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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  • Church leaders often don’t acknowledge the crisis they are in in time. My research revealed declining churches that revitalized waited an average of 3 1/2 years before accepting their inevitable demise. Most Church leaders (pastors included) need a severe wake-up call. To HURT enough that they HAVE to change; to HOPE enough that they WANT to change; and to LEARN enough that they are ABLE to change.
    This reminds me of the man who had severely abused and neglected his body for years who, finally went for a medical exam. The Dr. began speaking to the man: “You are really in bad shape. You have nearly wrecked your body and mind. If you don’t change your habits and ways, you are going to die in 10 . . . (
    At that moment the man interrupted with fear and asked, “What? 10 what? Years? Months, Days?”
    The Dr. continued, ” … 9…8…7…
    That’s severe! And URGENT!

    Hope that is helpful to some. I’ve been a part of the miracle of 2 turnaround churches and contend that unless the leaders have a deep sense that they are in a severe crisis, the church has little hope of seeing transformation.

  • Ken Qualls says on

    I pastored a church that was established in the early 1800s. It had one of the original oil lamps in one window. They had modernized the building. My son and I worked the field for miles around the church. We went from five or six to forty in attendance and then dwindle down again. That cycle repeated several times. I stayed with them for thirteen years. A couple of years later they asked me to come back because they couldn’t get a preacher. I stayed another three years. We averaged 15 in attendance. Only three were members: two 80 something and one high school senior. The others belonged to other churches and would never be active in the church beyond Sunday morning worship.

    The things you said applied to this church. Three things that contributed to their demise are. “We never did it that way before.” The glory days (real or imagined) of the 1950’s. I just thought of a fourth: The ability to passively communicate to visitors that they weren’t welcome.

    It is sad. I know of six churches now that don’t have long to live.

  • Scott Paugh says on

    Thom, I do hope you can respond. Where have you obtained the report that so many churches are dying or have died? Do you have a list you could provide?


  • Ken Monhollen says on

    I use to take care of the computers of a small Church in Michigan and I will never forget what the Pastor of that Church said one day, “Church leaders need to understand that Church is like any other business, if you don’t adapt to the changing times, you will cease to exist.” I attend a Church that 15 years ago had about 40 to 50 people coming every Sunday. They hired a young Pastor and allowed him to make changes that would attract younger people. Today we average 650 people every Sunday with both younger and older (I am 60 and my wife is 66) people coming to the Church. It was just the matter of changing to live Christian rock music and telling the word of God in a way that everyone could understand, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for everyone. We have been growing a little bit every year and I pray that we will keep growing and reaching more people with the word of God.

  • James Godwin says on

    Churches are failing because they have lost their passion. Churches have become too worldly.
    Mega churches are taking members away from smaller congregations because they are more capable of entertaining young people.
    Christian music has been replaced by performers.
    Pastors in mega churches are being paid salaries and perks that are to the extreme.
    Sermons are often replaced by videos. Christian movies are far from biblical and sometimes use actors from non Christian religions playing the part of Jesus.
    Pastors and children are watching videos and movies not fit for human consumption.
    Hymnals have no part in worship services. Our hymns are God inspired and many are testimonials to the love of Jesus Christ.
    I grew up in churches that were passionate and when revivals were held the house was packed for 2 weeks or more. There was excitement! Tears were shed. There was PASSION!
    Prayer was important! Now people are doing all sorts of things during prayer time.
    God’s people should show respect by coming to church well groomed and dressed as well as they can afford.
    God’s house is HOLY! We should treat it better.

    • Lara Hayes says on

      I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible where Jesus refused salvation to someone who requested it because they weren’t dressed properly enough.

  • Interesting article and very true. My mother is worshipping in a dying church as well–it’s just a matter of time before they meet their end. I myself worship in a older congestion not many youth–this concerns me as well. Nobody wants to make a brake with tradition and the way we like to do it in order to attract the younger generations.
    So sad!


  • Eric Spletzer says on

    I agree with everything said in this article about dying churches. I have been serving one like that for 21 years. Though I have tried over the years to motivate my church, cast vision, try new things, they still remain content with how things are, although they will complain that the church needs to grow. I am frustrated and discouraged, I feel like a failure because this church hasn’t grown. But I also know that God calls me to be faithful not successful. Though this is hard sometimes to remember.

  • Paul Melton says on

    It is impossible to pinpoint a reason “why churches die.” On the one hand, shallow and carnal churches sometimes flourish. On the other hand, godly people sometimes occupy small churches. As someone who grew up in church and has been involved in ministry my entire adult life, I would argue that there first needs to be a solid foundation of knowledge within the body of believers for a church to be stable at any number. That is NOT happening at most churches in any denomination. Church should be educational and the membership should be academically pursuing knowledge and truth. Sunday school should be school. Teaching should be exposition, and it should be work. Easy to join easy to leave. There should be a deeper level of commitment to study than to busy work associated with modern church work.

    Secondly, the church must adapt to technological changes, not because they draw people in or make them comfortable. What a stupid reason to pick a church. You should adapt because technology is communication at the core. If humans have learned to communicate a certain way, it only makes sense that you communicate your ideas that way. So, it’s not about changing for the sake of change. It’s about communication. We lean on the smart phone for information. Why wouldn’t you present your information in that format? Our attention spans have evolved to broadcast standards. Why wouldn’t you package your lessons to communicate in the same way?

    Churches are dying because they are content. They don’t value the mastery of scripture, and they cannot communicate with millenials.

    An aside: the church is far too political, which in turn makes it come off as hypocritical since the new right shares very few ideals with the New Testament. If we are going to be political, let’s at least be the side that embraces generosity and mercy.

  • “You can’t make a cake with just flour, just oil, or just eggs; you need a variety of ingredients each playing a part.” The pastor concluded, using the metaphor to show us that our church needed diversity. In front of him was a bowl of cake-mix, eggs, and oil – all it needed was a good stir and the batter would be be ready to bake.
    We all agreed that he was right and it was a brilliant sermon. But we had no idea how to make it happen.
    “I don’t understand why the pews are so empty;” an older lady in the congregation began, “All of our pews were filled to the brim not that long ago. Why, you’d have been hard pressed to get a good parking spot back in 1985.” As she looked over two long rows of empty pink pews. There were roughly 20 regulars and another 10 who showed up from time to time.
    Aside from the tap-tap-tap of the elders’ walkers in the hallways, there was an eerie silence cast over the whole building. There were no rambunctious children giggling in the hallways, no screaming infants, no chattering middle-school kids, and no moody high school kids. The college ministry had long been shut down – too few kids grew up in the church to bother with trying to encourage them once they went to college. Millenials were all AWOL and the retired crowed outnumbered all other ages combined three to one.
    I left that church because they wanted to live in the past – before I was even born. We didn’t like the same music, but as a younger person, the elders had majority rule so I’d always have to have their music. They were keen to keep control, fearing that if they gave an inch, then they’d lose a mile down a slippery slope and wind up like those other churches that sell out their souls. But hey, they have hope – their Facebook page says they just started a series of “singspiratons” … but since we don’t agree on music, they can expect me to be a no-show.

  • Unless a kernel falls into the ground and dies, no fruit will come forth. God loves to bring buds from a stick, water from rocks, and babies from barren wombs. Can He not also bring a flourishing flock out of a hollow church building?

  • I love bananas. And I grow banana trees down here in Florida. It takes more than a year or so for each tree to mature. And as a tree mature – from it’s roots grow one or two new banana trees. It is an exciting time to see a bunch of bananas come out of the top. I get happy as a monkey! But a few weeks after I harvest the fruits – that tree dies.
    I really believe all/individual churches (not to be confused with the universal Church) are destined to someday die. Even the ones started by Peter, Paul, and Moody. To monkey around a dying church maybe a noble idea. Like trying to keep my banana trees live a dacade more. The best way to keep a church is to birth other new churches that will build other new ones and on. Eventually, a church will die. Let’s not go bananas when it happens.

  • bruce mercer says on

    until churches start preaching the gospel instead of pragmatism the declines will continue. the cure is the gospel but most churches want self salvation not the gospel.