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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  • Could one of those reasons the church is losing membership be patriarchy? What women wants to be in subjection to male leadership after she finds the headship of Christ? And if she is called to ministry such as preaching or pastor to be told she should not due to some misinterpreted verses. Or is she is coming from an abusive past, now to put herself back under the leadership of fallible men?

    Hundreds of stories abound on the net of women being abused in patriarchy, some leaving the faith completely. And depending on whose pat teachings one follows, the rules may vary somewhat but there are still hundreds to live up to, all of them pointing to that women will only please God if they are wives, mothers, homekeepers and woe to them if they work outside the home. And some more extreme pat teachings allow and endorse wife spanking. !!!!!!!!!

    How is any of this actually from God? It is not. Patriarchy is part of the backdrop of the bible (like camels, sheep/shepherds, deserts, Roman culture, etc) NOT the point of it.

    To see how pat teachings have failed you only have to l read the stories of abuse. Have you heard of any website made by a woman abused under egalitarianism?

    • Wow, less coffee is needed.

    • You’re right. The abuse of women in churches is a huge problem. You can see it on #churchtoo on Twitter. You’re also right that in more egalitarian churches, it’s very rare. There’s a reason for that. About 30 years ago, the mainline churches such as the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ saw what was happening in the Roman Catholic church–the movie “Spotlight” illustrated it– and these mainline churches mandated training for all staff and volunteers in sexual harassment/sexual abuse awareness. They also mandated policies where law enforcement had to be involved in any case of abuse. The evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist IFB), and nondenominational evangelical churches did not do this. One reason they gave at the time was that their clergy, unlike Roman Catholic priests, were married and so abuse was not a problem in their churches. They were wrong. There is now as much abuse, if not more, being revealed in evangelical Protestant churches than in Roman Catholic ones. Boz Tchividjian of GRACE Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) has said as much. Even those evangelical churches who now have policies dealing with abuse, don’t always mandate the involvement of law enforcement. They may simply say that the pastor must be informed, which leaves the pastor free to cover up the abuse if he chooses. And if you read some of the stories on #churchtoo, pastors choose to cover it up distressingly often. No wonder there are so many ex-evangelicals who have left their churches.

    • I just watched a secular Timcast podcast on YouTube discussing in part why women are more susceptible to join cults. Jordon Peterson has also discussed this in terms of women’s tendency to be more agreeable in nature. This can be a good thing in some instances, but also offers a secular rationale (not that one is needed) to the bib!iCal injunction that women are not to be pastors of churches

      To address the article, I believe that a big reason why churches are not growing is that they have gotten away from preaching the word of God. Many seem more interested in providing entertainment with screaming guitars, fog machines and spot lights panning over the congregation. Add to that trying to take away our freedom in Christ by picking and choosing old testament laws out of context (including tithimg) thinking this will guilt their congregations into giving more money to their church also all play a role. Tithing is not taught anywhere in the new testament and Christians are instead told not to give under compulsion. The left hand shouldn’t even know what the right hand is doing when giving. As a former businessman with an MBA, it all comes across very manipukative.

      We have churches that claim to be evangelical where pastors can’t or won’t even preach the simple gospel message without trying to add to it. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ-period. This is our salvation. Our sanctification is a lifelong process as we become more like Christ as we surrender our lives to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within all believers I’ve heard pastors say tell huge congregations that it’s not enough to put your faith in Christ to be saved, but you must go on to become a disciple (works)….but you must also continue to follow Christ (works-what if you stop for a day, an hour, a minute?…but you must first repent of all of your sins (What Christian let alone an unbeliever knows “all” of his sins?)

      This is depressing and heart-breaking to even write. Churches needs to preach the simple gospel message; preach the Bible honestly and stop trying to put Christians under OT laws. Stop trying to be like the world with the stupid light shows, fog machines and screaming electric guitars. My wife and I both regularly attend very biblically based weekly Bible studies, but otherwise no longer attend church which we really miss because we just can’t find one that meets basic biblical criteria.

  • Valerie says on

    Hello Tom
    If the churches took responsibility for clergy cover ups and transferring of known pedophiles and child molesters, child rapists
    Then maybe more people would go to church.
    My grandmother and grandfather went to church every. Single. Day.
    They had a best friend.
    He was sexually abusing their son.
    The diocese is so focused on covering up child sex crimes.. when really they are one of the LARGEST organizations that hold the LARGEST number of pedophiles in the world.
    Yes world.
    Out f any other organization the church is by fact the worst.
    The FBI reports that every pedophile abuses 100 victims.
    Now doesn’t that account for lost seats in church?
    When a woman loses her son or daughter to drugs and alcohol or suicide while society allows the perpetrator to get away scot free with no repercussions for their indignant acts.
    I would love to attend church but for this very reason I never will.
    For the same reason I will never baptize my children. I believe God is safer in the heart than in “the house of God.”
    If the church came forward and made changes we would see more people attending church.
    When we lost a mother brother sister father aunt uncle grandparent to sexual abuse they never are the same as before the abuse.
    They find any means to cope and by not giving them their God given justice we are recictimizing and shaming them in the most disgusting way.
    God would never want a child to be sodomized raped abused molested or masturbated on. So what the fuck happened here?
    It became a safe haven for abusers and they all know its a safe place to play hide and seek.

  • Pastor Thom… My replay is to give an answer that God, our Heavenly Father, led my wife into as we began our family in 1957. Just starting we had little money, charged things—and lost them when without a job…….that is to say, all but one
    item, a record player/radio. We were recent grads, I was finding my way. While still looking for direction, we now had three children,and I had a job paying $.90 an hour, 12 hours a day, six days a week. All was well! No car, but I walked to work
    and we walked to church each Sunday. I mention the record player because it was the source or good things in our house.
    Peggy Ann wanted more than anything to be a mother. We were later to have the 5 children we wanted. We found jobs in California, teaching. But Peggy Ann wanted to be a mother. So she quit. We bought a house, I taught, and she
    mothered our children with good books, good music, good stories, good habits, obedience, and respect for each other.
    Guess what………No TV………in fact, no outside influence beside the beautiful, well written children’s stories that we chose
    so very carefully and that I read to them at night. Now…..the punch line. We discovered (much later)that we were raising
    our family away from the influence of society (albeit, the children’s stories were by some of the best writers). No outside influence. Christian parents, Christian obedience (I spanked): we talked of the values, lived Christian values, went to church, lived Christian lives trusting our Heavenly Father for all….including all five went to college. My point: The world is full of DARKNESS. TURN IT OFF. live lives free of the influence of the world. It is biblical…read Psalm 1. today:
    Three are teachers of the highest regard in their districts (many comments to us about them) two married to raise children.
    8 of them……all of whom are beleivers and living solid Christian lives……….without worldly influence. LESSON:
    When we trust in God our Father to provide for us; when we listen for His Spirit to lead us; When we act wisely
    kin behalf of our children: God blesses. Robert Sorenson, Alta Loma, California

  • I read your article and as sad as it is, I agreed with your assessment of American culture churches. I also believe because We did not stand for Truth in 50s,60s and 70s, that American Conditioning only worsened to the Devils advantage. GOOD news is GOD knows All,and permits as HIS WILL Allows for events and cultures to conform to the Final pages of Revelation. That said I truely believe Pride,Greed& Selfishness are KEY INGREDIENTS to American down turn. I also acknowledge God Has Allowed The False Prophet to continue(Islam) and is Growing at record numbers….I do not think we will be returning to Prominence any time soon, in fact we have been selling God Out for the Last 80 years and these recent events are a Testimony against us as a people. ONLY HOPE IS TO REPENT,AND SEEK GOD INDIVIDUALLY WITH ALL THAT WE ARE. THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.

  • As spouse of a junior pastor who’s served at 3 failing churches over the last 10 years, I want to thank Mr. Rainer for these insights — he’s hitting several nails on the head. The one additional point I’d make is just how poorly run some of these churches are. I acknowledge it’s not easy to run a church, but the self-inflicted wounds I’ve witnessed have been hard to believe. Elders named for life (which resulted in one extremely difficult and out-of-touch elder to drive the church right into the ground). Head pastors with no apparent organizational or management skill, who routinely waste staff meeting time on pointless ruminating but seldom get around to driving basic decisions about the ministry. And fundamental unwillingness to accept or address point #5 above (the town and times have changed, but the church is decades behind), even when specific examples are explained and (at least to my mind) obvious changes are suggested.

    People look at churches through various lenses — “bride of Christ”, “family of fellow believers”, etc. And many people resist viewing churches as organizations requiring skilled management. But they are — I suggest it’s helpful to include a view of church as a non-profit organization, run by people, overseen by a board of directors, for which management fundamentals are important for success. That sounds obvious, yet all 3 churches we’ve been serving at ignore / violate that view routinely. And they’re routinely dismayed at how their church continues to fail. Reminds me a lot of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    Maybe this is some of what leads to point #4 above (faster church transfers). The larger churches in my area tend to have far more healthy management disciplines. And so they tend to “fire on all cylinders”, and if one “cylinder” backfires, they are quick to fix it. And thoughtful believers are naturally attracted to that.

  • Robert Crabtree says on

    The decline of the Church is nothing to do with leadership its one of “Reason”. People today question things and anything that does not fit to Reason will not be accepted. St Paul say’s “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good”. The church has always discouraged or condemned this. “Believe and do not reason, remain ignorant and lower thyself. Close thine eyes and receive the yoke” For 12 centuries the church controlled people by fear, fire and a God of retribution. They created “God fearing people”. They have blamed everyone that has other opinions as in league with the devil including Galilao. The time for a God of Love has come and the existence of the church created devil and demons revealed. Demon comes from the Greek word Damion that means Genius – Plato said “The damion of God”. The church should do as the disciples did, give away the wealth to the poor and preach as Jesus did and the early Church. For 400 years the early Church more or less replicated a Spiritual church of today – Fact born out in the canonical books Hope things can improve as the Church bears a grave responsibility!

  • There is more to consider:
    Christ Rescued Me!….from the “Church of Christ” by Lee Anne Ferguson
    Available at Amazon

  • Dear brother Thom. Greetings in Jesus’ Name. I’m Pastor Fred from Uganda. I’m leading a Christian faith Organization called Life Equipping Ministries Africa ( LEMA). Our Mission is to Equip Pastors across several denominations with the Word of the Lord. I’m writing to ask you for partnership to see how better your Ministry can help our Pastors here Uganda to be equipped with the Lord’s Word. Thanks.

    • patricia henneman says on

      you are steeped in voodoo and superstition. we are looking for a more intellectual church. im guessing you are penmtecostal and will attract people who believe in spirits

  • Kelly Wiley says on

    Point # 5 really hits home. Far to often a church which has barely enough people to get by resist a projection system thinking they never needed it before. Then when numbers drop they say now we don’t have the money to get a system. It becomes an ever increasing death spiral. Lack of change loses people & hinders new people attending. The decrease in attendance causes diminished funds to help with the financial cost of change.
    Jesus often taught with words giving visual pictures. We live in world where unlike our grandparents who sat around to hear the radio, in a visual world as well of TV & movies. Visuals in church is a big help.

  • Linda Carmichael says on

    Thank you for the “Answer” you have so generously shared with others and “myself”. My humble response is with much sorrow but in my heart I know it is true. Frankly, we have lost the “it starts at home” mentality for our children to get a solid background about who Jesus is and Christianity. A solid foundation holds you up better when life throws a curve and you then lose your Godly focus. We leave the church looking for something to fill the “hole”. Today it is social media, etc. I am a Senior Citizen who attends a Baptist Church. I pray daily for God to use me to help a dying world. Prayer is an awesome tool. God truly answers prayers. I want to be ready when He does. To God Be the Glory. Be Blessed–Stay Safe.

  • Here’s another post from Sam Eaton who references Mr. Rainer.

    In this article, there is no mention of leaving your life of sin. I know of NOBODY in our church doesn’t want homosexuals to come to church. This issue is no different than cheating on a spouse.

  • Aloysius Crokett says on

    The basic teachings of Christianity are the testimonies of the Apostles and Prophets about Christ Jesus. He died on the cross. He was buried in the tomb. He rose again the third day. He ascended into heaven. All other things which belong to our beloved religion are only additions to it. We must have a living witness of these things in our hearts. Otherwise our faith is in vain. The only way back to heaven is the covenant path that Christ Jesus walked. There is no other way.

    • We should do things the way Jehovah says do them. we should keep His commandments. Im not saying that it will be easy for
      some of us, but if you want to make it to Heaven or His kingdom you must put forth the effort. Jehovah looks at the heart. We need to teach our children about God . He said it in his word.