Why Dying Churches Die

The doctor told my dad he was dying.

Our family physician was a kind man, a true friend of the family. But he was firm. Dad was on the short path to death.

My father, then 58 years old, had been smoking for four decades. I suppose his time in the military in World War II proved to be the primary impetus to his taking on the bad habit. His peers smoked. There were hardly any voices suggesting the evils of smoking then. And it proved to be a relief and escape from the ravages of war he witnessed day after day.

To be clear, our doctor had not declared to my dad that he was terminal. At this point, there was no cancer present. The only sign was an early onset of emphysema.

But the kind physician could see all the signs. Dad had to make major and dramatic changes or he would die within a few years. Indeed, it might already be too late regardless of any changes he made. He never stopped smoking.

Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 61. He died one month after his 62nd birthday.

Many churches are dying.

Some are so sick that they are a few years, perhaps just months, from death. But too many refuse to do anything. Any potential and dramatic turnaround will not take place because these churches do nothing.

Why? Why do these dying churches walk resolutely down the path of death? Why don’t they attempt something dramatic, something bold? I have worked with too many of these churches. Allow me to share six common responses to these questions.

  1. They refuse to admit they are sick, very sick. I have worked with churches whose attendance has declined by over 80 percent. They have no gospel witness in the community. They have not seen a person come to Christ in two decades. But they say they are fine. They say nothing is wrong.
  2. They are still waiting on the “magic bullet” pastor. They reason, if only we could find the right pastor, we would be fine. But they bring in pastor after pastor. Each leaves after a short-term stint, frustrated that the congregation was so entrenched in its ways. So the church starts the search again for the magic bullet pastor.
  3. They fail to accept responsibility. I recently met with the remaining members of a dying church. Their plight was the community’s fault. Those people should be coming to their church. It was the previous five pastors’ fault. Or it was the fault of culture. If everything returned to the Bible belt mentality of decades earlier, we would be fine.
  4. They are not willing to change . . . at all. A friend asked me to meet with the remaining members of a dying church. These members were giddy with excitement. They viewed me as the great salvific hope for their congregation. But my blunt assessment was not pleasing to them, especially when I talked about change. Finally, one member asked if they would have to look at the words of a hymn on a screen instead of a hymnal if they made changes. I stood in stunned silence, and soon walked away from the church that would close its doors six months later.
  5. Their “solutions” are all inwardly focused. They don’t want to talk about reaching the ethnically changing community. They want to know how they can make church more comfortable and palatable for the remnant of members.
  6. They desire to return to 1985. Or 1972. Or 1965. Or 1959. Those were the good old days. If we could just do church like we did then, everything would be fine.

These churches are increasing in number. Culture indeed has little patience with a me-focused congregation, much less so than, say, 15 years ago.

Is there hope for these churches? Will these dying congregations indeed die?

I have seen God intervene a few times in such situations. But, in every case, the church has turned its face to Him, and forsaken all of their own preferences, desires, and human-centered traditions.

But most dying churches will die.

I pray that your church, if it is indeed on the path to death, will be the rare exception, to the glory of God.

Posted on August 9, 2017

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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  • I pastor a small church that runs around 40 to 50 in attendance and the majority is seniors. The membership does not deal with change very well, but they are connected spiritually. I believe the church that can make a difference in today’s culture is a loving, spirit led pastor and congregation with a vision for the lost.

  • So this blog really begs the question, how do we help church die with dignity? Plus, why has the church elevated such a group of leaders who value the core rather than the fringe?

  • Ron Stauffer says on

    Old Israel followed “the same pattern,” of National Cultural Destruction – over and over and over and it never learned “one thing” from all of its History!!!

    Old Israel is referred to as a: continual back-sliding people!!!

    The American Church has fared – no better and today – it is 98% dead!!!

    It died “on the road,” of The Easy Believability – three generations ago!!!

    Those who are still willing-to-learn can go to @2nd Thess. Chapter 2!!!

    Here – Paul is teaching re The Great Falling Away!!! The American Church has been – in The Great Falling Away since 1962!!!

    This is when the so-called Supreme Court – had “a stacked deck” waiting for The Engel

    (the pagan) VS Vitale Case!!! The Supreme Court, at this time, wrote Jesus – it’s Bill of Divorcement by illegally-legally tossing Jesus, out of America’s Front Door – as if HE WAS “some smelly sack of garbage!!

    That generation of Americans, co-signed Jesus’ “divorce from America,” via their default of not “lifting a finger,” and still – even thru today – The American Church has not lifted – a finger – against any aspect of the man-made “Institutionalized evil ” that has claimed The American Land!!! Institutionalized Evil is – Evil that is protected by – The Amerian Government!!!

    “We,” just cannot remember that HE Told “us” that – there would only be a FEW!!!

    The Revelation Beast i.e. The Roman-Pagan Government-Church – will be turned loose soon – when Jesus terminates “his hindering”!!! 2nd Thess. – Chapter 2!!!

    We have Truly-Earned – “the payday” that is – coming, our way!!!

  • i have a southern gospel quartet in our church the leadership wanted only contemporary music so we left and started a nursery home ministry on sat and sun . when we left some left to, i support all types of gospel singing . we are very happy ministering to those forgotten people. most churches dont support nursery home ministry. i had a pastor say why do them they cant do anything for us. there is unsaved people in them and others need to be up lifted so we take the gospel of jesus christ to them and where ever god calls us and we dont sing for money. our rewards are waiting for us in heaven. all the things you pointed out apply to our church. i love them and pray for them

  • Churck Cossey says on

    I realize this is a late post. My wife and I have joined a dying church. The bi-vocational pastor realized the church needed leadership he could not provide because of demands from his business and resigned. We were hopeful we would be workers to help the church. Now I am proceeding to try to get the church to assess its health and their desire for what they want for the church. It appears most are satisfied with being a family chapel as long as they have a preacher rather than being the church with a pastor leading them to reach the lost.

    I agree that a return to health requires change. My question is what do you mean by change? I do not agree that a healthy church is determined by large attendance, entertaining contemporary music, and sermons that don’t make people uncomfortable. I do not agree with the “seeker friendly” church concept. I find contemporary worship with praise teams and emotional songs absent of substance and sound doctrine offensive.

    I believe a return to health can be accomplished when there is sound expository preaching, even if the Word makes us uncomfortable. I believe a church can become healthy if a traditional style of worship with hymns is the format. I think it is essential to remember the church is not for lost people. It is those called out and are saved. Then the church is called to go and reach out to the community, witness, and minister. They utilize their spiritual gifts. Even after turning their attention outward, their numbers may not increase. The people they reach may choose to attend another church. My view is revitalization means the members are edified, they are equipped to do the work of the Lord, and the results are left up to God.

    Am I wrong?

  • Now with approximately 20 people who physically attend church including children and not counting the home bound I’ve been asked to help with two support groups. I’m so grateful and I pray that God will lend to us some of His ideas to rebuild the Church. I have some ideas that I tried to share with members of our Church since the late 1980’s but was ignored or given a lame excuse as to why my ideas did not seem fit to a select group of leaders. Those same leaders, what’s left of them, are still the first and final word of the church. Racism is evident but you can’t tell them that. I have attended a few churches…each with their own method of ‘bringing in the sheaves’ and have introduced the use of teaching straight from the Bible and singing songs that are updated vs singing songs that Grandma liked. I’m asking for your prayerful support to try and bring in anyone who wants to hear the word of God in our mostly Hispanic/Catholic neighborhood and recovering substance abuse ppl. I haven’t the foggiest idea how Yahweh will make Himself very real to those who have their excuses for not going to church or studying the Bible, but I can’t hardly wait to see His magic. Please pray for our Church.

  • Skip Johnson says on

    Do churches have “lifespans”? As the “body” of Christ do they age and die? Perhaps resurrecting in new forms, but changing dramatically. We are also dealing with cultural trends that heavily shape the church in the 21st century. Our church was designed to be a neighborhood church that you walk to, yet those days are decades ago now. The members who walked have moved away. The physical plant of our building is old and does not reflect the upscale look of the neighborhood and so is not attractive to the visitors who come. We live in interesting times when the future of the church, at least in the U.S. is unclear.

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