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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  • Pastor Rick LeBaube says on

    These 8 signs are definite symptoms of a greater issue: the loss of the disciple making mission of the church. I believe that many failing churches have turned inward rather than outward and have become as the priest and the Levite in Luke 10:25-37. Sadly, the church is and will be paying dearly for this short sighted and wrong minded mistake for generations to come.

  • Coleman Walsh says on

    As a church member I have grown weary of pastors weaponizing the term “preference” and using it as a club, generally on their older members, when what they appear to be saying is “my preferences are better than your preferences.” The focus must be on evangelism, soul-winning, and then discipling members so that they can become more Christ-like in their lives. A pastor who truly leads by example with respect to the Great Commission will be able to effectively undermine an unhealthy “preference” culture by placing the focus where it truly belongs. A laser-sharp focus on the Great Commission is the best antidote for an unhealthy preference driven culture. Also, don’t summarily dismiss as a whiner, complainer, or “preference-driven” individual the member who says “my needs are not being met.” Some who say that may truly just be selfish and preference-driven; but that is not always the case. Rather, it could be a sign that the person recognizes that he/she is not being effectively discipled. If that is the case, then their concern needs to be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

    I agree with Bro. Rainer about the 8 signs; however, I take comfort in the fact that the Scriptures promise that Christ will build His church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.

    Some of you may take issue with my comments or dismiss them as a rant from just another intensely preference driven individual. I readily admit to my preferences. I intensely prefer a church that is “On Commission” rather than one that is “out of Commission.” I intensely prefer a pastor, staff and congregation that will assiduously, energetically and visibly labor side by side to bring in the Lord’s harvest and focus on those things that are of eternal consequence. After all, nothing else really matters except making disciples.

    Okay, I will now go back to my hiding place under the bridge and await the next unwary traveler.

  • Renée says on

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Rainer. In many ways, it’s a summation of many of the topics and discussions that you have led over the past number of years. Knowing this information is helpful for church diagnostics. Quite a few members of my church (my husband is pastor) agree that these signs are all present within our church. On the outside, it seems as though there is a group of people working together to seek a better, spiritually-healthy church, a church focussed on the mission set through prayer and biblical guidance. This process of having recognized that the church is struggling near death to acting on need for change has taken over two years during which time we have continued to leave the back door wide open (if not wider), continued to maintain the same ministries, the same lack of leadership, the same everything. This group themselves can’t envision a church without whatever it is because “we have always done it that way” or “it worked in the past, we just need to give it more time” or “we just have to hope that things will be different” (without actually doing anything different). The funny thing is they see that “other” people in our church have problems and are beginning to create an “us vs them” mentality which is no healthier than the original issues.

    • Thank you, Renee.

    • Yasmin KUNZE says on

      “We just have to hope that things will be different” (without actually doing anything different).

      That is exactly what we have been told over and over!

      God will use each one of us to minister and grow the church. More importantly, we have a role to play in our own growth as disciples so we cannot and absolutely should not just “maintain”.

  • Great article Dr. Rainer about a very sad subject. We’ve all heard how churches that are dying are more concerned about maintenance. We had one of our elders offer a closing prayer one evening in which he prayed the maintenance of our church building and our congregation as a whole. My jaw dropped. I knew we had people who had a maintenance mindset, but to actually mention it in a public prayer????

    Another church where I was a member used “greatest hits” of church bulletins past in their weekly bulletins. That was quite sad. And alas, that church is now dead.

    I love your idea of closing down a church and re-opening it later as a new creation.

    • Thom, thank you for your continued commitment to help churches. My husband and I read your great short book Autopsy of a Dying Church. As the chairman, he decided it would be good to use as a study for the board. As you shared in the book in one of your examples, we too are experiencing resistance and denial by the board that there is a problem. The conclusion of the study was “none of this is us”.

      Seven years ago we were a congregation of 180+. Our pastor of 30 years retired and we went down to 100. The interim pastor from 5 years ago became the pastor (I do NOT recommend this as good idea as it could be a rash decision based on fondness, laziness, frustration or in our case I suspect all of the above! Of course there could be exceptions but PRAY HARD!). We have continued our decline to about 45-50. Last week while giving an ex member who is our mailman a bad time about leaving 3 years ago our pastor said, to my amazement, we are a vital church.

      We had experienced decline in membership during our previous pastor’s last 5 years in service as well but it was less noticeable since we still had a good music ministry and lots of kids. However, going through the old church directories the year he announced his retirement I realized we had over 175 go out the back door over a 5 year period. Mostly it was newer people that never stayed. Is that a sign that most of us were blinded to underlying issues?

      To those mentioning a focus on maintenance – sometimes it may be well placed. I believe sometime there may be room to consider a failing building as a bit of the reflection of the failing church. In our case the building has had issues that have been ignored for years in the same way issues in the body had been ignored for years by our previous pastor. Several areas of old dry rot from replaced leaking windows but never repaired damaged walls. We had one whole exterior wall and main support rotted that was repaired in year 29 of our previous pastor. A leaky roof has been dealt with by placing small trash cans in the sanctuary to catch drips for the last 15 years and two more leaks have developed elsewhere! What issues has your church been fixing, or not fixing, with “buckets”? My husband’s and my attitude is if this church doesn’t make it at least the building should not rot away before someone else can take it over.

      What is our role you are wondering? A deacon with no ministerial background in a congregation rule church where the board has responsibility like an elder or trustee board. He is now the chairman who is trying to urge the men to recognized a problem. He is also trying to encourage them and the pastor to develop a vision for the church considering we haven’t had one since a building campaign 20 years ago. Shockingly they don’t get it and don’t see a need or a problem except that our pianist/music director is quitting at the end of June with no replacement in sight. In the meantime I’m down to making 40 bulletins with leftovers and sit in a nursery once a month with two kids sometimes one, my son doesn’t come anymore and my daughter is only here because she is doing the bookeeping. Pray, PRAY HARD!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Brian. It is really effective if you can get the remaining members to buy in.

  • I have been pastoring a failing church for just over a year (I was not aware of the gravity of it when I came).Humbly, in spite of me, God is turning us around. The church would have had all eight checkmarks a year ago. Now, we have none. We have had 17 baptisms (8 over 30) in the last 12 months. The previous pastor and the church decided after almost 30 years that it was time to part ways. The problem I face is that the pastor still lives in the area and out of an arrangement with the church, purchased the parsonage. Unknown to me, he kept his keys and would go in and out of the church, including my office. We have since changed the locks, but recently I have been asked if at the end of his interim if I would object to him being a member of the congregation, which technically he still is. Several of my deacons were hand picked by him and even though they are nice men, are not qualified. Knowing personally what he did here, and being a small community, I struggle with him coming back so soon as the church has turned around. I would appreciate prayer in this area.

    Thanks, Glenn

  • Harold Hambley says on

    I am a Church Health Consultant working with churches just like you described Dr Rainer. I encourage pastors to gather their leadership on Saturday and work through a Vision Path process for about 13 weeks. If a church is without a pastor I suggest that they call an intentional interim for one year. I have seen churches turn around and begin getting well once again.

  • Biker Missionary says on

    God moved me from a church with many of these issues. They continue to struggle today. I learned a great deal about patience and crafting persuasive arguments there. Just maybe God used me to foster some awareness and start them toward some positive changes. My heart still hurts for them.

  • Sharon Bishop says on

    Our preacher and his wife run our church. Total disrespect for others. The members that want change will not speak up. Sad.

  • TrueBluePT says on

    That description fits a large number of churches including one I am serving now. I have talked a great deal about changing the focus and characteristics of thriving versus declining churches. We’ve seen a few positive results, but the most vital ministries of the church are carried out by a very small number of disciples and most members ignore the mission of the church and focus on buildings, policies, and trying to live in the past so I don’t see much hope for the church to become
    healthy and faithful. I wonder what God thinks of those who have “hijacked” his church and pretend that it is their private club and they can set the agenda?

  • Great article, fantastic comments, love being part of the global church which stretches across denominations & movements. Reading the comments reaffirms we are spiritual kin, empathetic to my bretheren’s struggles. Societies trends & expectations change so quickly, as do neighbourhoods, it is folly for the church to try and keep up. Be confident of God’s Word, preach it in season & out of season, strive for unity, gentle changes, take the congregation with you, reassure them, remember people who have invested so much over decades do not want to see the church close.

    But most of all pray!

  • Randall says on

    Dr. Rainer
    I am just a part time student minister at my church. But I see so many of these signs at my church and the senior pastor is a great guy but he seems to be doing nothing other than coasting along. He has been here over 24 years and loves this church but I think he will be here when the doors close if nothing happens. My heart is burdened for dying churches and now that I am at one and see the decline happening, I want to help. But like I said I am a youth guy and part time and doubt anyone will listen or if it is even my place. But if there is anything I can do, I open to all suggestions.

  • Ed Boyett says on

    It seems we have more and more churches interested in convince, no services on Sunday nights so families can spend time together or not having services on certain Sunday nights because it falls on or close to a holiday.
    It seems to me, we are excepting to much of the world into our churches by not using this time to show the lost world, that praising God is more important than the things of this world.