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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  • We have a meeting on the 2nd Sunday of December to discuss the direction our church needs to go from this point forward and we could tell when the meeting was announced the pastor was clearly frustrated. When we joined this church a few years ago we had a fairly healthy population on Sunday mornings but Sunday attendance has declined rapidly ever since. It’s a small country church founded in the mid 1800’s and I find that overall everyone wants the church to thrive but nobody wants to do the work to make it happen.
    Nobody wants to admit that for a church to survive in these modern times they must change. Not in biblical principles of course but the manner in which it operates. Churches in my area (central Ky) are still operating like its 1955. Many People today work six days a week. My church Sunday school is at 10 am service starts at 11 am goes to a little after 12 then there’s evening services at 7. So here we are the only day people have off is split in half so by the time all of the church services are done for the day there’s no time for family time or anything else for that matter. My fault your fault nobody’s fault it doesn’t matter. It is what it is and i believe if services were earlier in the morning and the evening services were done away with you would see greater participation. Another thing is the youth. We can’t get kids to go to church anymore. Folks Jesus is a 2 part journey. Part 1 is your journey to him and part 2 is your journey with him once you have found him. You can’t start with Jesus with children because by the time you do evolution has been shoved down their throats for years. Public schools have been effectively killing the Bible and belief in God for generations. Think about it. Once a child is convinced man came from apes rather than Gods creation what does that do to the rest of the Bible??? Anyone??? It renders the rest of it from Exodus to Revelation completely moot. How are you going to teach kids about Jesus if they don’t believe they were created by God in the first place? If Genesis is false how could any of it be true? Genesis is the most important book in the Bible because it sets the foundation for everything else and without the belief in our creation how can you believe in anything else? Also like I said before our church was founded in the 1800s. There was a time when our church like other small country churches serviced a small square area of the community that it was a center of. Since the invention of the automobile it has made it possible for people who live next-door to my church to drive 10 miles to attend another church. This is precisely why Amish travel by horse and buggy. It keeps them close knit with their families and their church districts. They can only go so far by horse and buggy and this is done completely by design. Another major issue I see with churches especially my own and that there is no community out reach. Cold knocking on peoples doors and saying let me tell you what Jesus has done for me today is only going to get the door slammed in your face 99% of the time! That does not work anymore! You have to have out reach you have to have reaching out! Start a food pantry, a grief support group, allow organizations like Alcoholics Annonymous have meetings in your fellowship hall. Take care of people in your own church who are down on their luck! We just recently had an ice storm the other day and some of our church members were without power for three and four days. I had a kerosene heater and a generator I could’ve lent any one of them but didn’t because I had no clue that any of them were without power! It’s a whole lot easier talking to people about what Jesus has done for you when they are going through hard times and down on their luck than it is when you’re walking up to a strange house cold-knocking on somebody’s door and interrupting them in the middle of a football game. It’s likely to get you shot!!! I’m not trying to sound like somebody who is trying to fit God into everybodys hectic life. We should be trying to fit our hectic lives in and around our Lord. I know this!!! We have done this to ourselves and a lot of this cannot be helped. Some of it can but a lot of it can’t. And I think if we can just get real with ourselves admit where the real issues are we can begin to solve the problems.

  • Since learning about church growth decline in Seminary in 1983, I have been studying this issue. I have written a thesis on this very subject. Please go to this link to read.

  • posts like this excites me. m maybe now the pastors will realise that their goals and thinking are wrong and the church is finally thinking with the heads and brains God gave them. we the members are sick of all the new building talk. or this investment or that. and trying all the new flashy stage presence trying to look like we’re going to a concert or show every week for one hour then have the pastor condemn uou for the previous week of living only to command you that if you don’t tithe your under a curse so you better open your wallet because he’s got to make a half million dollars house payment next week as long with his flashy car and some how needed private plane. That’s why Oi said bye!

  • Kelly Wiley says on

    Churches in America need a revival. Historically no revival has ever come unless it was preceded by great Biblically based preaching. As in the days of Amos 8:11 there is a famine in the land. Too many pastors spend the lion’s share of their time trying to do everything well allowing them little time in the Word or prayer and the congregation loves it. Hungry souls in the congregation are starving. Hungry souls visit the church and too many others finding a weak pulpit everywhere they go. There are too few churches where a hungry congregation who are busy being actively doing their personal work as part of the body so a pastor who is burdened to feed the flock can pray and study as he needs too to accomplish that. Likewise too many pastors think that pastors of the past spent way too much time praying and studying and they need to spend most of their time visiting or being an administrator etc. I have had pastors brag to me that they study little and never use the library they have anymore because they base their entire ministry on visiting. I have had two other pastors tell me that the biggest problem in America is pastors spending too much time in the study. Churches that are Traditional, Contemporary, have all the high end electronics or very little may be experiencing a famine. Some may know it but some may be not.

  • Kelly Wiley says on

    The major reason for the decline is that as in Amos 8:11 there is a famine in the land for the Word of God. It is wrong for us to think a pastor should do everything well. It is equally true that no revival in Christian history has come about when not preceded by renewed strong Bible based preaching which the Holy Spirit can use to raise up those who need encouraged and to humble the proud. etc. I have been to tw0 leadership training classes in Indiana where the speaker declared to all that the main problem in America is that pastors today spend too much time in the study. That is a lie many pastors and congregations today believe. Pastors spend more time visiting or being administrators etc. than any other generation. Those two things and others you might think of they base their ministry are good things but will never replace the need for strong pulpits. Traditional churches and contemporary alike are experiencing a famine. A church where they are hungry for the Word of God will be busy doing things so their pastor will have the hours needed to pray and study. When a church receives a pastor who has a prior or renewed interest in Expository preaching great blessings will come. As in the days of Amos 8:11 there are starving Christians and God will send them to such a church.

  • #6 “organized” Religion (organized anything) has become a turnoff. The “church is the people anyhow, not the building/ denomination or the dreaded spagetti supper.
    Society has grown VERY tired of having ONE God but seeing Pastor “so n so” have a fight / disagreement and leave angry and start another “church” . Realize this is silliness to those of us who have moved on from the “Church System” .
    I served, attended for years in the Christian Church system. It DID help me at my lowest point! now, I have moved on. The most shocking realization is that there is no “graduation” or real way to leave the “system”. The “church system clings onto its “members” – no one ever said -go now- you are mature and FREE to go out and make a difference in Love..
    So many great people are “better than me ” that still attend EACH Sunday.
    I have found I have made more real friends by loving then WITHOUT an AGENDA of “saving them ” or “getting them to attend” Love has no agenda. no hooks.
    Church isnt dying. The OLD “Church SYSTEM is dying” . And its OK. WHat we fight weakens us- just let it be.

  • We just visited a church for an event yesterday. This church was in the same very conservative denomination of our own church. This is what I observed:
    1. Service opened with music with fancy animated slides and special dim lighting. Not one hymn or anything close to it. Rather, repetitive “praise” with 3 or 4 lines repeated over and over (and over). Songs with the words “I”, “my”, “me”, and “mine” singing about what God can do for ME as opposed to what God did for an undeserving mankind by His Precious blood on the cross.
    2. Casual dress. Casual everything. Folks drinking coffee in the pews like they are at a picnic. Isn’t church supposed to be a special place of some reverence? Not that there should be a dress code, but should not the leadership set an example?
    3. A sermon that was about 60% story filled with many comedic lines invoking much laughter and 40% on the bible. I appreciate a funny short story interjected here and there, but this was like a whole cup of salt to season the soup. The bible teaching was not bad, once we finally got to it. No mention, however, of our sinful state and what God did for us on the Cross. Perhaps opening with a hymn or two might have provided that reminder.
    4. Closing with another “Praise” song.
    5. Time for coffee and treats.

    So, I can not say the church was “bad”, but something was definitely missing. It was more entertainment and an unsaved person would feel right at home I think. So I guess as long as there was not some other competing entertainment interest of higher value, this church would attract good numbers. Certainly had many more bells and whistles than our plain old church. And to keep the numbers, a church like this would have to avoid those “troublesome” issues like abortion, gay marriage, cohabitation, etc. and avoid scripture that addressed these issues.

    And we wonder why churches are dying?

    • See. This is the crap the public sees and says. forget it!
      “We wonder why churches are dying?
      “WE”dont! WE wont attend an elite “come as you are- just change to the way we say – SOON” group!
      WE have had enough.
      “WE” complain about the music, too loud , too soft, not this enough, not that enough, division ,division, division.
      Unity is absent.
      There is more time spent raising money for the buildings, quilting those who attend to help rake, clean the “buildings.
      Religion needs to die.
      “Church” as I see it here , needs to die.
      Then unity can reign.

  • I wanted to comment on #1, that “Cultural Christianity” is declining. I think this is wrong. Christianity in the United States is declining. I don’t think the reason churches are empty now used to be full of unbelievers. There may have been a few unbelieving spouses who got dragged along but I don’t think that a large portion of the Church used to consist of non-believers. I think there are simply fewer believers now. If you want to grow a church, the only way now seems to be the mega-church spectacle that is more about entertainment and feeling good than the Bible. I have seen Bible-preaching, discipleship-oriented, God-led churches age, wither, and die out. I don’t think it is fair to say ipso-facto they weren’t doing it right. Our society is moving away from God.

  • Stephen Hester says on

    Thom, your articles always bless, challenge, and encourage me. (Even when they deal with church decline!) Thanks.

  • I agree with you brother but i would also add that there is no longer a thirst nor a commitment to the Word of God. It’s just some book with good stories…but please don’t preach we are to be different than the world…

  • Great article Dr. Rainer and I think you brought up some really good points but I was curious about your thoughts on how technology is driving some of this shift as well. You mention technology in point #5 but don’t go into detail about it. As I look at things now compared to 50-60 years ago, technology basically allows us to experience most of what happens in church anytime and anywhere instead of on Sunday morning in a church building. We can get Christian music and preaching/teaching 24 hours a day 7 days a week now. We don’t have to go to church on Sunday morning to get these things. And we also don’t have to go find a pastor to get our questions about faith answered. If we have a question now we just “google it” or “ask Siri”. People are experiencing church differently and they are searching for Jesus differently based on technology and culture. Even though people are searching for God differently than they used to, many of the churches are still operating under the old paradigm which causes them to believe that people will just show up at church looking for God. And then when people don’t show up at the church they end up placing the blame on the people for not being spiritual enough instead of looking at themselves and what they are doing or not doing. What are your thoughts on the role of technology in all of this?

  • People want to be around people like them. It takes a pretty otherly-focused person to not want this–which hopefully people can become by being in active a church. The major trends of cultural: personal autonomy, consumerism, and narcissism do not bode well for the “Western Church.” Hopefully, we can make our congregations aware of these cultural blindspots.

    As a millennial myself, of course, quality children education is incredibly important, but for myself– seeing a church try to turn it’s strengths into a ministry that benefits the community around it draws me in. As far was doctrine goes, the fundamentals of the Gospel should compel works–not promote gnosticism and inwardness.

    We need a love greater than our fear.