Eight Signs Your Church May Be Closing Soon

May 17, 2017

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.

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72 Comments

  • Glenn Shaffer says on

    I agree with the article, but in truth a congregation that fits this analogy seems to exist long after it is “closed,” if you know what I mean.

  • I come from a very different tradition (Lutheran) and see many of the same issues at stake in congregations. I’m fortunate that where I serve the people are actively engaged in the larger community. But I know how quickly things shift when we take our eyes off of the Cross. I appreciate reading your posts and have always found them encouraging – even when you approach difficult subjects like this.

  • Ron Keener says on

    Another one is what happened a couple months ago in a church in town. That one is when the pastor dies after an 8 week illness (at age 61) and now the church is at a crossroads of filling the pulpit (it is nondenominational), as the membership slides each year (now at 200) and they have a million dollar debt with the bank and church members. The question is whether the congregation will do a serious self-assessment before they get some young buck who might find the church attractive, even with all its problems.

  • Carolyn says on

    My question…do you stay with a dying church? Yes, most of those attending are elderly but they love the Lord. They have just gotten older and tired with no one younger to take over positions. It’s a truly sad situation. Do you leave them to “die” alone and move on to another place? Or do you stay? The community has changed and the church has reached out but for the most part they just aren’t interested in anything of God. It seems the church will close, but that leaves my original question. I am not the pastor but do have a leadership position.

    • Carolyn
      This broke my heartbut there is hope. Often these are the least invested group in having their own way and the most supportive of moving on and making hard decisions.
      My parents were those people and as their thriving church slowly died under bad leadership they stayed as did their circle of friends. A new pastor was assigned and he knew immediately the church had to move locations or die. In a very respectful manner he met with all of them to recognize the contributions over the years and especially how they financially sacrificed for the building he was now proposing selling. All I can tell you is this group all in their 70 plus years embraced a visioN for the future. That church in its new location had sustained a vibrant congregation for decades.
      Don’t underestimate either their resilience or their desires for theKingdom.

    • Dear Sister,

      Do not grow weary although it is easy to do. I am a bi-vocational Pastor and also work at Crossroads Bible College. As a Pastor, our church fits this description by Dr. Rainer well. However, the elderly members that remain are mostly open to change and we are walking them through this process.

      A good friend is a Senior Pastor at a very small church that was nearly closed. He is a former church planter and God has used him to double the size of the church in only a few months. He’s in his 50s and was the “kid” when he accepted the position. Most were in their mid-70s.

      Knee mail works in times such as this. We must not rely more on ourselves than we do the power of prayer.

  • J. Barnes says on

    Brothers and Sisters, I see all 8 of these signs in my church. I love my church and there is such need in the community surrounding us. For the kingdoms sake we must find a way past these things to become all that God intends. I know this is a tough topic, but what if there is no leadership from a Pastor, despite efforts to address it with him. Is there ever a time for indifference or poor performance that a church should consider dismissing their Pastor? Any recommendation would be appreciated! In the end, we only want to be obedient to the great commission and completely relying on the Lordship of Christ.

    • Hcdennis says on

      How long has your pastor been there? Do others in the church who have some influence see the problems? If all eight of the issues are present in the church, it may be very hard to find enough to people who would vote to dismiss the pastor. And if he was dismissed, would there be a willingness for people to hire someone with a vastly different vision? This is a hard one…

  • This is article is very educative.
    Thanks Thom

  • Rev. L. Paul Weaver says on

    All eight signs were clearly visible in the Church I became the pastor of over two years ago. Through some difficult struggles we have turned all but the first two. We’ve lowered the average age of the congregation from 60 to 47. We’re implementing a structure to move forward into the future. The budget has been freed to begin to focus on outreach and ministering to the community. Sacred cows and preferences have been dismantled and resistance to change has been overcome.

    I pray that as the body heals and the new structure of the Church is put into place and operating the many years of numerical decline will turn when the Church is reintroduced to the community through ministering to it.

    Thank you for all the hard work you do in ministering to ministers and pastors.

  • Larry Meaker-Chairman of finances says on

    This is Lafayette. We have been falling behind for years. We asked the conference for assistance for paying the pastor’s wages only to be refused because we have not been able to pay conference claims. We are in debt. We spent over $11,000 of memorial money last year to keep the doors open. No one has listened to anything that I have said about needing to close.

  • Great list. I’ve seen all of these (and a few others) in churches for which we’ve consulted.

    FWIW, I’ve come to see item #5, “preference driven” as the heart of the matter. In the absence of biblical corporate values (actual, not “subscribed” values) the congregants substitute their own preferences. Things get sticky when they anoint their personal preferences as “thus saith the Lord.”

    Years ago my mentor taught me that all church conflicts boil down to control. But control per se isn’t the issue. The real issue in seriously troubled churches is “who’s values are going to prevail?” Control is merely the means by which one value is sanctioned and another is disapproved.

  • Christopher says on

    This article is very on point. I would add that we are also victims of our prosperity. The more comfortable and prosperous our lifestyle, the less important worship and fellowship become. The Gospel Coalition published an article about how youth sports has become an idol. I saw it posted on Facebook and the comments were filled with indignant outrage as so many “Christian” people defended going to the ballpark as an acceptable alternative to fellowshipping with the body of Christ. One commenter even suggested that the church should pay for kids to be involved with youth sports because it’s a great evangelistic opportunity. So, in other words, he wanted the church to pay for kids not to go to church and this equates to evangelism. All of this comes from an affluent society where people have never really experienced hardship. I believe that we will not see true revival in the church until we come under persecution.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Christopher.

    • In the middle of the Cold War, US astronauts and USSR cosmonauts met in orbit when Apollo and a Soyuz capsule docked with each other. Also, the two sides met on a basketball court and a hockey rink and did not start WW III. Sometimes a neutral place or through sport is a great way to see the human side of one’s adversary/enemy.

  • Hard truths to accept here. The second option, in my opinion, is the one that bears the most fruit. It requires everyone to go through it together. In the end, you not only have a new church name. You have a new church.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      If it is possible, it is indeed a good option.

      • Dianna L Contreras says on

        I go to a Wesleyan church where there is only 17-20 people. Most are seniors and no kids except the Pastors who is 5. I have the job of mailing out invites to anybody and everybody whether you know them or not.Sometimes dont feel comfortable doing this. Pastor nevers go soul winning or form a group of men to go out. He puts it on us to do it to get people in the seats. I love all the people but I think the church is dying. So what do we do?

    • Hi Jim, In light of your seeming degree of frustration&urgency, I wish to reiterate Thom’s suggestion to you. Trusting your understanding of the church’s situation&the head pastor, you have two red flags before you: 1. the pastor “is oblivious” of the situation, and 2. the pastor rejects ‘any change’ of the situation “bc it would upset church members.” Sharing no resonance with you on the current condition of the church, and prioritizing appeasement of members over discernment&development are significant signals for you to graciously&speedily take your vocation elsewhere. Logan’s option&subsequent fruit are available to the pastor, elders&members, but likely not available in enough of a meaningful way to you as a subordinate professional. Consider whether this is your sense before God. If it is, actively pursue a better fit in another setting. If it isn’t, partner&invest in the pastor&elders’ direction. No matter, move towards where your contribution&gifts have genuine reception&room to grow.

  • Dr. Rainer,

    What do you do when you are an associate pastor and see these signs in your church, but the senior pastor is oblivious to them and believes the church is really healthy and does not need to change? How do you try to revitalize a church when your pastor specifically tells you that you cannot change anything because it will upset church members?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jim –

      The role of a “second chair” can be challenging. Ultimately, your role is to be aligned with the pastor. If you cannot influence him through positive interaction, you may need to find a place of ministry where you can thrive under a pastor with whom you are aligned. Here is an incredible interview with Brad Waggoner on the topic:

      https://thomrainer.com/2014/09/leading-second-chair-rainer-leadership-072/

    • I hear your degree of frustration&urgency, which is why I’m reiterating Thom’s recommendation. Trusting your communication with and assessment of the pastor&situation, there are two red flags before you: 1. the head pastor “is oblivious,” to the situation and 2. the head pastor rejects ‘any change’ of the situation “bc it will upset church members.” Not sharing any resonance with you on the current condition of the church, and prioritizing appeasement of members over discernment&development are significant signals to graciously&speedily take your vocation elsewhere. Perhaps Logan’s option and subsequent fruit are possible for the head pastor, elders&congregation, but I’m estimating most likely not for you as a subordinate professional. Consider whether or not this is the sense you have before God. If it is, trust it, and actively pursue a new setting where you can more fully contribute&grow. And if it isn’t, trust it, and invest in the direction of the head pastor&elders.

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