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

  • I attend my home church( a rural small country church). Our weekly attendance is usually 13 to 17. Ages of members 6 members in 80s, 5 close to or are 70s. 1 who is 60 1 in late 50s, 2 in late 40s and 2 in 20s. No young couples or families. There are 3 other churches within 5 miles who serve the same community. Most are like us with one exception where they have seen attendance growth. How do you grow a church without young people? My husband and I are the ones in late 40s. My aunt started has started on Wednesday Night study, we are reading your book Autopsy of a Deceased Church . We’ve been praying and asking God to reveal to us what we can do to help our church grow again. We plan on creating classrooms for children those we presently have no children.

  • Ken Smith says on

    Thom, I once visited a dying church about 15 years ago and was asked to come back and help the church start growing again. I felt as though I was being asked to get on board a sinking ship. I didn’t return, and the church closed its doors about two months later.

    There must be some way for churches to overcome this “sinking ship” perception, but I don’t know the answer. I suppose that is why many of these churches enter into a death spiral and find it hard to climb upward.

    • So true Ken. That is why many like Thom and myself come alongside churches that are looking to expand their kingdom influence and help them be adopt struggling congregations and become refocused on kingdom impact. The message for dying churches is do not waste your resources…invest them with a church that is expanding to see Christ honored.

  • Laura K. says on

    I’m not sure if my church is dying but I do know changes need to be made. The schedule of Wednesday night activities for fall was just released. Not a single Bible study! Yoga, Weight Watchers, ballroom dancing and a “girlfriends group” for young mothers. Oh please! There’s nothing wrong with these activities but we need a Bible study! Might as well cross out the word “church” on the door and write in “social club”.

    • Buck Godwin says on

      Churches today have become entertainment centers focusing on young “performers”.
      Most churches are supported primarily by senior tithers. We seniors want trained bible study teachers but we are being force fed no-talent “musical” performers of no message music.

  • robert gilbert says on

    It is all about weeks.

    The genesis week is still going although God is sleeping or maybe dead, but he does not sleep like we sleep. When he wakes up, 8th day. The message was clear, God is almighty.

    Ark of Covenant Week . . . it ended and we were left with a message although we still try to put God back in a box. The message was God is holy.

    Temple week. it ended and we were again left with a message. We still try to put God in a box. The message was God is worshipped in spirit and truth.

    Immanuel week. it ended and we were again left with a message. We still try to put the baby under the tree. The message was God is with us.

    Passion week. it ended and we were again left with a message and a whole new picture with an 8th day. We still try to hang him on the cross. The message was God can be touched.

    Pentecost week. it sort of ended. We forgot where the temple is. We still try to put everything in perspective of nature. We really like nature today. We try to put everyone under the law. We love the law. We should in a way. We still try to build temples. God does not live in temples made by our hands. We love Christmas. We enjoy a great cry at the cross. We forgot that some men actually touched God. God lives where the spirit landed.

    The Spirit is living to usher in the seventh and last week that God completes, the 2nd Pentecost where the kingdom of God will be ushered in for his people.

    There are 15 weeks.
    There are 70 workers or sacrifices.
    God has 7 weeks and 7 workers
    Israel has 7 weeks and 62 workers.
    The adopted has one week and one worker.

    11 weeks are completely done to include the passion week.
    4 weeks remain.
    Genesis week which has a milisecond left or a 1000 years. Which ever is longer.
    Benjamin week has 3 hours left or about 167 years. It depends on when Abraham was born.
    The 2nd Pentecost week is almost at the middle or about 52 years. It most likely began with the Jesus Movement. The spirit reveals Jesus. The Jesus Movment probably began in 1969 as the best suspect date. The week will end in 2069.

    The famous seven year week plus one. We forget the 8th day. All weeks that enter or are touched by the eternal has a 8th day. It will share the same middle point in time with the 2nd pentecost. It most like began with the giant parade across Europe in september 2015. The prince of this world gets to join the week.

    There is always hope in working with God. Remember the woman in Zarephath, in the land of Sidon.

  • Dead on! I have been part of two revitalizations. Today both churches are healthy, conservative and seeing people come to Christ! It can be done.

  • Excellent article with good insights, but two unfortunate tiny errors (not of the doctrinal or philosophical sort!) that I think take away a little from what you’re saying. First, you say “These churches are growing in numbers,” but I think you mean they are “growing in number.” The first implies their populations are rising, while the latter communicates the sad truth that more and more churches fit this description. Second, you finish with “the rare exception to the glory of God,” though of course you would not wish their church to be such an exception. I think a comma after “exception” would better communicate that, to God’s glory, you hope their church is the exception – not that their church should be excepted from his glory (which is how it could currently be read.)

    These are nit-picky copy edit things that don’t matter a wit. But you have said something so important, I hope to help you communicate it a little better. Thank you for what you shared, which is so much more important than this comment.

  • Christine Montenegro says on

    Thank you for your answer to Ron. To revitilize and replant is an alternative for our dying church. We need prayer for a large group of members that are living due to our church not willing to move just alittle to keep our doors open. Please keep us in your prayers.

  • James Lambert says on

    Often, people only talk about churches that are dying because of stubbornness, sin, or failing to try new things. Can someone please address another reality, that there are some churches that are dying because of other reasons. Reasons like population decline, death of leadership, or the fact that in some places there are 10 churches within 10 miles of each other all serving 10 people a piece? Some churches are struggling because of disobedience. Some are filled with Godly people and still struggling. They need direction to. Where do they go? What happens to the church building? How do members over 70 years of age connect to a new church family? What about those who were connected to the church but can’t attend? When the church closes, who takes care of them?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      James –

      I recently saw some amazing data. Almost 9 out 10 churches that die are in areas of growing populations. The real question is not who takes care of the members as much as who do the members take care of.

      • Those churches that are dying in growing areas are the ones that cannot relate to a new group of people. I have seen people who were not wanted in churches. They ask why they should go someplace where they aren’t wanted.

  • I met yesterday with leaders of a church whose pastor is leaving for a mission field position. We are exploring if I might be a good fit as their new pastor. Five years ago this rural church had no more than 15 people. Now it is attracting young families, and growing. Some weeks attendance reaches into the 80s. I don’t know all of what they did to turn around the train, but from the new constitution to the things they STOPPED doing, it is clear that everything is laser-focused on Christ and on bringing people into His Kingdom. After my three-hour interview, I really want to be part of this work.

  • I think it should also be pointed out that the church doesn’t have to be under a certain number in average attendance to be near death. I know of two churches that average over 100, one over 300, but they’ve been doing “stupid” for decades, and they’re one or two emergency expenses away from not being able to pay the bills..

  • Thom,
    Your illustration of your father: this was chilling for me. My father died in similar manner at the exact same age, only he was a Korean war veteran. I have been reading and following you for years. You are the most insightful counselor the church has, and I feel like you see things through my eyes only you articulate matters with precision and perfection like no one else does. Thank you for articulating church matters the way you do. I am very grateful for you and your ministry, you are having a great impact on ministers like me. May God bless His church!

  • I am pastor of a church that experienced an implosion ten years ago. Attendance dropped from 450 to 50. Fortunately our church is fairly open to change but we are in a city surrounded by larger churches. We have a good spirit and have been willing to step out of the box. Please let me know as you provide info for a church like ours that I believe can become an exception. Thanks