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

April 27, 2013
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UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

In an blogpost earlier this week, 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 blogpost 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?

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85 Comments

  • J I Wittmer says on

    About 2 1/2 years ago I moved to a small town where my mother and grandmother lived. I expected to join the 1st church but Papa (God) had something else for me. The small church I joined had about thirty to forty people on Sunday morning and less than twenty on Sunday night. Side note this is one of the few churched in town with Sunday night church. The core group was less than ten and the age was sixty plus. The Pastor realized that this church was headed to death row. He has prayed and followed Papa to turn this church around. The church has added several young families and it showing signs of moving forward. The core group is now about fifteen. The leadership is in agreement that we just depend on Papa. The core group also understands the sin and professed our quit. We have a prayer meeting on Thursday only a few come. It breaks my heart; we need the fifteen to be with us (only two work) in prayer. We are working (with Papa’s help) on outreach with love. We have given up control to Papa.
    The lack of attendance at the prayer meeting troubles me. Those of us who do come ask Papa to put the need for the core group to join together in prayer on the hearts of the entire congregation. Pastor has taught “Sharing you faith without fear” and more studies are planned. The church is on the truelift.org website. Staff prays each morning. We are members of the county Ministerial Alliance (a group of clergy, minister, chaplain, and pastor within the county who meet to unite in Christ).
    The process is slow. I pray Papa will turn this small body of Christ around to life. Pray with me and our small group for this church.

    • M. Ann says on

      Christ is with you.

      When so few turn out faithfully, it is discouraging. When your most faithful members are aging with failing health, the congregation loses its stamina for ever new programs, even when willing. If some of the most faithful are also erratic, controlling, judgemental, and temperamental, it can thwart the most loving person and terrify those with lesser love. Yet we are God’s motley crew and called to minister to each other just as to strangers. Especially those who need love the most.

      I was part of such a congregation. I love them dearly, and my husband served them wholeheartedly. We never gave up on them, but left when we saw that they would not and could not make real change if we stayed. Despite years of attendance of 15 to 30 each Sunday, they had been unwilling to merge with a nearby like-minded church. No one wanted to give up their building. In fact, despite their small size, they kept enlarging and improving theirs, a beautiful underutilized building. Neither congregation wanted to share their pastor, or give up the prime time for their service, much less worship together, even with a theologically compatible congregation. Now both churches lost their pastors and are finally considering joining forces.

      Joining congregations may turn out to be a bandaid, not the solution. Demographics matter. We can’t bring young families and children in when they are moving away for work. But the retired folks who can’t afford to move or don’t need to, still need fellowship, devotion, to be ministered to and to minister to others.

      I am so glad for you that you are meeting in prayer. Be thankful for the faithful devoted members of Christ’s body you have. Celebrate Christ together, and keep holding each other and your community in prayer. Wherever God leads, then act, and let God provide the resources. It depends on God, not you. God wants our faithfulness, the rest is up to him. I love that small town, that congregation. I know God will use them just as he will use your church, and that God’s measure of success is different from ours.

  • David L. Barnes says on

    There is another way to bring revitalization to a dying church. Just last year, I was asked to leave my eighteen -year position as the Kids Pastor of a mega church to become the pastor of our church’s first multisite. A church about 15 miles away from us was dying and facing closing very shortly. The pastor at the church knew it was coming and knew he was leaving, but felt there had to be a better way. He was praying and seeking God about the future of the church, feeling God wanted something better than the demise of the church. At a minister’s meeting, he overheard me talking about our church’s desire and plan to multisite. As he continued to pray, he felt God spoke to him that the answer for the church he was pastoring to survive was to turn it over to a church like ours that had a vision to multisite and had the people and money resources to do it. He immediately contacted the denominational officials who had oversight of the dying church. They liked the idea, called our lead pastor to propose it to him, and shortly after turned the property and the church over to us. It was a smooth transition, and I wish I had the room and time to tell the stories of how the Holy Spirit was obviously orchestrating it all. The insertion of the DNA and culture of the mega church neutralized and diluted the negative past. Most of the people who had been a part of the dying church have stayed and become productive members of this revitalization. We have been there since September of last year, and already a church that had been averaging 20 or less in attendance is now consistently averaging above 150. Already we are in conversation about the need to go to two services. We have not even been able to do a launch of kid’s ministry yet due to the remodeling that had to be done on the building. Who knows what will happen when we get the facilities done and can actually market ourselves to the community.

  • Insightful and spot on. In fact, you have described our experience at Rehoboth, and we are seeing new life and a new day in this great church.

    • Someone may have mentioned this and I missed it, but here it goes. I’ve come to the conclusion that churches are like people, they have a chronological life. Some exist (By God’s design) for just a few years. Others live and thrive for 20 or more years. Some reach “old age” (100+ years). But eventually, every congregation will cease to exist as a vibrant, growing entity… just like human beings.

      And that is not a bad thing! In fact, the length of a congregation’s life is as much in God’s hands as individual human lives. Churches live, grow, and thrive according to God’s providence. Churches decline and die the same way. Just as some people are kept alive artifically, the same happens with congregations. Some are also brought back to life miraculously (According to God’s provisions).

      Just because a pastor serves a church that dies under his watch does NOT mean he failed. Succcess and growth are also to be attributed to God rather than the man He placed there. Pride over the growth of a church and a sense of failure because of a church death both are incomplete and improper self evaluations.

      My point? Wherever you are, be faithful. If the church grows, glorify God because He caused it in spite of you. If the church declines and/or dies and you have been faithful, glorify God because “He builds up and He casts down” (Jer 1:9-10; Lk 1:52).

      The matter for each pastor, in whatever ministry position, is faithfulness to God’s call. HE is in charge of the outcome… to His glory.

      • Ray Ruffin says on

        Thank you, rough day in my 9th month in of a church that was on the decline. I was very disappointed about the people being more faithful to the way they want things than to the Spirit of God. The Lord gave me a similar word as you.
        The church is growing because of God’s faithfulness.

  • Bruce H. says on

    Thom,

    These thoughts have been on my mind recently. When I began to ponder them the TV program called, “Restaurant Impossible” with Robert Irvine, came to mind. In every show he comes in and does the following:
    1. Sees an outdated interior.
    2. Watches the operation of the restaurant.
    3. Tastes the food. (usually no salt)
    4. Exposes the management problem.
    5. Exposes the employee problem.
    6. Lays out corrective measures and allows the problem people to leave or fires them. (tough to do)
    7. Remodels the interior.
    8. Trains the management and employees.
    9. Makes a new menu.
    10. Invites allot of people.

    Your points are very true. One thing many dying churches do not do is spend money on remodeling the building. I mean go debt free.

    If I was a pastor, I would ask pastors of churches around me that had a measure of success to send two (2) of their most faithful, intelligent and Spiritual families to visit and evaluate my church. About eight (8) total with babies, children, teenagers and Senior Adults. I would have them write out their findings and then I would read them to the church. If my preaching was on any of them I would read it too and repent publicly. Once that was done I would begin to push in the direction of getting the church on track. BTY, some churches are dying due to the demographic change. Instead of selling the building, they should get a pastor that fits the demographics and help build the church until it is stable, but you don’t have to leave.

    Great Post.

  • Starting the turnaround journey. Thanks for the insights. Please pray that we can be in the 1%.
    Putting Jesus first!

  • Kim Wright says on

    Thanks Thom for another great article. I agree with you on all parts. I was part of a dying church for several years when we lived in Texas, before our Pastor passed away of cancer. I know that they have a new Pastor now and I’ve heard things a different, but if a church is dying like you said, there isn’t much that can be done to fix it. I just wonder if the members and the Pastor of my old church have what it takes to breathe new life into their church to make it the communities church and not the church’s church?

  • I believe a dying church can be resuscitated. It is just a lot more work and sacrifice than most of us are willing to give. Sometimes it feels easier to throw in the towel and go start a new church. But the fact is, God can make all things new. I pray for our churches, our denomination. May we always find life in Christ. Amy

  • Edmond Long says on

    The most crucial is no. 1: a self-sacrificing leader.

  • What you described is possible. Six years ago we were dying not so slowly. The past six years starting at 75 people God has doubled Hope every two years. It has not been easy. There have been so many desires to jump ship but knowing this is where God has called me made it worth staying and now we’re seeing the blessings of changed lives. It’s still not easy but fun doing what God desires in every church.