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

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92 Comments

  • Carolyn Benesh says on

    I am there as well. The church I pastor runs 3 in attendance on a fairly regular basis. Once in a while, we have a couple of others but it is dead and needs to close. It has split several times. Very discouraging.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Ron –

    I am a strong advocate on church replants. In October, Jonathan and I will begin a second and new podcast called “Revitalize and Replant.” I think you will find the resources and information helpful. Please join us.

    • Another Anonymous Mark says on

      Sounds good Thom. I look forward to it. We can’t let the facilities and access of the many churches that are dying pass out into the “world”.

  • It is heartbreaking to hear a church claim that they want to grow and to change and yet unwilling to do anything about it. I have been in some of these dying churches for years and God has used me to bring some fire into the pulpit and see lives saved and yes…some transformed but most are unwilling to do what is needed to actually grow. No, I am not bragging nor boasting about me, it is all about God, and each of us willing for Him to work through us–if we make ourselves available! Sadly, most churches do not want to do so.
    When I came to my present church family, they had not had any growth in years…not one soul saved or added to the church rolls (over 5 years). In the past year, we have had 10 and it is not enough for them. They have not had any outreach, no guest/visit contact in years, and yet when I tried encouraging them to start doing something/anything, they grumble. Each item suggested, I hear; “we do not do it that way” or “we have always done it this way before”. One would think if whatever one has done & with no results and was done repeatedly; why would you want to continue doing that task. It confuses me why so many churches want to do things with no or little results only to please themselves. Yet, blame their pastor when things do not work out as they like! I do understand, that some pastors create problems too!
    Each thing that we do to move forward is met only with resistance and they insist that is not what they have always done in the past. Apparently, nothing was done and that made them happy and content. Churches that die, have a reason for that death…unwilling to change and unwilling to do something–anything! Not only are most unwilling to do much of anything to grow, they are unwilling to what they must to retain the people that they have! Most churches have lost their purpose, it is about God’s Kingdom not ours! Most are not only dying but bleeding to death with too few un-willing to do anything about it.
    I am not upset nor am I grumbling, it breaks my heart. God is not being glorified and it is because of our slothfulness and lack of love to & for Him and the lost! The church is dying because we have fallen asleep!
    I am not saying that there is no hope because hope is always there. Churches need to wake up and get busy putting God and His kingdom first! They need to get busy serving God and sharing the gospel and teaching others to live for Him! I am unsure if the church is willing to re-discover their first love–Jesus Christ!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      So true.

    • Sheryl S Douglas says on

      You are the first one, all the way from the article through the comments that mentions Jesus Christ! We have nothing if we don’t have Him! It’s all about Jesus & the great commission! Add the Holy Spirit who was sent when Jesus went to Heaven. Most churches quench Him instead of welcoming Him. If the Holy Spirit is not welcomed the church falls, & two churches that I know of who quenched the Holy Spirit are gone & not even the buildings stand! Without evangelism & newborns in the kingdom by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the church doesn’t grow. The church’s job nor the individual’s is being considered when a church fails. It’s not about a building, it’s not about a TV screen, it’s not about hymns vs contemporary songs, It’s not about old people vs young, but about presenting Jesus. His ministry was to reconcile & restore us to God. The Holy Spirit is about helping Jesus ‘s body of believers do that now! We need His power to accomplish that, but Christians in dying churches are not recognizing that need!

      • Freddie says on

        Sheryl I totally agree with your comment. It’s about seeking and saving the lost; restoring those who have left the faith; and rebuilding the broken. The Holy Spirit empowers; leads; guides, directs and teaches. Without the Him the church will not be effective witness of Jesus Christ.

  • I was an associate pastor of a 800 member church and left to Pastor a dying church of less than 50 in a very rural area. 18 months later we are seeing the wheels of change, a level of excitement not seen in Years and growth in families joining and baptism.
    Pastors, you must lead with prayer, vision, and hard work behind the scenes. Stop complaining about your sheep and love them.
    Thom, I am documenting this Journey and would love to speak with you in the future. I have a heart for small rural churches as this is where I came from and it breaks my heart to see them closing.

  • Truer words were never spoke. However God can heal a dying church if they are willing to focus outwardly instead of inwardly.
    I know because I am pastoring a church that was on life support. They knew something had to change with only 12 remaking members.
    It has been 2 years now and the revitalization is stunning.
    The church focus is now directed toward the community, not their personal needs.
    The sanctuary has been remodeled and now can seat 150, all with sweat equity from the old and new members.
    The student ministry has gone from three students two years ago to nineteen, infant through middle school, five committed lives to Christ and baptized.
    And church is now financially healthy and excitement has returned.

  • It is tough. I am pastoring a fifth generation church that is only slightly less introverted that it was when I arrived four years ago. I have to sadly chuckle at Brian’s Singspiration comments. Mine say we can turn it all around if we just host a southern gospel singing one Sunday afternoon.

    Witness to someone…why do we need to do that? We’ll just call the last 25 people who left and get them back. We can survive on transplants…converts are a little dangerous aren’t they?

    I had to have braces in my late my late 20s after having my wisdom teeth extracted. Every orthodontist appointment I stared at a Looney Toons seri cell of Wile E Coyote stating the definition of insanity. I guess that is why I am in this mood today. I know I am getting ready for prayer and Bible study tonight knowing that most of my people will not truly respond to God’s will.

    Sorry for sounding harsh. This post hits home…all six of them.

  • Ron Swindall says on

    I’m perplexed with this whole issue of dying churches. If churches didn’t die – wouldn’t the Church of Corinth and Ephesus still be here? I’m not sure that churches should die, but if they are not fulfilling the great commission – aren’t they only a shell of a church?

    I am serving as an Interim Pastor at a church that is very weak. I don’t think they will make it. So, should our focus be on “dying with dignity” and working toward leaving a plan that would utilize the assets of the church to the work of the Kingdom?

    What options are available for a church on life-support?

  • Your blunt assessment and prophetic words are a necessary word for today’s church. I grieve for those churches and especially their pastors.

    Thank you.

  • Lara Hayes says on

    Fantastic post, and I agree wholeheartedly. My parents attend a dying church, and my parents — especially my 73-year-old mom — are defiantly resistant to change. She thinks, and I quote, “Putting up big screens in a church for song lyrics and Bible verses is of the devil. It’s Rick Warren’s fault. That man is Satanic.” Changing the methods but not the message? Absolutely NOT. If it’s not like when she grew up, it’s baaaaaaaaad. Drives me crazy.

    I’ve seen churches so entrenched in their ways that they make their choir COME TO PRACTICE dressed in their Sunday finest! And if anyone dares to step in the front door not dressed to the nines, they’re tossed out.

    **Side note: I did find a small error. I think you either meant “These churches aren’t increasing in number” or “These churches are decreasing in number” instead of “These churches are increasing in number.”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Lara –

      I did mean to say the dying churches are increasing in number.

      • Lara, “These churches are increasing in numbers” means that there are a larger number of dying churches then previously, not that the dying churches are getting larger. The first time I read it I thought the same as you did.

      • Lara Hayes says on

        Ahhh OK. Thanks. Yeah, I didn’t even think about it in that context.

  • They would rather die than pass the reins to a new group of leaders. There are many qualified people who will not be allowed to enter church leadership because they do not agree with the current leaders 100% and pass all litmus tests.

    They will not risk going to hell for having changed anything. Some churches believe that one’s salvation depends on getting the church structure and worship right.

  • I am there now. Their number is down to a few, they live in the past. Their solution is to go back to the past. Community outreach? “Let’s have a singsipration!” Reaching the lost? “We don’t know any lost people. They need to come. Maybe they’ll come to a singspiration!” Even trying to guide their prayers for God to move in this matter goes off the rails.

    No matter what I try to teach them about how the community, how it has changed, how they view the church, and how we need to reach them with that in view, they still want to play church, circa 1976. And that will not work.

    My heart breaks for these sweet people, and for the church.

  • Words have never been more true. I currently attend a dying church. The main group has been there for ten years, and since I left a decade ago and came back I cannot see any big wins for the church. It still runs about 40 or so, still stuck in the old ways. I was asked to become a deacon and to be honest I’m torn. One the one hand I think God can use this as an opportunity to light some fire and passion for change, but on the other will the congregation listen to me if they haven’t been listening to the pastor for the past nine years.

    Dr. Rainer as always you have a gift of insight. Thank you, I hope this blog serves as inspiration for pastors and lay leader, but also is the catalyst that causes much needed change.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Alex. I am taking a few moments to pray for you and your church.

    • I understand your feeling. I attend a church that as only about 20 if lucky. The only kids is the Pastors son. we had teenagers, but when the person they came with stopped coming due to health reasons, they stopped coming also. There is no soul winning anymore and that is what brought people into the church. sure you can pray for more people to come, but you need to go out into the community and bring people in by soul winning.

    • A man goes to the doctor because he is sick. The doctor tells him he has early signs of cancer and early signs of diabetes. This man has done nothing but sleep, work, and eat whatever he wanted for years. Now his health is critical and he must make some lifestyle changes. The man refuses. He desires medicine or surgery to fix the sickness rather than exercise discipline and change his habits. He wants to do anything to stay alive, to live a little longer…anything but to eat right and exercise. He will eventually die because he refuses to change. This sums up dying churches. They don’t want exercise (Holy Spirit filling) and to eat right (reading the Bible and obey it). They want medicine or surgery instead. The church will die because of a refusal to change. This is why men are planting new churches. Church plants are the new direction for overcoming the death of existing churches. Let them die I say. Let new life begin in new churches.

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