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

  • Rev Gus Barnes says on

    Dr. Rainer sadly this is just the case for the Church I serve. I have been here for four months they are paying me on the lowest scale as far as salary, they have not been paying my benefits thankfully I am on my spouses insurance. The congregation is aware but there is no effort to fix things, they are hoping for something to fall from the sky,

  • Great post dr. Rainer… very helpful!

  • I have got to say that this article is 100% accurate!

    I was a pastor at a megachurch and came to a small town to do some church growth consulting for one of the churches. I prepared a growth strategy and they asked me to come on board as the Lead Pastor for two years and execute the plan. This church exhibited EVERY single sign that this article identifies.

    The congregation was aging and there was no vision for generational ministry. It was a very self-centered church where discipleship was “how can you serve me,” not “how may I serve Him.” The church is more than a century old and was very steeped in tradition and was nostalgic about the glory days. The congregation had dwindled to 20-30 adults and 2 children.

    We came on board the week of Palm Sunday. Due to the season that the transition fell upon, the elders decided to approach the changes in an instantaneous manner and it felt like a Band-Aid and ripped it off a fresh wound. I knew that this approach would instantly vilify me to many of the congregants, but we decided to proceed.

    We started a social media marketing campaign under the new rebranded banner a couple of weeks before I arrived, and the communication strategy was not followed by the transition team.

    I arrived at a church full of angry hurt people, that were portraying me as the antichrist in our community.

    The most beloved pillars of our congregation set out to try to destroy me, but God had his hand on the transition. I felt absolute hatred from many people who never even had a conversation with me. When faced with such intense opposition, I began to seek the Lord to make sure that I was following his direction for this church.

    There was a moment that God quickened a scripture that really ministered to me.

    “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, NIV)

    We changed EVERYTHING! We changed the worship style, the décor, the children and youth ministry, and the church came back to life. In the last 10 months we have added about 150 people to our congregation, while several local churches have closed their doors. God is doing something new in our congregation.

    Our greatest critics in our community today are the people who were our members and did not want the church to grow. They had zero interest in winning souls, zero interest in ministering to kids, and zero interest in people that were unchurched. Fortunately, the voices of those who are excited about the new life are starting to outnumber the critics.

    It was an incredibly rough transition and it was personally taxing to my family, but I want to speak up. If there is anyone who reads this article and contemplates if it is worth the difficulty of making changes, I want you to know that it was 100% worth the pain and the struggle.

    If this congregation did not make the changes, it would not survive the next 5 years.

    Make sure that your leadership team is on board, this will be a season that their resolve will be tested.

  • Music ministry is a major factor in church attendance. The abandonment of the pipe organ in favor of pianos and guitars is an outrage.

    If most churches kept use of organ music during worship there would be a greater sense of fulfillment of the holy mass and greater mass attendance.

    The pipe organ is a sacred instrument and needs to be brought back in all churches.

    Do I want to paradise Lord Jesus Christ in song with clanky pianos, thudding drums and twangy guitars? Aboslutely not! Nor do most other church attendees. Leave the rock and roll to those heathenistic mega churches.

  • I appreciated your article, I read each and every comment also. My church doesn’t really fit into any of those eight rules, but it’s slowly dwindled down to maybe 15,members, even our pastor has left and everyone that’s left it hasn’t really been because of conflict. We don’t really have any elderly. And the last six to eight months I’ve stepped up into leadership positions, which I don’t feel is my calling, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to save my church, but it’s all taking a toll on the whole church, spiritually and financially. No one can really give advice without knowing all the details, but when do you know when enough is enough? I want to stay and fight for my church, but in general when does one know when to go elsewhere. I’ve prayed and I’m seeking wisdom from others also.

  • Ed Spann says on

    I was looking forward find a comment about the recent 8 reasons that churches are about to die. One comment you made concerned those churches who have many Senior adults are about ready to die. To this question as well as a solution – namely singing more hymns which are full of scripture and based on biblical theology and not want and wishes f the singer. I sent you this reply, but you failed to answer or even mention this subject. Since I am not to “up-to=sate” on com[putters maybe these was something I left out in my comment. Please clarify this for me.

  • Ron Auvil says on

    Question—- as a Church ages, what would be considered a ‘good’ average age of the members. What would be considered a ‘dangerous’ average member age?

    One thing I do know, demographics are relentless.

  • Left off “ageism is as wrong as sexism AND racism”

    • Rev. Mark H. Stephenson says on

      Churches do die. They reach their sell by date and its time to move on. God has not left us. We are just being invited to do something new.

  • Mark, I’m curious. What discouraged you? Do you think those of any age dealing with serious health issues should hide them at church, or reach out for prayer support? Had you walked into a room of 20 somethings and the first two prayer requests were a young single mom battling breast cancer and a teenager with a brain tumor, would you have reacted differently? What if the people instead of being older than you had been a different color than you?

    Ageism is as wrong as sexism. I’ve actually known a pastor who didn’t mind there being a senior adult SS class AS LONG AS THEY MET upstairs and out of sight. What does that say? Does it not say “we only let the cool kids sit at our table?”

    The Bible refers to older Christians as elders, not some newly minted right out of seminary guy as elder. It tells us to honor the elders, listen to the elders, be taught by the elders.

    Are we to build churches based on rebelling against God’s Word?

  • George Lawton says on

    I serve a small church with around 20 faithful members. We are stable in numbers and in financial support. We have a couple but not all of your points. I disagree with one point. Our stance is that we will never run out of old people; we keep making them. Our job, since that our community context, is to provide what the seniors need and want. Lack of drastic change is one of those things.

  • Mackenzie says on

    So about #3…

    How do you come back from that? Conventional wisdom would say a 22 year old is going to look at a room of 60-70 year olds and go somewhere else.

    I’ve been pondering this, and I think maybe spend a year or two marketing to people in their 50s, since they’re not *that* much younger than the existing members. Then do a couple years trying to get people in their 40s, since those people in their 50s will now make that seem less uncomfortable for them. Then the 30s, then finally the 20s.

    Does that sound reasonable? Anyone tried this?

    • Another Anonymous Mark says on

      I am 44. My kids go to a different church for AWANA than we attend on Sunday since our church has no Wed program. Recently I tried to go to a prayer training class going on during AWANA. I walked in the room. It was full (that is good), but is anyone was under 70 I’d be surprised. I tried to stick out. I tried to work the room. It was clear no one was interested in talking to me. The meeting started with prayer requests. After two people talked like it was a doctor’s chart breakdown I left. Totally discouraging.

  • Coleman–spot on!

    Rather than demonize those opposed to changes being suggested, why not listen and consider why they are opposed?

    We sat once as a minister demonized those opposed to gay marriage, to using generic terms rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and pro “born again.” We walked out that day and have not been back. No, it wasn’t all a church of seniors or mentally ill aka “lacking neuroplasticity” either. But the butts and bucks mentality sure painted it that way.

    If the pastor wants to change the music and is opposed, find out why. Is it truly preference driven or do the people believe the new music being offered is for some reason truly unfitting the church? If they oppose changing pews for chairs are they stick in the muds or aware of more pressing financial needs? If they oppose youth group being started is it because they don’t care about lost teens, or because they look at 60 years of youth focused church and see many decisions but few changed lives, and few of those youth in church at 25?

    Our church was dying with many of the 8 items in play. Now it is growing, still with the same items from the list being true of us.

    The difference has been individuals deciding, and then the group, that whether the church grows and prospers or dies is actually irrelevant–totally. What matters is two fold: are we evangelizing successfully, seeing not just decision cards signed but changed lives? And are we laying aside all the fads and must haves and latest and greatest gimmicks and just simply in song, in prayer, and in preaching and teaching sharing the truth of God’s Word?

    We went through a couple of those famous church growth books and realized we could pack out the place if we put a pole and dancer up front, offered free beer and MJ, and brought in laser lights, a smoke machine, and a rock band. Not being will to do those things, we began to peel off the layers of the world we had brought in, and return to being a church, not an entertainment center.

    Praise God that so far we are doing well, but if we close tomorrow, that is also ok. The great commission isn’t “go and grow churches” after all.