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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  • A Frazzled Pastor says on

    I’m pastoring a church that is in the process of dying. I’m trying to lead the people to become outward focused, but so far I see very little progress. I’m the second pastor to try bringing new life and vision to this church. I’m starting to think that they’re just not going to get it.

  • Demas Douglas says on

    My home church closed their doors several years ago. The church building/property we’re being donated to a much larger church (same denomination) in the area as an additional “campus” as there were no other churches in our area associated with our denomination. In a sense, that was the “magic bullet” I suppose. You go from 20 to 250 when that campus opens and a much “louder” presence in the community.

  • I am praying this will not be my church, but if I am truly honest, I think it will be. I am praying against it and trying to lead them out of it (for over 6-1/2 years). They will not budge, and I am totally overwhelmed with frustration and completely heartbroken.

    I am to the point of resigning as pastor….that was the hardest phrase I think I have ever typed! I love the church (corporate and local) and believe wholeheartedly in serving out of the abundance that flows from His grace and mercy. I am just wore out…

  • I’m in a dying church and see everything you’ve pointed out. One other factor I observe (I wonder if this may be generalized to all or most dying churches?) is that individually, there is no evidence of personal spiritual growth. In Sunday school, the long-time members contribute nothing to discussions. They serve in perfunctory ways, even willingly, but only in the sense that they are willing to fulfill their duty.

    Overall, there’s a sense of “we’ve reached spiritual maturity”. There is no discussion or contribution of where they are striving to overcome sin in their lives. My experience as a maturing Christian is that there is greater awareness and sorrow over sin in me. I’m the only one talking this way.

    I think if asked one on one they would each tell you that of course they are not perfect. Nevertheless, I think you’d be hard pressed to receive any actual current real life examples of striving to overcome.

    When our pastor recently left us to take another call, he took with him the music coordinator, his 19 yo daughter. The choir was her, myself, one other couple and the pianist. The couple also are leaving, and will be returning from extended travels to pack their house up and move out of our very rural community. I’ve been asked to take on the role of music coordinator, which I’ve gladly done, but I have zero competence in leading and coordinating worship.

    Nevertheless, I’ve taken it on and have tried to make changes. First off, I hit a brick wall with the person who prints the bulletin. My adding extra music has been “complicating” for her in her task and the very first Sunday she lodged her complaint with me after services ended. I told her basically we’d be trying new things and asked her to be patient. The following Sunday, or perhaps two Sundays later, she lodged her complaint again. I gave her the same answer. This past Sunday (one month in as music leader), I received an email essentially demanding that I return to using the order of Worship we used before “Bob” left. Got that in my email first thing Sunday morning and was so upset and troubled with my response to it that I did not go to services at all. I even “resigned” as music coordinator. They emplored me to reconsider so I’ve retracted my resignation.

    Then feedback came in about how things went music wise without me. They could find no one to lead the music. Christians of 3-5 decades in the faith did not know “Be Thou My Vision”, “Search Me, O God”, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”, and “The Church’s One Foundation”. The problem was deemed to be my choosing the wrong hymns and not their not knowing hymns that I’ve known for decades, and I wasn’t even raised SBC, did not join an SBC until not quite two years ago. I was raised RCC and know these hymns.

    They have no collective nor individual desire to grow spiritually. They know as much and are as mature as they desire to be. This far and no further will they go.

    I’m heart broke because I’ve seen the reality since I became a member a year ago. I’m heart broke because I love them. And I’m heart broke because this is the only church locally that isn’t Mormon, RCC, or charismatic and teaching false doctrine (doctrines of demons literally).

    So, I’ve returned to the hymns they know and the order of Worship they want and will sit with the dying as a witness. I’m on a fixed income, cannot afford to travel any distance regularly to attend services elsewhere. I guess I’m here to love the dying. It just breaks my heart. Thanks for letting relate my experience.

  • Hi Thom,

    Thanks for posting a difficult, sensitive yet important subject.

    When dealing with dying churches, a felt another very difficult truth which can be even more difficult for church members to handle is this –

    “Physical church attendant is not an accurate assessment of one’s active inner relationship with Jesus, the Father and Holy Spirit”

    Let me explain that with reference to (John15:4) – “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.”

    A dying church is like a fruitless tree!

    The individual Christian who is not abiding in Jesus will not be able to add to collective church growth!

    A difficult inconvenient truth of dying church is when you’ve got people who are “abiding” with that physical church attendance and not “abiding” in their inner relationship with Jesus!

    Therefore their focus and priorities are on everything else physical and materials except their inner relationship with Jesus.

    Revival can be traced to spiritually dead congregation renewing their inner relationship with Jesus.

    Therefore a very difficult thing to deal with, is when members of dying congregation do not recon their inner relationship with Jesus is dying or they don’t have that active inner relationship with Jesus while they are physically attending Sunday service!

    Of course I have been persecuted and “stoned to near death” for preaching such things! But revival only happens when people renew their inner relationship with Jesus!

    No matter how many years we’ve been attending church we never get tired of renewing our inner relationship with Jesus!

    We’re never too old too forgotten too neglected to renew our relationship with Jesus!

  • Timothy Stone says on

    Look, everyone knew this was going to happen. These are the last days and things are getting down to the end. Paul said that people will fall away from the faith. It’s one of the big things to happen before the Anti-Christ shows up.

    That’s the bad news.

    The good news is that God is with us and with God nothing is impossible.

    For all of those people that won’t listen, there is a world full of people that will. Muslims for example are converting as they come over into Europe. Millions of people are becoming saved and not only that with the Internet you can reach a lot of people just by a video or a blog.

    Look, I am not saying any of this replaces a church. I am just saying, get involved. Do something with prayer and action that can help change the world.

    The thing is that we are going into harsh times and things are going to be dark and they are going to be scary. We have an answer for that, his name is Jesus Christ.

    Put your eyes and heart on Jesus and pray and tell him that you want to make a difference in people’s own lives and how can you do that?

    At the end of the day, how do you want to be judged by Jesus? Do you want him to say that you did good faithful servant or do you want him to be disappointed in you?

    Life isn’t going to be easy in the future guys, but one thing that we do have is the LOVE of Jesus and I would not change that for the entire world. 🙂

    Now, let’s go get em!

  • Troy Strickland says on

    The struggle I find in my rural church is the lack of musical talent. My congregation is not against doing contemporary worship songs if they are done well, but we can’t seem to find any musicians who play contemporary music. That is just one issue. What suggestions might you have for small churches who are willing to change and take drastic actions but lack the resources to do so?

  • My church of 800 isn’t dying but has strong opposition to any change and difficulty implementing change when it is approved, especially any change involving worship services or ministries for youth or young families. Upon review we discovered that our nominating committee has a policy of putting seniors in all lay leadership positions because “that’s where our experience is.” Our current committee membership is 96% 50 and older even though seniors make up only 9% of our membership. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to change this we are in the process of writing a new constitution that stipulates that each committee of 7 have at least one 20, one 30, and one 40 year old. (If we matched our demographics those numbers would be two 20, three 30, two 40, and one 50+ on each committee.) We are also lowering our voting age from 21 to 14 and are requiring all committee members to rotate off after 3 years. This is being opposed by most current committee members but when the church votes we believe the new constitution will pass by a wide margin. The younger people are very interested in serving and want to reach the community but most have never been asked to help lead, and have been turned down when they do volunteer. I am leading this charge, and I am a senior.

    • Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Obviously I don’t know the situation of your church, but in spite of having a committee which is 96% over the age of fifty, you still have 800 people in your church. It is important to ask whether the majority of the church is happy with the status quo (and if they are receiving sound teaching). Is it only a minority who are disgruntled and who would like to see change? Would the church attendance really increase if a few people were enabled to implement their vision for the future of the church, or would the implementation of their vision drive people away and cause a decline?

      As a person in my early thirties, I value having someone in leadership who will hear and assess my concerns fairly, but it makes no difference to me what age they are. In fact, I would have far less confidence that someone of my own age would share my concerns than someone several decades older. I would rather be led by mature and godly men than a peer who wasn’t sound in doctrine and was influenced too much by the world. (But admittedly I am unhappy when the church leadership holds more strongly to its own traditions than is Biblically necessary).

      A young man who puts himself forward for a position of leadership will not necessarily represent the views of his peers. I’ve been part of young people’s group which declined under the care of a leader close to its own age, where it had been thriving under the care of a retired couple. The people in the group were crying out for more structure and more teaching in their after-church meetings on a Sunday evening. The young pastor overruled their desires and told them that what they really needed was more social events – and so going to a local pub on a Sunday evening became a frequent part of the monthly schedule! Young adults with a thirst for spiritual nourishment were instead fed on alcohol.

      In another instance, one young man put himself forward for the ministry. His closest friends all voted against recommending him to Bible college. He was a people-pleaser. People liked him, they liked his outgoing and fun personality. But he had no firm doctrinal convictions, he wasn’t sound in the faith, and would say whatever he thought was necessary to get where he wanted to go. But the majority of the church didn’t know him well. His closest friends voted against recommending him to Bible college, but he probably won 95% of the support of the rest of the church members. Likewise,, deacons have often been voted into office, not because people knew them and respected them and knew them to be of good character, but simply because the church had vacancies on the diaconate to fill and these were the only candidates standing. People voted for them out of ignorance rather than out of knowledge and discernment. I would much rather be led by a group of mature and wise older people than by the majority of my peers.

  • One of the things that is continually brought up is Invite Your One as a way to begin to bring a evangelism culture back. I see on the revitalizedchurches web site that it was being sold for $147. Is it still available at that price? How can I order? I have written to the administrator twice but have not heard back. Please let me know if it is still available and if so, how to order.

  • Rev. Reginald Gabel says on

    Getting ready to be the interim at a church that has been dying a slow death for years. In the golden years “1970 – 1995” it was running 150 to 175 every Sunday. It is a smaller community now, 1995 – 3500, now 2017 – 1500. Neighboring 2 larger cities where most of the community worked began seeing factories close and business moved overseas. Between the 2 neighboring towns there were jobs losses of over 7500. Many people moved to where they could find jobs. For this little town the culture began to change quickly. Today of the 40 store fronts in the town, only 5 are opened, and 3 of those, only on the weekend. A worship center that would hold 225 counting the choir loft now is the home of 30 on a good Sunday. But that is up from when the pastor of 22 years left 2 months ago; he told them he had to go because they could not keep paying him a full-time salary. I have preached 3 times there and have only seen 5 children. 3 were grandchildren visiting their grandparents for part of the summer. They have begun the search for a bi-vocational pastor. The Methodist church across the street is worse and the Pentecostal church is merging with one in another town. The Black church in the area has grow some, but the Hispanics go to a neighboring town. Yes it is dying. But I believe there is hope. (1) the 2 neighboring town are starting to recover. (2) the people know they have to do something and are willing to follow, if they can find someone to lead, they do not know what to do, never taught. (3) As I drive by houses to get to the church, I see dozens of people in the their yards and on the porches. (4) I hear the willingness to follow a leader in their prayers and in their eyes. (5) and the main reason, I serve the God who created the universe and everything in it. He is the God of all miracles, he is the reason I am saved. Can not God bring businesses back, the God I know can, can not God create jobs and opportunities, the God I know can, can not God open hearts, the God I know can. Will it be work, yes, will it cost member time and the need to sacrificial give, yes, will it be worth the cost, well what price do we put on a soul. My prayer is that I can light a fire, give them some direction and walk beside them until they are ready for the pastor God is preparing for them…. oh what a mighty God we serve. Now the church body may have to move to a smaller building, that is ok, I believe that the church can have a rebirth and the old building may just give them the foundational funds to start over. I pray that they will be open to God’s direction, no matter what it is.

  • This is so true in our generation today. So many churches; members of the body of Christ have picked up bad habits along the way that makes them more interested in pleasing the people and filling the pews of the church building than pleasing God. And they aren’t even willing to admit that they need help.

    Prayer changes things. Let’s keep interceding on their behalf. I strongly believe that a change will occur. God bless you and thanks for your honesty. It is much needed in this generation.

  • Dr. Rainer:

    I am so thankful for your discernment on this difficult topic. As a pastor who currently serves a critical, perhaps dying, church, I appreciate the wisdom and experience you offer to so many of us…

    Perhaps you have already written on this, but do you have any thoughts on churches that have reached a “point of no return?” This is difficult for me to ask, because hope is so important, but I sometimes wonder if acknowledging impending death while working towards new beginnings (i.e. joining in a church planting effort, liquidating assets to be given towards partner churches or missional initiatives) would be a better use of time instead of attempting to revitalize a church that seems too far gone.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jeremy –

      Sadly, I have written on it in a few places. One place is the final chapter of my book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church.