus on lots in Scripture that don’t warrant the time even as we neglect what we have been told is most important. Guess that might be human nature???

      • Bruce Garner says on

        Typo in the sixth line, sorry! “why” should be “way”

      • Denny Fusek says on

        Bruce – when Jesus did this, this was not the church. This was pre-church days. It may not seem like much of a difference, but since the advent of the church there have been instructions given. Leaders must not be recent converts and must be tested (1 Tim 3). We don’t hand over leadership to men off the street in the church age.

        The passages you quoted about giving away possessions taken in context:

        Jesus’ commands: pre-church age – referring to fellow Jews – not mandated for us.
        Church age in Acts: Mandated for us, but in context, it is those in the church. I can’t find anywhere in the church age where it is mandated that churches give away possessions to those in a different “community” – ie. the unchurched.

        The shepp and goats judgment is clearly a judgment on the nation of Israel when seen in context.

      • Bruce Garner says on

        I would laugh if I didn’t find this so sad. No, it was not called “the church” when the Apostles were called or when the 70 were sent. The name “Christian” wasn’t used until much later either, but I think you get the point. I have had the unfortunate experience of observing seminary trained clergy who were far less qualified or effective than folks who had a natural, dare I say, a God-given gift for ministry.

        Since the ownership of all in common by the church and the references to feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, i.e., the sheep and goats story don’t resonate, how about what Jesus said about laying up treasure for yourself on earth rather than in heaven? Churches, “the church” is neither exempt from that temptation nor immune from such temptations. Turning inward, spending all on maintenance and none on sharing the Good News, is symptomatic, at least in my opinion of yielding to that temptation.

        It’s fine to relate the sheep and goats story to judgment on Israel, but I don’t see us as exempt from its judgment. Rather, I would think we, of all people, should know better and immediately get the point.

        Quibbling over meaning, is, I suspect, also symptomatic of congregations on a death watch. When we avoid broader applicability of certain teachings, it would seem to put us in the not-so-enviable-position of the Pharisees when Jesus took them to task for missing the point and spirit of the law while insisting on the exact legalistic language of the law. On which did He place the greater value?

        Avoidance by deflection and changing the focus or the subject will not stop a decline. I don’t want to be absolutely “correct” if the consequences mean I will be the one individual left to turn out the lights and lock the door. I will indeed have missed the point of Jesus’ teachings if I land in that category.

      • Bruce Garner says on

        Technically speaking, no, there was no “church” when the Apostles were called or the 70 sent out, but there weren’t “Christians” either until much later. But I think you get the point. I’ve experienced seminary trained clergy who were far less effective than some who were clearly “called by God.” I think we all have.

        If the passages about the church holding and distributing all in common and the sheep and the goats does not resonate, then how about Jesus’ comments about not building up treasure for yourself on earth rather than in heaven. The church is neither exempt from nor immune to that temptation. Turning inward and spending all on that inward look rather than on spreading the good news would seem indicative of that problem.

        Quibbling over the applicability of this or that passage would also seem to be a symptom of a church on a death watch. I recall more than one instance of Jesus having sharp words for the Pharisees about missing the spirit and intent of the law while they clung to the letter and legality of it…they missed the point entirely.

        Perhaps the sheep and goats passage was “aimed” at Israel, but I find it difficult to not apply it to the faith we proclaim as well.

      • Denny Fusek says on

        “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” (Matt 16:18a)

        The key word there is “will”. It doesn’t exist yet at this time.

        You said, “But I think you get the point. I’ve experienced seminary trained clergy who were far less effective than some who were clearly “called by God.” I think we all have.”

        I agree. That doesn’t mean you turn the church over willy-nilly to the community though.

      • Bruce Garner says on

        Denny, after reading more of your comments, I am afraid I have to agree with JonathonG’s comment about you quibbling just to quibble. That’s not really productive for me and takes too much energy. I believe you know the point several are making but just want to argue anyway. That’s your prerogative, but I would rather engage in a more constructive and comprehensive discussion. Have a good rest of your Sunday.

    • JonathonG says on


      #3 Revelation 3:19 should give you some insight on this topic. Jesus is speaking to the Church at Laodicea, calling for the Church to repent. In context: Revelation 3:14-22 (This is that “Behold I stand at the door and knock” lesson)

      #5 Acts 2:44-47 While meeting daily in the temple and in their homes, the Church sold their “things” and gave to “anyone” who had a need. They did these things with glad and sincere hearts. Scripture records that because of their behavior, they enjoyed the favor of “all” people. When the church looks like and models the early church described in this passage, God can’t help Himself; He’ll bless that church as we see in this case. The Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved. Friend, that’s our purpose. These intentional acts of service within our community create opportunities to share the wonders and mysteries of the Gospel.

      I would argue that any church that exist solely to serve the needs of their own members is far off track, inward focused and is likely spiritually dead. Your community is right outside your front door. Jesus said to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick and shelter people. He didn’t say “but only if they are Christians or share your Zip Code and socioeconomic status”.

      #6, In context, the discussion is about a church in crisis and seeking renewal. In the spirit of this article, I think it’s fair to conclude that Thom is talking about those who claim a vested stake in or act as gatekeepers of the church relinquishing control to the new work in the existing church that God is assembling.

      I didn’t see where the suggestion was to turn the church over to the community at large and commons sense would dictate follow through on the qualifications of Elders and Deacons. God will raise up fresh leaders that will cast a fresh vision for the church. Those churches needing renewal (or resurrection) would do well to seek God’s guidance and include those God sent.

      • Denny Fusek says on

        Revelation 3 makes no mention of guilt. It makes mention that the church is to repent (turn) from their sin of lukewarmness (v. 16).

        You neglected to look at the previous verse in Acts 2 for context:
        “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. ”
        It is for believers only.

        I don;t understand what you mean when you say: “Thom is talking about those who claim a vested stake in or act as gatekeepers of the church relinquishing control to the new work in the existing church that God is assembling.”
        This line makes no sense to me. What does it mean that someone claims a vested stake in the church? What if you have a church of 40 people and then 80 Mormons come along and claim a vested stake in the church? Do they automatically get it? Because by your rationale they would if they claim it.

        That’s one reason it’s important to follow Biblical guides to church leadership, and not just let the public at large decide the fate of the church.

      • JonathonG says on

        We’re obviously not going to agree on a pretty basic biblical concept. Sin = guilt. Guilt from sin = the need to repent. So, “turning from sin” as you put it is the same as confessing guilt. In the book of Acts, the elephant n the room is the phrase ” to give to anyone in need”. As followers of Christ, we shouldn’t struggle with the meaning of sin and the meaning of the word “anyone”.

        Those claiming a vested interest in the church = a person or group of people who feel entitled to make decisions about the direction of the church simply because they have either 1)been there the longest 2)tithed the most 3)mom and dad were original members 4)insert reason here. I agree, none if this is biblical 🙂

        God is sending new people to existing churches today to help change their course. I am one of them and have seen these issues and many more. I suppose that we do read all the time about Mormons infiltrating churches and taking them over. (sarcasm). Friend, I feel you are seeking debate for the sake of debate. I’m not interested. Be blessed.

      • Denny Fusek says on

        Sin and guilt are two separate concepts and two different words in the Greek.

        As I said in a previous post: “to give to anyone in need” should be taken in context with the previous verse – which indicates it is to fellow believers – not to random members of one’s hometown.

        I’m not saying that Mormons do this, but I was using in to illustrate a point. You cannot and should not trust the church to people who are unchurched and who have little knowledge of the Word of God. The Mormon illustration is not to show what actually does happen, but what could happen should you define church leadership as “those who claim to have a stake in the church”.

    • Melissa says on

      Denny, as a lay person who recently became a church member (3 years ago) and who is vested in trying to help one of these dying churches, I am so saddened by your attitude and arguing. It hurt my heart because you are showing examples of why we are losing members. I am going to pray for you and hope God speaks to you. I will continue to follow the path He is leading me on and continue to work with my wonderful Pastor and try to save my beautiful church. God Bless You.

      • Denny Fusek says on


        Instead of being saddened by the fact that I do not agree with the majority of the people who commented on this link, why don’t you be sad about those who take the Scripture out of context?

        I was correct when I said that there is nowhere in the New Testament that commands people to confess guilt. This is an unbiblical concept.

        I was also correct when I said that there is nowhere in the New Testament that gives an example of the church relinquishing control to the community. This is also an unbiblical concept.

        If you want to be saddened, then base your sadness off of biblical principles and not emotion. So what if I don’t agree with the majority on this one? I am still in agreement with the Bible – which is what matters to me.

    • Ray Ruffin says on

      Are you open to share more about this. I am reading your post years after you posted it.

  • Greg Drummond says on

    A church I was an associate pastor of went through the death process. It exhibited much of the signs mentioned in the previous post. Now it is mostly a Sunday morning Bible study with a few remnants.

    When I was there we brought a consultant in and he talked about ‘S’ curves and ‘Rainbow’ curves. The first is about rebirth, the second is about a life cycle which ends in death. The ‘S’ curve, if it happens is a very painful and sometimes despairing process.

    But what I remember most is that the ‘Rainbow’ curve can also be seen as a natural progress of a local church. (i.e. Death, even of a specific local congregation is natural.) But this doesn’t mean that the Lord’s church won’t take other forms in the local community.

    What are you thoughts on this Thom?

  • Tom, I had the privilege to lead a church you describe for 17 years. I was appointed to Riverdale UMC in the 42 year of her decline in the 101 year of her existence. We did all and more tht you listed, relocated, changed names, killed the sacred cows and grew into Stillwater UMC. We grew from 35 elderly folks to 700 plus in worship at 3 sites. It can happen.

  • Norma Brumbaugh says on

    I read this article with interest. I know good people in good churches who are unaware of what cripples and stunts their ability to grow. That which has life in its core will be real ini its out workings.Genuine faith, with a quality of oneness with Christ, will possess a spirit so Christ-like that it will cause those who it meets to be faced with the reality of their inward person, their spiritual condition. A church that IS the hands and feet of Jesus to the world around them will be known for its love and its care. The world has become a place of pretending, that which is real, if it is REAL, will stand out.

    You might enjoy reading my blog about this subject. Holy Masquerade is its title.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I am a part of a transition team at my church where we are in an interim status seeking God’s chosen one for our new Sr. Pastor. I am praying for this radical change in our church. God is THE GOD OF MIRACLES. We must get out of ourselves in order to live sacrificially and radically for HIM.

    Blessings and Love in Him!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I love your heart Elaine. I pray that you and your church do indeed see those miracles in your church.

  • Knowing that God has called me to Pastor declining churches, revitalization is rare. The key is definitely the people and their willingness to accept responsibility for neglected ministry. One must look no further than church rolls to see 100s who have left the church w little notice. I am blessed to lead a church now that has done this and God is moving. Baptisms are at 15 year highs, attendance, finances growing year after year. Now the church has chosen to merge w another established church, relocate and relaunch as a newly formed church. God is good. Great article.

  • JonathonG says on

    Wow, thanks for this, I was tempted to declare defeat in a work God called me to. This confirms all I was sent to say and do and gives me a measure of peace in the matter.

    I spent and entire year ministering to and getting into the lives of the people in a dying church. This church has been dying a slow death for years. To your six points: 1)Unwilling – too risky 2)Doesn’t recognize reality, or accept the truth when it is made plain. 3)Feel they have done nothing wrong and the decline is “natural” due to a changing community. 4)The church is in one of the most affluent communities in America. Apparently no need to trust God for what they think they can provide themselves. 5)Overall, stuck in the “Come and see” mentality, although a few seem understand they are called to “Go and Be”. 6)”Control” is their middle name. Unfortunately, democratic denominational leadership is the Gatekeeper for the purpose and mission of the Church.

    I pressed the six points above consistently and in love, but In the end I was marginalized, rejected and all but cast out. However, it was never about me. I will pray and watch from a distance because I love these people. I know that God loves them more than I do and that He is capable of anything.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jonathon –

      I am thankful you have the maturity to realize it’s not about you. Indeed it’s spiritual warfare. I love you’d heart: you keep loving those people, even if from afar.

    • Jonathan,

      There is one word to describe success as a Pastor… Obedience. Obedience to God’s call sometimes results in death, sometimes in life. Obedient faith to God’s call puts that person in God’s hall of faith. Check out the dramatic turn 1/2 way through Hebrews 11:35 in the context of 11:32-40! Whether a man rides the wave of God’s blessing OR lives in caves during ministry, BOTH are in His hall of faith. BLESS YOU!

  • Thom,

    Great stuff!
    God has Fellowship in this place now. In January I was called to come and be a part of this body and pastor them through transition / Church Revitalization. I am thankful the body was open to God’s prompting that death was coming without surrendering control from man to God. Our area has seen 147% growth while the church declined to less than 40.
    May we reach our surrounding and across the world with the GOOD NEWS of JESUS. I pray that we become disciples making disciples.

    Thank you for serving King Jesus,

  • I would so love to be a part of the church you just described! What a powerful display of God it would be to do life with a group of believers who were this serious about letting God work on His own behalf through yeilded vessels. My favorite expression in this post was the last one, “It is an attitude that says it is now ‘your church.'” Even though the expression is made toward the people of the community, it is no less an expression directed to God at the same time. It makes me want to go find a dying church and start the process!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I feel the same way Steve. What a joy that would be in our fourth quarter of life.

      • Frank Compton says on

        I might know just the place, just the church

      • I know of a church a beautiful little church that is in much need of love and to be brought back to life…..In fact I feel it’s part of my call from God to try and help this church come back from the brink of certain death and to thrive once more in the community with new life……….

      • Faithful Sinner says on

        I also know a church in need of love and I too feel a calling from God to save the church in which I was baptized, received first communion, was confirmed, and married. My parents and my wife’s parents were both married there, my grandparents married there, needless to say I have a deep history there and maybe it’s selfishness and just my holding on to an earthly “place” but I think it’s more than that. It’s easy to feel sad for others whose churches close their doors and to be sympathetic without really being affected because, well, at least it’s not MY church. But one here, one there, 5 more, 10 more, and soon God’s word is heard by fewer and fewer people. I’ll admit, I’ve had issues with the concept of organized religion over the past 10-15 years because I feel many of us have fallen away from TRUTH. Maybe this is why so many of our churches are “dying’; we’re feeding them poison and expecting them to thrive. I think that is the 7th point that is missing above. We have to return to the truth. God has not changed since before time. The scriptures have not changed since they were written. The only thing that has changed is us, our culture, and our “interpretations”. We need to place truth back in our churches and our pulpits, regardless of denomination. People want order in this world full of chaos and that does not come from changing the Word to fit our needs or our human desires. Rather, it comes from an unchanging God who has always been there and will always be there regardless of which buildings close. People want the Truth. They don’t want to hear about unicorns and pixie dust and that everyone goes to Heaven no matter what. If we profess Truth, people will come back. Maybe THAT is the most radical step of all: Return to truth. As difficult as it may be to hear at times, people will respect it and they will return.

      • Jim Martel says on

        Everybody likes to believe they have the truth. When the church thinks they alone have the truth, it does more to divide the church and alienate people from attending than help it.

        You say “return to truth.” What truth? Every church has a different truth! Is there really a trinity? Is OSAS truth? What is the intermediate state? Is there really a rapture before tribulation? Amil – Pre-mil? Dispensationalism – or NOT? Predestination – or not? Baptism – baby – emersion- does it save you?

        There are very few damnable heresies in Christianity. There is one absolute truth in Christianity and that is Christ life, death in crucifixion, and His and our resurrection. Everything else is subjective and doesn’t save or condemn people or revive a church.

      • Brandin E Newsome says on

        Hello. There is a small church here in town that is really
        Struggling. The
        Pastor does have their ways and that is a part of the reason that the church is going through. There are a couple of ministers that I know that has gone back over there to try and help the church and the Pastor get the church back right. I strongly feel the call to go also. But my wife is against it. Not sure what to do..

    • I have a question, when you say, let them have control of the Church what do that mean. What if what they do goes completely against the Bible?

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