The Five Kinds of Churches That Must Change or Die

Change or die.

Imagine hearing those words from your physician. I hope you would be motivated to change. Eat well. Exercise. Stop smoking.

You get the picture.

Okay, I have some tough news for you who are members or leaders of about 100,000 churches in America.

Change or die.

You read that correctly. In fact, if your churches don’t make substantive changes in the next few years, your church will die.

So what churches are at risk? Instead of naming the specific churches, I have listed them in five categories. The categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  1. Shallow roots. These churches are no longer rooted in Scripture. They have drifted from the clear teachings of the Bible to a secular or social approach to ministry, which is really not ministry at all.
  2. Self-entitled. Another name for these churches are “country club” churches. The members demand the church serve them. They have to have things done their way, or they will leave. After all, the pay their “dues” (offerings) for their perks and privileges.
  3. Negatively critical. The members of these churches spend more time criticizing than they do evangelizing. They are in regular conflict. Some run off pastors. They wear out pastors and staff and “good” church members.
  4. Ignorantly idolatrous. It’s easier to get away with heresy in these churches than to make certain changes. No one can use the parlor. We can only have a certain style of music. We better not mess up my service by adding another service. In each of these cases, the members have idols, though they would deny it vociferously.
  5. Evangelistically anemic. The Great Commission is the great omission in these churches. Church members no longer share the gospel. Maybe the pastor is not evangelistic either. There are no new Christians in the church.

Nearly one of three churches will die in the next few years. They must change. Or they will die.

I wrote Who Moved My Pulpit? to provide leaders a roadmap to lead change in their churches. I wrote out of conviction and a broken heart. I wrote it with the prayer and hope that it can be used to make a difference.

Maybe I wrote it for your church.

Maybe I wrote it for you.

Change or die.

For many of you, there is a choice.

But time is quickly running out.

Who Moved my Pulpit? Video Trailer

Posted on June 6, 2016

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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  • Matthew Brown says on

    Hi Thom,

    I just finished reading Who Moved My Pulpit. Fantastic. Two things struck me right from the beginning. First, chapter 1 assumes most resistance and issues are predictable. In my years working with churches (I’ve been a denominational executive, staff pastor, and lead pastor…which is what I’m still doing now), I’ve learned that many explosive issues are unpredictable. They are landmines that are hidden until they blow up. Churches are even worse at communicating possible landmines than pastors are about communicating about change.

    Second, it calls out numerous failures of Derek (and spends the balance of the book unpacking the solutions to those failures). But it doesn’t reflect the fundamental failure, in my mind, which isn’t the change STRATEGY, it’s the change MOTIVATION. That is, rather than just not praying, not assessing consequences (see above re: landmines), not communicating about the change, dealing with people issues, or modeling positive leadership, the biggest failure I have seen is a distraction from the reason for the change. In my experience, good leaders implement change well using all of these noted strategies; great leaders do so while keeping focus on the REASON for the change.

    And re: moving the pulpit, beyond just “an evolving preaching style,” the real reason for the change is, “It will be more effective in reaching people for Jesus.” It seems that both Derek and the congregation members got caught up in the what and the how, and (as a consequence) became distracted from the WHY. Of course, staying focused on the why ultimately manifests in each of the above strategies, but the entire organization needs to be oriented toward the ultimate mission, not just the short-term method. The most effective leaders, in my experience, don’t just implement change effectively; they constantly and repeatedly ‘connect the dots’ between the reason and the change, the ultimate goal and the path to get there, the mission and the method.

    From what I have observed, church leaders and pastors (maybe especially pastors) have a tendency to get caught up in the what and how; but the biggest predictor of success in implementing change is an ability to sell the why.

    Of course, I’m speaking not just from observing congregations, but from my own failures at each of these strategic elements, including keeping focused on the why!

    Love the book. I think it’s a brilliant and necessary resource, and our leadership team will be reading it together over the summer.

    (Just a typo FYI…on p. 94, it says, ““most church members can pay their on way.”)

  • Gerald Wolfe says on

    What I personally witness across the country is chronic apathy, and complete absence of the convicting and energizing power of the Holy Spirit. We can try all kinds of approaches, but there is no substitute for brokenness, which leads to repentance, which leads to authentic revival, followed by real evangelism.
    “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Jesus Christ (John 12:32)

  • I’ve been a pastor for 21 years, and I’ve found #2 is all too common even among Bible-believing churches. If a church has all five of these characteristics, then it may very well deserve to die.

  • Bert Watson says on

    Reminds me of the old story about the primitive lifesaving station that eventually evolved into an exclusive country club. Over time, the people lost sight of their purpose. It became more and more about their own comfort and entertainment and less and less about the plight of those in danger of drowning. The last line of the story reads, “There are still shipwrecks in those waters; but most of the people drown….”

  • Christopher says on

    I believe an underlying factor with all of these points is lack of persecution. Up to this point we have enjoyed unprecedented religious freedom and comfort in this country and the result is all of the issues you listed. Persecution is the refining fire that burns away selfishness, trivialities, and apathy and forces churches to find firm footing on Christ and His word. I’m not saying I want to be persecuted but I believe that the church in this country will not experience true revival until it comes under persecution.

    • Hi Christopher,
      May I add to the lack of persecution also the lack of desperation. We’ve been doing a Bible Study on the Fruit of the Spirit and we were talking about faithfulness, and the amazing things that can happen when we trust God completely with our churches. In our discussion we shared some thoughts and came to realise that the problem with some churches is that we are not desperate enough to give God the freedom to do as He will. We don’t see God’s faithfulness to us when we risk ourselves because we don’t need to risk ourselves – even though our attendance is slowly declining and our bank balance is decreasing, we still have enough people and enough money to keep doing what we always do. God seems to be our last port of call rather than our first port of call. And yet sadly, God doesn’t need us to be desperate for Him to be faithful and do amazing things when we allow our church to be His church.

  • Last church I left was a combination of 2-5, with a double hit on 3. I left the ministry completely as a result, and rarely attend now, with no plans to EVER officially join a church again.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      No churches are perfect, Shawn, but there are some healthy ones. Don’t give up on her.

    • Kevin Wayne Woods says on

      No Church is perfect. You need to seek the Lord and let Him show to a bible-believing church where all of the Word of God Is taught. It will take time and patience but if you let the Lord lead guide and direct you, you will find the place that God has intended for you to serve in.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for your timely post. This is exactly where the church I serve is. We are especially struggling with numbers 4 and 5. We voted last year to seek intentional revitalization, and our revitalization team just read your book Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I just last week purchased copies of Who Moved My Pulpit? for the team, and I am praying that we will be able to see God’s guidance in making the necessary changes to make our church once again an effective Kingdom force in our community.

  • Apathetic, just don’t care anymore, just going through the motions because that’s what they’ve always done.

  • Terry Wilson says on

    I recently left a church where was serving as assistant pastor. This church fit every o e of those descriptions! It was hard to witness and be a part of. I stayed through a lot of it because I did not a have a clear directive from God to leave. One of the hardest things I had to do in ministry was witness these things that I know is detrimental but not be able to change it. I tried, over and over. These members were so closed hearted and unrepentive that all they wanted behind the pulpit was a live body. They didn’t care what was said or preached from there! It was heart breaking to watch. God has since called me to serve at another church. Though small, it is spiritually alive. From my experience from the other church it has taught me a lot. Most of all it made me appreciate and truly love the members of this church I am at now.

    Thanks for all you do to aid struggling churches.

    Pastor Terry Wilson

  • Edward Morales says on

    Good post. I would add something concerning the Great Commandment( love God with all your heart, mind, body, soul, strength) and the one just like it (love your neighbor). I do not believe you can do the Great Commission unless you first live out the Great Commandment and also love your neighbor. It’s a great weakness within many churches. It is the #1 problem if you ask me. People have to reflect the love and service of Christ and mean it. That’s the only way true evangelism and discipleship will work in my opinion. How can you teach another person faithfully if you don’t love God and the people He loves and died for? Sounds easy, but not so much when one intentionally tells a guest they are in “their” seat at church or when one unintentionally finds out no one on staff looks physically different than they do. How can an active leader or member leave a dying church and never much care to send a prayer or care to ever communicate with people he or she has once served? Paul didn’t show this when he wrote to the churches? Maybe I’m going to write a book or article on this one day too. 🙂

  • Daniel Norman says on

    I have served in several of these churches. It’s heart breaking how they have no concern for the pastor’s and their families they cast out for the sake of control and status quo faith.

  • As a child, I remember the country clubs and the churches you describe (now in retrospect). Most churches I have attended over the last 9 months have one or more of these issues. I’m especially sensitive after being a worship leader and pastor since 1996. Once disillusioned and having no desire to be a part of a church, God called me into ministry. He has a great sense of humor! I am seeing there is still hope for churches to turn around. God is still able!

    • Absolutely. Thank you, Matthew.

    • Jann Evans says on

      Thank you so much Thom for your clarity of your written message. Thank you for Speaking Up!
      I too have been to a few of these Churches. 1 stands out. The Parishioners were consumed with “keeping things as they have always been”, meaning the pomp & ceremony which I find difficult to place alongside the ministry of Jesus. The gold was all but falling out of the Church doors! The new Reverand put the golden silk robes away in the closet along with the gold challis and gold crucifixes. Parishioners were up in arms & after some years our wonderful Reverand had to take sick leave for an extended period of time. The parishioners were eating him alive! Peter is this Reverand’s name & I believe his simple and beautiful wooden crucifixes were wonderful. Peter finally retired in 2012. He wasn’t broken but it was only a matter of time before he was. Imagine if you can, a beautiful Church built of Sydney (Australia) Sandstone & Sydney Cedar. Many Sunday’s Peter drove onto this Church’s grounds only to be met with the most vile words written on A4 paper & attached to the Church with sticky tape, for all to see including those who simply drove past. Other days he was faced with how to remove red paint from sandstone walls which carried the most vile & deprecating words & sentences. Such filth all over the Church’s 4 walls and surrounding walls.
      I was a Parish Councillor. I resigned shortly into my second year as no one would stand up to this one agitator who was somehow able to spur so very many “parishioners” into doing his evil. Satan comes from all walks of life. I was a witness to Satan at work.
      The Church still exists today yet the Parishioners have dwindled to such an extent that the Sydney Diocese has accepted that within 5 years it will be a “token” Church. It will be opened for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Heart breaking is an understatement.

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