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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  • Philip Holmes says on

    I have served three Southern Baptist churches as senior pastor, served in three other SBC churches on staff in various capacities prior to pastorates, and as an IMB missionary overseas. The Lord was gracious to me by placing me in ministry as a Director of Missions with the same denomination. I love the Lord and love His churches with my whole heart! I have given nothing, in comparison to what the Lord has given, but I have poured my life into helping the body of Christ become more like Him, and then be obedient followers/servants. Many of the church members want to be and do, in that order. However, my experience has been that most church members are suffering from putting doing ahead of being…we can’t do the ministry without being Christ first. Romans 6 tells us we died with Christ, so that He can live through us. Most hearts, however, seem to be growing cold (Matt. 24:12) as we approach the end days.
    I am a wounded soldier in ministry, let go by the “few” who welded power over the body, for reasons never spoken. I have witnessed the wickedness of sin in the church, even though they were unaware of their sin, as the church stood by helplessly to do anything about it. I have watched, in 31 years of ministry, the steady decline of biblical literacy, power brokers reek havoc, and self-seeking attitudes that fail to ask our Master what He would have us be and do.
    I don’t stand in judgment of the church, but I am a keen observant of the roadblocks the real enemy puts up, and your timely article is relevant because it’s the truth. Some of our churches have already died, they are just prolonging the visitation and funeral service. I’m not flippant with that statement, but deeply saddened by it.

  • Frank R. Jassir says on

    Just finished reading the “Who Moved My Pulpit”, book and all of the different scenarios I have seen occur. I am working on assisting in the changes and will use all the information shared as a great lead to accomplish this change..
    Thank you and you are a great mentor by the books you share and valid points made in all the variety of issues.

    Frank R. Jassir

  • Roger W says on

    A lot depends upon how a Church is administrated. If the Pastor gets to make up the body of the Administrative people, and doesn’t wisely do so, the Church will eventually have failures. The hardest job the Pastor has, is to convert his own congregation.

    Leadership is seeing to it that right things are done; Management is concerning about doing things the right way.

    Gilbert Chesterton said; ” the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

  • So true. Thank you Dr. Rainer.

    As I read the above, my mind drifted back to those churches which I pastored which your list defined. The emotions of sadness… anger… asking God why… playing the blame game… all crossed my mind again.

    For we pastors who have been there, it hurts. It hurts deeply. It deals us an ugly hand which affects us emotionally, physically and spiritually.

    If we are not careful, we can walk away from a people who need us… a people God called us to serve… a people who needs to see the bottom before they see the top… A people who want to know if we are willing to take on the ugly with grace and truth. The previous 10 pastors didn’t and many do not expect you to.

    I once told God, in the heat of the church battle, i did not deserve this. He told me I was right. I soon learned He meant it one way, I meant it another.

    It is a battle and God has provided everything we need to fight the fight from victory, not for it. Eph. 6

    I confess, I have walked away earlier than I should have. I have repented and God has responded.

    The church I currently pastor and the one I pray that I can remain until I retire or the Lord returns does not fit any of the things in Dr. Rainer’s list.

  • Clark Dunlap says on

    I think the biggest problem is #5. Not that the others don’t exist but we are in such a fast changing culture that people no longer know how to engage others with the gospel. More people used to seek out a church when they moved to a new area. Few do that today. People used to see some benefit to being a part of a faith community. There are too many other social supplements to that these days. Some believers don’t know anyone who doesn’t already know they (the believers) are believers and while they are willing to have a gospel conversation if the situation arises, they don’t see an opening and don’t want to risk damaging the relationship they have, in order to start such a conversation. Add to all this the natural fear of rejection and the hesitancy of our flesh and you have churches who are grateful for the gospel and wishing they could be more evangelistic but who have no clue what to do about it.

  • Great article, Thom. I’ve been involved in church ministry since 1994 and was called as Pastor in 2009. I’ve seen and heard each one of your categories at different places along the way, and for me at first, it confused me. I found myself thinking, “How does this frame of mind take root in a Christian/Church Member’s life?”

    Then I found myself using up large amounts of my time and resources trying to diagnose these perspectives, with the best of intentions, which were to promote a healthy church and healthy ministry. In retrospect, I think my well-intentioned efforts were a waste of time.

    Here’s where I am now: Jesus Christ is alive and He stands high and lifted up, and the saving power of the Gospel has never relaxed or become lazy! Jesus Christ is not the sluggard and sleepyhead in Proverbs 6, we are.

    Who do we think we are when we say, “It’s time for us to take a stand” against this or against that. Where is our Lord Jesus in this? Sleeping? Relaxing? Taking the day off?

    I believe the Church is infected with a form of self-righteousness that is so subtle and so dangerous that we dump so much of our time, money, and resources into diagnosing this category of people and “fixing” that category of people, and I believe we’re failing God.

    I’m called to be a “hands-on” Pastor, and my prayer is that I will show and share Christ’s love to any and all that He puts in my path.

    The media says I need to be afraid that the man dressed like a woman is going to come to church and attack our children. The media says I need to be afraid that a radical Muslim is going to come to church with a weapon and open fire.

    The media says I need to pour huge amounts of my time and resources into diagnosing and fixing these categories of people.

    Your article is great and contains some very insightful information, and in conclusion, I want to issue a challenge to your audience. Be careful how much time and resources you spend diagnosing and classifying people into these categories because you may be overlooking the one person who has fallen into all of them: yourself.

    May the Lord bless you all!

    • Deborah says on

      Just reading this now as the original post as been reposted. Love your comment J.T. – we are spending a lot of time keeping people out of our organized churches because of fear. We are trying to keep “the faithful” happy and ignoring those that we need as much as they need us – the captives, the poor and broken-hearted, those that need the Good News. Isaiah 61; Luke 4:18. It grieves me to think that those in trouble no longer run to church because they can’t trust us to love unconditionally. We epitomize judgement rather than love. How did this happen?
      I pray for myself and for our churches to understand that “sticking to the clear teachings of the Bible” and “sharing the Gospel” are for the purpose of bringing people into relationship with Jesus, not to puff ourselves up or to give us new ways to judge others.

  • Chris Nelson says on

    It is so sickening, modern evangelicalism with their guru’s who say this and that and the other. I am ready to leave and join a solid, reformed church where Christ is exalted, explained, and where everything is not ordered to “change or die” every 3 months like in the SBC I used to serve in. May Christ save the SBC from the pragmatists, the unregenerate and the apostates that seem to be running it.

  • Thank you for your insight Dr. Rainer. It seems that our Lord has blessed my family with the opportunity to pastor troubled churches. Each church WAS near closure. But our Lord and His remnant in each of the churches were will to embrace change through much prayer, fasting, and a pastor with a backbone. Pastors, be patient, cast a vision, pray constantly, and trust the Lord for the increase. Your masters degree or doctorate can never replace loving people more than your position. There will be battle scars. I have a few. But the rewards are out of this world.

  • some churches are dead before they are gone. and some churches will ruin your faith with their caustic culture (and then blame you for your lack of faith).

    it can be hard to know when to trust God in a situation by hanging on or when to trust God by moving on. But I think I would rather be in a church that is humble and learning than one that is too sure of itself. I think maybe humility is even more important than the doctrinal correctness we so proudly wave (though no doubt, some would claim that their doctrinal correctness is a sign of their humility). I’m not saying I’m the most humble person — but it’s hard to learn true humility from arrogant people.

    Perhaps this is a matter of knowing myself and my own weaknesses; I have heard of stronger people working to change their churches and church cultures. Maybe I’m not that strong. Or maybe that’s not my place. I’m still working it out.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • I’ve been a part of some Evangelistically Anemic church. There’s no life. No vibrancy.

    It feels like we’re all on a hay ride hitched to a tractor with no wheels. Instead of wondering why we’re not going, everyone is admiring the view of the cornfields while trying to make their bales more comfortable.

    Seeing the body of Christ become a couch potato is depressing, Thom. It’s especially hard as a staff pastor who had little influence with his superiors. I’m no longer serving at that church, fortunately. Unsurprisingly – neither is my former boss.

  • I would suggest the book by Charles E. New old “The Harlot Church System”. You can’t fix churches. It’s about relationship with Jesus Christ. The body of Christ is everywhere we go. Embrace it.

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