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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  • Can you go into greater detail and explain what this statement means? Thank you.
    “If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church.”

  • Our church needs help. Three years ago there was an ugly split. Why cane the past be left behind so we can move forward three years later? The main “conspirators “ have left. However we hear strong words about what we are doing wing in sermon after sermon with the warning , What if the rapture had come ? How can you be filled with the Holy Ghost and live such a dirty, double life? The Lord showed me some of you who conspired …. on and on. Help please

  • i too got up in the middle of the night concerned about my dying church and have found strength and sadness here. I’ve been searching through the internet to find recommendations, ideas, and experiences that others are having and doing. I moved to my area 2+ years ago and started going to my local parish, a small country church. At 53, I’m usually one of the youngest there on a consistent basis. Most are in their 70’s and 80’s. We have a few young families, but they rarely come. They’re kind people and have taken me in quite sweetly. I’ve already been treasurer and am now on the vestry. This has much to due with desperation for a doer as with trust and acceptance. They’ve had a supply priest for years – not a full time rector. She’s 75 and retired, so a reflection of the congregation. So, we don’t have strong traditional leadership. The average Sunday is now about 10-15 from 22-25 when is started 2 years ago. We also have frequent deaths, which is a harder and harder punch to us. It’s not that folks don’t see what is happening, but they can’t see how to change course. It’s like we’ll keep doing church for church sake until we don’t. In the sermons our priest tries to get us to understand that we have to take Christ and His love outside, not just do a bunch of navel gazing. I, too, sometimes get this urge to bolt and go down to the city with the big high mass church with ministry in bible study, prayer, community outreach, and diversity. But, I believe as someone else said here, that our communities should not be left with voids. However, it’s hard to see how this gets better. Most just want to ride in the cart, there are very few to pull, and many of the ones pulling only want to busy themselves with the administrative functions and challenges. I know, that loving ourselves in Christ and taking the love and grace of Christ to a lonely, hurting community is the way, and am praying and searching for how Christ can help use me.

  • Pst Emmanuel Ojah says on

    I am a newly licensed pastor, fresh from the college and posted to be inchargei of two completely death churches with doors closed for many years. All i have been praying is that God should give me ideas on how to revitalize these churches. Sir, i’m much happy about your post. That means there is much hope even in a supposed hopeless situation. Thanks so much, need more of your support. Pls could i be link to any foreign partner? God bless u

  • Blanche Quizno says on

    Hi, Thom. It’s me again. Strong atheist, can’t believe in any of that supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Just interested in the practical issues surrounding Christianity’s decline in the West generally and specifically in the US. I’m sorry to say I’m a bit disappointed in your article, because I was hoping to see some research on how the average age of the congregation affects church viability. My own hypothesis is that, once the average age skews over 40, the church is on a death march. See, different age groups have different needs, and Christians overwhelmingly come to church to get their *own* needs met, not to meet others’ needs. As Dr. Jeffrey K. Hadden found in the late 1960s:

    Clergy have come to see the church as an institution for challenging man to new hopes and new visions of a better world. Laity on the other hand, are in large part committed to the view that the church should be a source of comfort for them in a troubled world. They are essentially consumers rather than producers of the church’s love and concern for the world, and the large majority deeply resent clergymen’s efforts to remake the church. … Innovative clergy have been systematically separated from the parish pastorate. Jeffrey K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches: The Widening Gap Between Clergy and Laymen, p. 206-207 [Hadden 1969:85, 206-7]

    The same concept is echoed in sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 book, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”:

    As we have seen, the organization of American religion encourages religious groups to cater to people’s existing preferences, rather than their ideal callings. The congregation often looks to religion not as an external force that places radical demands on their lives, but rather as a way to fulfill their needs. Those who are successful in the world, those of adequate or abundant means, those in positions of power (whether they are aware of this power or not), rarely come to church to have their social and economic positions altered.

    If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. – p. 164

    So this aging generational cohort is going to want to hear sermons focused on THEIR interests and priorities, which aren’t those of the younger generations. Plus, people tend to want to join groups that look like themselves, so a 20-something will walk in, see that virtually all the congregants are middle aged or older (and STARING at him/her), and then walk right back out. So it’s a very difficult problem to resolve, just from looking at the basics of social affinity.

    I’ll keep looking for relevant research somewhere else, thanks.

  • Michael Maddox says on

    I woke up at 3am thinking about how to save our church and praying.I think God brought me to this website. I can feel the love of the people here and also the frustration with our shrinking churches. Still I’m somehow encouraged by reading these comments. Bless all of you for taking the time to write them. It’s funny, we never know who we will touch just by talking about our Lord. I guess we just have to keep talking. Jesus is awesome! God bless us all

  • Jonathan Fletcher says on

    Reading the commentaries fits the church I have attended my whole life well. The church started out when I was a child at least 150-200 a week. I took over the youth back in 2005 and it grew to between 10-20 each Sunday and did a lot of activities. My wife and I left the church and now that we have returned, the church is down to about 40-50 a Sunday and really no youth. I talk to the Elders and the Pastor and I sense a defeated Spirit in their comments saying “We do not cater to youth and young people” and our “Focus is not on the youth or evangelism”.
    But I see potential-there is a public high school just up the street and a Liberal Arts college a couple blocks away. God is really calling me to step up and be a leader to some capacity. I am 34 years of age and the average age of the congregation is 60. The Elders have no plan for evangelism but I am willing to take a step out and make some risks-I did it before and I think I can do it again with the strength of God. In order for the church to survive, evangelism to the community is imperative, but I do not want the undermine the “Elders and Pastor” in catering to the internal-please pray

  • Jeff Humphrey says on

    Great article. I took a dying church in 2007. All 6 of your points are spot on. I was the new vibrant pastor with years of experience ready to bring the dying church back to life. Once we moved to the new community, the existing congregation would not let me move the church forward and the they held their ground on the last five points of your article. Even the denominational advice was to preserve the older people and maintain course. That is where I should have jumped ship and move on. After 5 years, we did transform the church but it was at a HUGE personal cost, emotionally, spiritually and financially. We were so burned out we could not see the future so we left the church in stable condition but barely. In the past 2 years, there have been 2 pastors at the church and the church has gone back down to less than 10 people and is dead. Looking back, I would have done things differently. I have taken a 2.5 year sabbatical to get my head back on straight since this experience. We recently started a new home church and life is great.

  • Mark Ledbetter says on

    I am the current pastor of a church that is slowly dying. I just finished reading your book, ‘Autopsy of a Deceased Church”, and everything fits us to a tee. I have felt it was time for me to leave in hope a new leader would provide new life. Now I realize I need to stay and try to help determine, with lots of prayer and God’s guidance, a path to survival or at least death with dignity. Thank you for your insight and willingness to share the truth with all of us.

  • David Grachek says on

    I love this. Thank you, Thom. What do you do if church leaders want nothing to do with steps 2 and 3?