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

  • Our church is really struggling. It seems like one by one people just found something they didn’t like, didn’t agree with, thought they could find better somewhere else and they left. The more people that left the more things declined which just caused more people to leave. When your teachers and worship team aren’t in it for the long haul – it gets harder and harder to keep the ministries strong and that deters new people and eventually causes others who are not committed to leave. Why stay and struggle through mediocre worship and classes with too wide of an age span when the church down the street has a rocking band and a high budget children’s ministry?
    I’m not jealous or envious of those churches – I just don’t understand the lack of commitment to a body of believers. We attract a lot of wounded, hurting people. Some of them get healing and leave – others get healing and stay. But many of the original ones who don’t think they need healing have left. I think they probably needed healing more than anyone.
    I’m not sure if our church will survive. We are reaching out to the poor with a community meal and a Food Pantry on a shoestring budget. Our pastor does not get paid sometimes but we still do our ministries. We are in a poor area and many of us are struggling financially. There are a small group of us who are committed. The rest show up on Sunday – sometimes – and put a check in the basket. Something has to change. We are praying.

  • Pati Hoskins says on

    I, along with the other members of the deacon body, was asked to read this by our pastor; technically our associate pastor, but he’s the only one we have left. Next year, “our” church will celebrate 200 years! Only recently have I truly begun to believe again that we would make it that far. Your six points rang true for our decreasing congregation. Fortunately, God has already begun this work, using a wonderful variety of voices to share the same message. It is not about my church still being there; it is about God’s message reaching the lost. No, I don’t know what God has planned for our church or for how long He will use it (or put up with us). I have been called to stay there and Lord willing, be a part He uses to breathe fresh life into it and to love those who are there and those who will come. It is, after all, a mission field just like ever other square inch of this planet.

  • Steve Miller says on

    I think I must be misunderstanding #6. Thom you can’t be suggesting the local church relinquishes control from the internal leadership to the incoming community. I would say there is usually a serious control problem in declining churches, but the control has to be relinquished to Jesus and his under-shepherds. The call to leadership is such a high biblical calling it can not be entered into lightly. Perhaps what you mean is the community must be offered a place in the existing congregation and any sense of ownership or a right to claim the church as “ours” must be repented of so Christ might reign uncontested as Lord and Owner of the local church.

    Thanks for all you are doing to help renovate old dying churches, you are like the Bob Vila of “This Old Church.”

  • I can so identify with the last two articles. I’ve been pastoring my church for 14 years. Up until 2 years ago we had a great thing happening with lots of young people. Then our youth pastor moved to another ministry, and God began draining the tank of all our young adult families who have also moved away. No one left angry; in fact, all of them moved because of jobs or ministries that we trained them for and now others will benefit from. But it has been painful for our church nevertheless, and those of us who remain feel like a boxer in the 9th round trying to drag himself up off the mat for just one more round of fighting. I want to step aside and let another pastor come in to help revitalize things, but God won’t let me yet. Apathy has taken a toxic grip in our midst and our prayer rooms and outreach ministries are empty. I’ve struggled with deep discouragement. These articles have been helpful. I now realize I must either allow God to use me like a Moses, or plead with Him to remove me before this church dies.

  • Buck Rogers says on

    Hi Thom
    I read your autopsy article and this article with great interest. I googled ‘my church is dying’ with a heavy heart and your blog came up. My church has been great, the ministry amazing, but it has gone through two church splits, one before we arrived, and one recently. Actually when I say split, haemorrhage is more accurate. I’m sitting there and a sense of despondency has fallen. The congregation has fallen to 30 adults from about 100, the pastor now has to work full time to pay the bills, so for the first time he rolled up on a Sunday morning with no message. I love this place and it hurts me just to write this. The church has land but can’t afford to build on it, so rents but barely can afford the rent. It’s like a catch 22 situation. The ‘community’ is elderly, white and affluent. The church is only white!.
    Not after any answers, the end is enviable, but I foiund your article very interesting.
    Hoping we’re that one church in a 1000

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Buck –

      I prayed for your church this morning, and I also prayed for you. With God, all things are possible . . .

  • Good article! I believe the same steps are applicable for declining/dying denominations. Lord knows that the Southern Baptist Convention is struggling right now! Drawing from the advice you provide:

    1. The SBC needs an anointed leader to step forward with a clear trumpet sound! Not a committee, but a leader! Not someone who organizes, but someone who agonizes before the Lord for a word for the season we are in … to call us back to evangelism and mission as one man and one heart before God.

    2. The majority of Southern Baptists, in pulpit and pew, need to humble themselves, pray, repent and seek God. We are wading deeper into a new season. Darkness is expanding and we are largely unprepared to confront it. Agendas and programs will not do it. We must return to God and join Him in His work, not ours.

    3. Widespread repentance is the call of the hour in the SBC. “IF My People … THEN Will I” … Will we? This is a time for solemn assemblies to break out in our churches … to shelve the schedule, to pray and repent.

    4. Southern Baptists have grown too dependent on our ways, which aren’t working much these days. In our pride and arrogance, we don’t experience much of His presence. The world knows us as that bunch who is always fussing about something. Before we become a byword and reproach, we need to return to God in total dependency … to hear His voice and surrender our will to His.

    5. When we substitute doctrinal belief for personal belief, we become more devoted to promoting movements in our communities, rather than the love of Christ. That needs to stop!

    6. People control organizations. God controls His church. Southern Baptists are struggling with that right now. We need to get out of the way. Nothing short of a genuine revival will put us back on course. Pastors and teachers are fine … but we could sure use some prophets and evangelists right now!

    Brother Rainer – Praise God for the individual pastors and churches within SBC who have recognized the signs you note and are making a difference at the local level to stem this decay. I pray that our denomination will soon respond on a larger scale to shed grave clothes for spiritual armament and enter the true battle again … not against ourselves, but to confront the real enemy.

  • My church is dying but we finally have some hope. The pastor has left and we are now working to find an interim pastor to help us. Sadly, we have so many members who have moved on already. Currently there is a small group left, but we have to quit fighting among ourselves and quit saying “that person let this happen.” Many are to blame for things, even though the main culprit who put the fuel to the fire was the pastor. To me, we have to remember that all make mistakes and try to move on without adding to the drama. The church is filled with selfish people who want for themselves when it should a place where we fellowship and worship the Almighty. Please pray for us. I hope to share your words with my fellow believers.

  • Mark Light says on

    I think the problems in the church will continue unless something new happens directly from god.
    If people examine all of the available evidence it is becoming increasingly likely that Jesus is more legend than truth.
    There may be a god, but there is little evidence which would describe even which god or how many may exist.

    • Pati Hoskins says on

      Mark: It is not God who is the problem with churches – it is the servants who have forgotten who their Master is. I serve a loving, creative, wonderful Lord and Savior, whose existence is evident in every snow flake, hair of my white dog stuck to my black pants, baby’s cry, widow’s weeping. Jesus is so much more than legend; He truly is the risen Lord who is working in my life and in the lives of believers all across the earth. I pray that He will bless you and continue to reveal Himself to you.

      • Mark Light says on

        Pati: Thanks. But since I posted a few months ago I have become an Atheist. I have changed my mind about God entirely and don’t believe in it anymore.
        I do share your love of all the beautiful things you listed. But I no longer attribute these experiences to Jesus or a real God. To me these are sensations from the natural world but thanks to tradition we refer to certain cultural myths. I believe we project onto our own lives the visions our culture has handed us – which is why Muslims never doubt Allah, and Jews never doubt Yahweh. Jesus is the same.
        Something to think about.
        Thanks again for your warm sentiment, Though as an Atheist I can’t pray anymore, I do wish you all joy and happiness.

  • Thanks for the good word Thom. I’m pastoring a revitalization work outside Boston that hit so many of the autopsy warning bells. This is encouraging.