Five Reasons Why Churches Are Dying and Declining Faster Today

“In the past, I’ve been able to lead churches to growth. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

A pastor shared those sentences with me just three days ago.

He was frustrated. He was confused. He was exhausted.

And he is not alone.

With some exceptions, it is indeed more difficult to lead churches to growth. Such is a reality that is about 15 years in the making. The obvious question is “Why?” Allow me to articulate five of those reasons.

  1. Cultural Christianity is declining rapidly. It is really a misnomer to call it “cultural Christianity,” since it’s not true faith in Christ. In the past, many people felt it was culturally, economically, or politically advantageous to be a part of a congregation, even if they weren’t true believers in Christ. These attending non-believers padded our numbers. Or to say it another way, the pool of willing attenders has diminished greatly.
  2. The exit of the Builder generation. The Builder generation has kept many churches alive, even if the congregations are on life support. This generation, born before 1946, is fiercely loyal to institutions, including local churches. They stuck with congregations in good and bad times. But, in 2015, there were only 28 million Builders left. Another 13,000 Builders die every week. The loyal generation is few in number and will soon be no more.
  3. Migration from rural areas and small towns to the cities. In 1790, only 5% of Americans lived in cities. By the 1960s, the percentage of Americans in cities skyrocketed to 65%. Today over 80% of Americans are city dwellers. Rural and small-town churches held on tenaciously to their members for over two centuries. But the population base for those tenacious churches has dwindled dramatically.
  4. Faster church transfers. Those who are transferring from one church to another are concentrating in fewer churches. Simply stated, a few churches are getting bigger at the expense of smaller churches. While that phenomenon has been in play for quite a while, it is now accelerating. The old barrier that held people in specific churches – family connections, denominational loyalty, and loyalty to a specific congregation – are no longer barriers today. People move with great freedom from church to church.
  5. Slow response to change as change accelerates all around us. Many churches are incredibly slow to change. For most of our American history, the pace of cultural and technological change was sufficiently paced for churches to lag only five to ten years. Now churches are lagging 20 and 30 years as the pace of change increases dramatically. To many attendees and members, the church thus seems increasingly irrelevant. To be clear, I am speaking about issues of style, methodology, and awareness, not changing doctrine or biblical truths. A church guest I recently interviewed said it clearly: “I stuck with my parents’ church as long as I could. But when we had a big blow up over projection screens in the worship center, I had enough. I wanted to go to a church where matters of minutia were not issues to fight over.”

If you think it is more difficult to lead a church to growth, you are right. If you have noticed the decline in your church is greater, you are probably right as well. And if you are to the point of realization that your church may die in the next few years, it may come sooner than that.

In a future post, I will address how smaller churches can deal with these challenges. Warning: the solutions are simple but not easy.

Posted on September 14, 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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  • Ron Whited says on

    I can’t help but believe that if every Christian would return to his roots,meaning the first love,that the great majority of these issues would be solved.

    Imagine what would happen in our churches if we actually did prefer one another before ourselves. It’s not likely that you would hear someone say “never in MY church”again.

    And how much more receptive would the younger generations be to the elders if they actually witnessed Christ in action instead of dead tradition?

    I guess what I’m saying is that the problems the church is struggling with are only insurmountable when we attempt to figure them out apart from God.

    All of these issues mentioned in this post can quickly be eradicated by doing two things: love God with our whole hearts, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

    Of course,most will reject this as too simple. Yet it seemed to work pretty well for a church I read about in Acts.

  • #5B…outright refusal to change/accept change.

    Last church I was at, a Spanish speaking congregation wanted to lease the building to use for their services, scheduled around ours.

    I’ll never forget when the congregation voted the proposal down, and one of the “builder” generation members looked right at me and said “never in MY church.”

    A few years later, the church folded, and, the Spanish speaking group had affiliated with a different church since then. That church bought the property and the Spanish speaking group, among others, use it today.

  • Gary F.
    While the percentage of rural persons is down, the actual numbers are up. So, # 3 does not hold water. And take another look at the death rate of rural churches. I do not believe that rural SBC churches are all that endangered.

  • Reading some of these last responses i keep thinking, sorry…”touchy, feely”. Example…they desire, they desire, they desire. Although correct, it is sooo Not scriptually correct.
    From what i can tell EVERY godly leader in the bible did 3 things, love God, deeply examplify/teach “God”, and look the people square in the eye and tell them “it aint about you”. I believe the next great godly leader, and i believe there will be a few very shortly to cry out in defense of God, will be known for doing just those 3…without regard to all this modern strategic seminar type stuff.
    And agree the field, even among “christians” is very ripe for harvest!!

    • Rick,

      Do not agree with everything, but I am not trying to give a “seminar” but provide examples of why we do not need as much programming and need more biblical discipleship. I will say, Christ did validate people, this is known as “high invitation” and then He told them to change-“high challenge”. (Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture”)

  • Phil Hoover says on

    The real question should be:

    Where does God want this local church?

  • Dan Taylor says on

    Churches also seem to be one program after another instead of the example that Jesus set, simply gathering and learning blossoming out of it. Churches are very formulaic now. Go in, greet each other, sing 3 songs, hear a prepared message, sing 1 more song and be dismissed. Sounds like a fun time, right ? This is a different generation looking for a more personal connection. I don’t know how we get there, but I believe I’ve identified the problem.

  • Dr. Rainer, thank you for the thought provoking article. I am a graduate from a conservative Christian college with degrees in youth ministry and theology and now market for an outdoor outfitter (my wife and I believe this industry needs the hope of Christ). My current area of study for work is millennial marketing. While the translation from marketing to church membership is not always simple, I have noticed through research that millennials innately desire a few specific things.

    1. They desire people to value them as people, not as numbers.

    2. They desire their opinions to be validated.

    3. They desire to reach contemporaries with their message but in a non-threatening way.

    4. They desire to be apart of a greater group.

    5. They desire truth and honesty in relationships.

    6. They hate inconsistencies with authority and desire immediate change.

    Through this research I have gained many insights for work, but when I apply this to ecclesiology, I am struck by how ripe this generation is for a harvest, specifically discipleship. It may cause churches to change, but the good news is, it requires the change to be biblical!

    • May I respond to each of the following?

      1. Fair enough, but people are flawed, and they are no exception.

      2. Do they want their opinions validated even if said opinions are erroneous?

      3. Define “non-threatening”. The gospel, by its very nature, threatens a person’s sense of well-being if the person does not know Christ. That’s why it’s an offense to the world.

      4. Then why do so many of us have so much trouble getting them involved in church?

      5. Even if that means their opinions are not validated?

      6. As far as “inconsistency” goes, see response #1. As far as wanting “immediate change”, life doesn’t always work that way.

      In short, if what you say is true, then it seems to me millennials need to wake up and realize this world does not revolve around them. It never did and it never will.

      • CORRECTION: “May I respond to each of the following?” should read, “May I respond to each of your points?” I hope millennials don’t find that “inconsistent” on my part. It only proves what I said in response #1. 🙂

      • I completely agree with many of your points–that is why I believe that discipleship is so necessary. In fact, starting with #6, discipleship reveals inconsistency is the lives of both people and demands change.

        #5: Discipleship is a platform that promotes truth and honesty while validating people as people.

        #4: They want to have a deep connection with that group, something discipleship provides.

        #3: Discipleship helps them to see that to truly love their friends they must present the Gospel to them.

        #2: Discipleship validates a person and helps them to see they are loved, even when someone disagrees with them.

        #1: I believe this one is obvious, but biblical discipleship shows that they are valued by the person.

        I am not presenting a “magic pill”, I am encouraging us as the Church to be biblical, and part of being biblical is making disciples and helping people to grow in the image of Christ.

  • My husband pastors the church we were both saved and married in. He was a lay speaker and loved to fill the pulpit when asked. We left this church for almost 20 yrs. The church split, and dwindled to about 10 people. Pastor thought he had missed his calling by not attending seminary for being a pastor. I never wanted to be a pastors wife, cause I saw the struggles and stress the pastors and wives went through in this church where we attended years ago.
    Interestingly, a man from this congregation of 10 people came to my husband and asked him to consider being pastor of this church. His response, ” I’ve never been to seminary!” That didn’t matter to him. They needed a pastor.
    We talked and prayed about it, and neither one of us could say, no. So, we, together have been pastoring this little church for over 3 years now. We have around 20, give or take, on Sunday’s. We are missing younger couples/singles. Seems like our age group is 45-85, the majority 60-up.
    Our people love the Lord, but, I think we are not going outside the 4 walls. I know that we need “door knockers” as one pastor called them, in his church. My husband pastor works a full time job still, and even does side jobs to provide income since I don’t work outside the home.
    It is so rewarding to see growth in our people and see how they want to continue to grow in their relationship with Jesus! But it also can be draining to work with someone who has an addiction and all that goes with that!
    Pastors and wives need lots of prayer for the ministry God has given them. We can look back, and see how God was preparing us along the way, for where we are now.

  • Hey Thom, curios to
    Know- in the churches that are accelerating, what is their prayer life like, versus those who are drastically declining and becoming irrelevant.

  • It seems to me that one factor that gets little (or no) attention in discussions like this is the concept of succession of leadership. It seems that the older generations never get around to training (or discipling) their replacements. We seem to hold a false idea of discipleship in which we try to train people to become more like us. Instead, we should spend a lot of time trying to train people to become us.
    On the flip side is the group of people we are (or are not) discipling. They typically believe that the leadership will always be the leadership until they die off. At that time, and with little or no preparation, the younger generation will become the leaders. And, it is their belief that things have ALWAYS been that way.
    The older people are afraid that they will be replaced by the younger people when, in fact, that is exactly the way it is supposed to work. Our goal is to make ourselves unnecessary. The younger people are afraid that they will never become the leaders of the church
    The strongest churches always seem to have an intentional transition program in place. Everyone involved knows where they are. Everyone involved knows where they are headed. And, everyone involved knows the plan for moving from where we are to where we are going.
    I am certainly not saying that the five factors are unrelated to this, but an intentional plan of succession would go a long way toward focusing the church on being the church.

  • another one thing about dying churches can be looked if there are dying Christian stores that are running losses because no one turned up to buy Christian materials.. it is a sign about the popularity of the church dwindling down.. a church is an advertisement of God’s grace.. but when churches don’t advertise, they don’t help spread other areas as well.

  • Church is basically a religious social club. Jesus was not to fond of religious people neither am I. As a 15 yr. pastor the best decision of my life was to get out! I’m now living a wonderfully free life. Perhaps the church is shrinking is because many like myself are waking up .

    • “..Perhaps the church is shrinking is because many like myself are waking up”!!

      Waking up to……what, exactly? I’m glad you left, too. Pastors are chosen (by the Lord God Himself) to LEAD. Which confuses the ‘purpose’ of your call since the ‘body’ of a church can never be greater than the ‘head’ CALLED to lead that church. I cannot reconcile the fact that if you were truly chosen why would your 15 years, as a pastor, not make a dent in these ‘religious social clubs’? Sounds like the apostacy is not only in full swing but the Lord God himself is happily (and prophetically) allowing the pastoral herd to be thinned. So, yes I am glad you stepped down. In the 32 years walking in Christ we agree then that there are too few leaders effectively convicting their congregants to lead changed lives.