Eight Signs Your Church May Be Closing Soon

We call it the death spiral.

I know. It’s not a pleasant term. I can understand if it causes you to cringe.

By the time I am contacted about a serious problem in a church, it is often too late. The problems are deeply rooted, but the remaining members have been blind to them, or they chose to ignore them.

There are eight clear signs evident in many churches on the precipice of closing. If a church has four or more of these signs present, it is likely in deep trouble. Indeed, it could be closing sooner than almost anyone in the church would anticipate.

  1. There has been a numerical decline for four or more years. Worship attendance is in a steady decline. Offerings may decline more slowly as the “remnant” gives more to keep the church going. There are few or no conversions. Decline is clear and pervasive.
  2. The church does not look like the community in which it is located. The community has changed its ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic makeup, but the church has not. Many members are driving from other places to come to the church. The community likely knows little or nothing about the church. And the church likely knows little or nothing about the community.
  3. The congregation is mostly comprised of senior adults. It is just a few years of funerals away from having no one left in the church.
  4. The focus is on the past, not the future. Most conversations are about “the good old days.” Those good old days may have been 25 or more years in the past. Often a hero pastor of the past is held as the model to emulate.
  5. The members are intensely preference-driven. They are more concerned about their music style, their programs, their schedules, and their facilities than reaching people with the gospel. Their definition of discipleship is “others taking care of my needs.”
  6. The budget is severely inwardly focused. Most of the funds are expended to keep the lights on and/or to meet the preferences of the members. There are few dollars for ministry and missions. And any dollars for missions rarely include the involvement of the members in actually sharing the gospel themselves.
  7. There are sacred cow facilities. It might be a parlor or a pulpit. It could be pews instead of chairs. It might be the entirety of the worship center or the sanctuary. Members insist on holding tightly to those things God wants us to hold loosely.
  8. Any type of change is met with fierce resistance. The members are confronted with the choice to change or die. And though few would articulate it, their choice by their actions or lack of actions is the choice to die.

Churches with four or more of these signs have three choices. They can embark on a process of change and revitalization. Or they can close the doors for a season and re-open with a new name, a new vision, and some new people.

Of course, the third choice is to do nothing. That is the choice to die.

Thousands of churches will unfortunately do just that the next twelve months.

Posted on May 17, 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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  • M desperate for donation or funding that has no strings attachment. I have been pastoring for plus 20years now in a rural place but now a semi urban area was young but now am 45years and got married with 3kids m not complaining God has been good for my experiences that i can say for sure, but am struggling to improve my church building, so i can see that i definitely need an external help, i know i should not worry but hey because of my age i know that we should not be where we are now in terms of improvement. I have prayed about it but am also extending my plea to any missionary minded child of God. Lastly am not a scam, i am a sincerely born again spirit filled child of God. Please refer me prayerfully so Amen!

  • Joseph Back says on

    What about the Eucharist? Unless God is on the altar in bodily form and the One sacrifice extended through time and space, there isn’t a true Church. Outside Christ we can do nothing. The Eucharist is or else should be the glue holding it all together, not sustained “marketing” of other techniques based in human power and ability.

    This is “the Flesh” and arm (power) of man.

  • DeWayne Wyatt says on

    There is a prominent, 155 year old church in our county that is strongly locked in to 5 of the 8 signs listed. While I am not the pastor, I am retired with several years experience as a denominational leader at the associational level. My conversations with the leaders of the church have fallen on deaf ears. There is the mindset that the church will suddenly bounce back, but it has been in steady decline for many years. A state denominational leader told me that these are the churches that are on death’s doorstep before reaching out to anyone. I am curious about what others would say about the mindset of this church. Is there any hope for this church?

  • John Barkley says on

    Thom, So I am new to Church answers. As I read your article I can say that we check off several of the points above. I joined this to try and come up with a plan to avert the obvious conclusion and see this ministry again burn brightly with the gospel. Do you have any outlined procedures you recommend?

  • My church is primarily aged over 50, is conservative and traditional, sings hymns, no band, still uses piano and organ, baptisms in the river, and we’re doing well. Church funds are in great shape. When the basis of church becomes having to look like the world, the end is coming. Pray, serve, stay in Gods Word, share what God has done in your life.

  • I head a committee at a senior living facility managing the offerings contributed at a Sunday AM ecumenical service headed by a part time employee, Chaplain of the facility, who is an ordained Methodist minister. All income is from the collection plate. Expenses are reasonable stipends given to a pianist and a song leader for our services ($75 /wk.) and incidental expenses for the Chaplain. All the rest of the income is given once per year to congregation approved recognized charities.(such as the Salvation Army) In 2019 plate collections were $9,500, musician expenses were $3900, Chaplain expenses, $500, Charity contributions, $5,000. Would you think we would have to file income taxes? And if not, how to proceed with the IRS.

  • My church suffers from every ailment mentioned in the article above. What has also made things worse is many people left when they installed a lesbian pastor. Now that she’s gone, we got another lesbian interim pastor. A few weeks ago her sermon compared the alienation of lepers to transgender people, and that didn’t sit well with some of us.

    I’ve only been in this church for two years and I’m ready to leave but hate to because I’m involved in the music ministry, and there really are a lot of good people there. We average 30-35 on Sundays and the average age is probably 65! I want to be part of a church that amounts to something and I feel like I’m abandoning this church if I leave. I don’t know what to do.

  • I am the senior pastor of a rural church that I have had the honor of planting. Started with 7 people and grew to a little over 500 in 10 years. For the last 2.5 years we have seen a decline. Currently we are down to 330 avg on Sundays. We have been at that level for pretty much all of 2019. The decline has basically stopped. It’s confusing because we have a lot of young and middle-aged families attending. The giving was not in decline until this year. We do worship giving and online giving. We have a church app and we communicate regularly through notifications, etc. We are set to be about 4% off our total budget for this year. That’s roughly about $25k. As far as I can tell we have had no major divisions or fights in the church. We are staff-led and we are not understaffed as we have 4 full-time staff. Pastor, Assoc. Pastor, Students, and Children. We have only one business meeting a year to vote on budget so our environment is not afforded alot of opportunities for conflict. I am trying to figure out what is causing it and how to address it. Also, should I communicate my concerns to the church or even if I should. Do I do a “State of the Plate” address to the church and will playing around with “Chicken Little” kind of thinking only exacerbate the situation. Am I jumping the gun too soon and not giving this a chance to turn around? I could really use your advice.

  • Cindy Branham says on

    I’m amazed at all these post that lay the blame at the pastor’s feet for the condition of there churches! I would like to know what they as members of their church have done beside wait on their pastor to do it!! We are all called and if each one of us would do our calling instead of depending on the pastor or the few that already do all the work to do our calling too, then church’s would grow and thrive as God intended them too!

    • Yasmin KUNZE says on

      You are right. Each one of us has a responsibility and a call. But……the pastor is the pastor. You cannot do and move above or beyond what he will allow. He has to recognize and TRUST that each person has a calling and a role in the body and must be allowed to operate in it. Trust me. That is what has happened to me and is still happening.

      All the right signs are present in our church. We’re changed our name two times and relaunched but still in decline. Why? Because when we started implementing the change and challenging the people who have been there to grow, step up, do hard things, they started complaining and criticizing. In what was my calling and area of ministry, worship – long time team members started complaining and criticizing, often passively and through and at the pastor, who was also the worship leader. The LORD gave the pastor the vision, which He also have gave me and confirmed in me, to stop maintaining and raise up the team to the godly standards that it should have been discipled in. But the complaints and criticisms were constant and instead of correcting the people doing them, I was the one being corrected and chastised for being “too hard” and “taking the fun out of practices”. There is no consistent and faithful discipling in our church. My husband and I have broughtht it up many times and there was an attempt that was never sustained. So, now you have many in the congregation who have been members for decades but have never moved past spiritual milk because we can’t offend them and we can’t do things by our own might. Ministry has to be through the power and Spirit of God. Yes and amen! But God will use us to do ministry.

      Anyway, I was removed from the leadership position because it was implied and lashed out at me that I was making things difficult for people in the team. But things still did not get better for the team or the church. It got worse because the roots of the problems are not being addressed. Years of hurt and offense are now coming into fruition and blinding eyes, hearts and ears to what really needs to happen.

      My husband and I have been submitted to our pastors despite of this. I have given up my calling because there seems to be no place for it in this church. We have done whatever our pastors have asked us to do. And I am still being passively blamed for the demise of the worship team, accused of making it all about me, etc.

      Part of me thinks it’s time to peacefully leave the church so that we don’t get destroyed in the process but I don’t want to act out in offense. It has been very painful but I know that the LORD cares about my heart, not my calling.

      Please help pray for our church! Call the pastor and encourage him to stand his ground on the things of God, instead of giving into the complainers. It’s not just his church! It’s ours, too!

  • Robert N. says on

    Science, technology, advanced education, logic, rationality and expansion of the human mind in the realm of greater critical thinking, is why a leading portion of the US population now identifies as “nones”, atheists and agnostics. Couple that with the exposure of all the sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the corruption, the greed, the arrogance, the cover ups, not only limited to the Catholic Church and what have you got? Then there’s that 2000 year old story (a myth) that some Christians accept at face value, never having the guts or desire to challenge, that certainly needs to be given the old heave-ho! Well, the proof is in the pudding when more of the aged population continues to die off from Christianity’s fan base and there’s nobody to replace them= more church closures and eventually a total collapse of Christianity all together in America. And, I say, good riddance not only to Christianity but to all organized religions.

  • I’m wondering why the four years of decline? Are there studies specifically about how four years is a tipping point? Thanks.

    • Four years is not a tipping point per se. As noted in my article, there are a myriad of indicators precipitating closure. Churches that have closed had at least four years of consecutive decline combined with other factors.

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