By Thom S. Rainer
“You were too late.”
Those were the words I heard from a conference attendee where I was speaking. It took me a few minutes to understand his meaning, but I finally got it. He was referring to my book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. But his church had already shut its doors. Any help from the book was too late for that congregation.
Church closures were not the topic of church leaders until recent years. Now, more leaders are facing the reality that no congregation is immune from decline and possible death.
I have been watching church closure trends as carefully as possible for the past several years. I use the phrase “as possible” because precise data is impossible to obtain. We simply don’t have detailed information on how many churches close in North America each year. The estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000.
But we are able to discern some trends taking place in light of COVID-19. With churches unable to have in-person services, and with possible financial challenges, many churches are more at-risk than before the pandemic. Here are five trends we are watching closely:
- Church leaders are more hopeful today than they were at the onset of the pandemic and suspension of in-person services. In our earliest survey of church leaders at the onset of the pandemic, 15 percent of church leaders said their churches were at serious risk of closure. In a similar poll just a few weeks later, only 3 percent had such dire pessimism.
- Some church closures will be delayed as pastors move from fulltime to bi-vocational. We have heard from a number of pastors who have made the tough decision to move to bi-vocational status as a consequence of tightening financial realities during the pandemic. This will, at least for a season, delay church closures. It will not by itself reverse the path of decline of these churches.
- The possibilities or likelihood of church closures have been wake-up calls for many leaders during the pandemic. One leader wrote to us: “God has used COVID-19 to slap me in the face and let me know we can’t do business as usual in my church. I know my church won’t be the same when we return, and I am determined I won’t be the same go-with-the-flow leader I have been.”
- More churches will move into a foster relationship to avoid closure. We are watching closely a phenomenon I have coined “fostering.” It refers to a church that cannot sustain health within its own congregational family. As a consequence it receives or seeks help from another church for a defined period. At the end of that period, the struggling church is hopefully healthier. If not, it may become a candidate for adoption.
- More churches will avoid closure by becoming adopted. For years, we have used the term “church replanting” to refer to the acquisition of the assets of one church by another. Sam Rainer changed the terminology to “adoption” since one church family is welcomed and brought into another church family. The trend of adoption will accelerate as a consequence of the pandemic.
For sure, these five trends do not represent an exhaustive list, but they do demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 on many congregations. While the pandemic did not cause these church struggles, it certainly has accelerated the consequences of them.
Posted on April 27, 2020
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.
More from Thom
.The last report I could find on closures and launches (in the USA) was a Lifeway one done on data from 2019. It said that 3,000 churches launched, while 4,500 closed.
What is the data for 2020 and 2021?
https://www.meetup.com/RTP-Christian-Singles/ has 844 single Christians various churches primarily Raleigh/ Durham area North Carolina USA
https://www.meetup.com/BelieversCommunityinNC/ has 248 single Christians primarily North Central North Carolina USA.
Instead of fostering or adoption, churches especially older population churches can advertise in concert with each other on their meetup group. Over half of the un-churched in the USA are single and 18% of disconnected Christians in the USA are born again. But I have problems in getting mid size churches involved. You need a particular population of six or more who are willing to talk to total strangers. There are 30 conversations to talk to total on the left side of https://centralsinglesministry.weebly.com/leaders-only.html . Community singles ministries are disappearing across the USA due to mega churches absorbing their membership so community singles ministries actually want small to midsize churches to advertise their outreaches. By scattering the reach of a community singles ministry,this stabilizes the ministry. Churches should just go to meetup.com to search single Christians. When inviting total strangers to your church set guide lines for their behavior. I have 3 rules for the last 25 years,
Are there any rules or guidelines I need to be aware of?
Yes, due to our desire to keep it safe, Christ focused and respectful of those attending we ask that you:
1.Do not use alcohol.
2.If you meet someone you wish to ask for a date, we ask that you ask him or her outside* of a “Night on the Town” event.
3.We respect an individual’s membership in their church and doctrinal beliefs at all times.
What I do is free to churches but they need my approval and their doctrinal beliefs must fit with in main stream Christianity. I have the ability to get churches to work in concert with each other. In a concert different instruments make different sounds, so churches can work together as long as they are independent of each other in their actions..
I spoke to your son at the seminary where he works about what I do, he thought a community singles ministry was this new idea. Community ministries where popular in the 80’s and 90’s in the USA.
One of the positive outcomes from this current crisis in our church has been an awakening of the realization that the church has little to do with the building we gather in.
We are a predominantly older congregation with a sprinkling of young families. For many years, our church has clung to the “way we’ve always done it”, with the results being what they’ve always been.
Working with my senior pastor, we have stepped out into doing Facebook Live. We have purchased new camera equipment and a designated sound board which will allow us to also produce our very own podcasts. We’ve upgraded to a better texting system that will allow us the flexibility to incorporate “text to give”, which our outdated system cannot do. In addition, we are finally incorporating online giving into our church website. We’ve even started a weekly radio broadcast because so many of our rural congregation still listen to the radio. Who knew!
My point in all of this is that the Pandemic has caused us to realize that we have failed to use the tools at our disposal in order to spread the gospel. As I explained to my pastor, we can set here and bemoan the fact that things are never going to be the way they were(hallelujah!), or we can begin now to prepare for a new future and be ready to leap when the opportunities present themselves.
Amazingly, our outreach has broadened during this pandemic. We started doing online services, and since then our Facebook following has doubled. Week-before-last, we decided to try the drive-in service, and it’s worked really well. It’s not the same as meeting together in a building, but it beats doing it online. Earlier this month, we had a special prayer service via a conference call. Best of all, many people are “chomping at the bit” to get back to our regular ministries.
Yes, there are many good signs.
The pandemic has surely had an impact on our small congregation. We elected to use communication via U.S. mail and sent pre-stamped self addressed envelopes, purchased an FM transmitter and broadcast to our “Drive-In” worship on Sunday morning. We also stream our worship live on Facebook live. Realizing that financial pressures may continue for some months or a year, we are looking at alternative revenue streams like parking lot rental, food truck rentals throughout the week, etc. Certainly we are impacted and will likely never be the same. To some degree that may be good.
I disagree with Mark that the United States may be over-churched. In some communities it may appear that way because there is a church building on every corner but often the congregation that occupies the building is fairly small and inward-looking. In the community in which I live, while there are numerous churches, including a small number of new starts, something like 60 percent or more of the population is unchurched. That was back in 2007. The general population has grown since then and if my community is like others in the United States, so has the unchurched population.
One of the officers of the church with which I am involved and which is located in another community was complaining that if the church was Baptist, it would have more members. (The church is Continuing Anglican.) But I have seen the stats and they indicate that the local Baptist churches, while numerous, account for only around 25 percent of the church-going population of the community. They are not doing as well as he thinks. He was blaming the community for the church’s lack growth but I have identified a number of factors that account for why the church has not grown and they involve the church itself, not the community. Among these factors is that the church has very few connections with the community in which it is located and until fairly recently most of its members did not reside in the community. They lived elsewhere. In my estimation the church is in the last stages of decline and the COVID-19 pandemic will be the death-blow.
I have launched an online worship gathering for church members but only the members who live in the same community as I do are participating.
Don’t understand why but my comment was truncated to “Fr” here but appeared in full on my FB page! From a U.K. perspective, we are probably overchurched. I am complicit in helping to sustain an unfeasibly small church with an expensive roof problem and expensive heating. It’s a lovely little community now gathered from some distance around. I have sat on comiittees that have closed churches and know well the emotions involved.To be honest, it’s going to depend on the next deaths.
Thank you for talking about this.
One of the more important issues may be getting those who are at stage 2 to think about 4 and 5 (or other approaches to revitalization).
In my experience, churches that move from having a full-time pastor to a bi-vocational pastor frequently move into caretaker mode. Nobody is doing anything to revitalize the church as it gets older and smaller – but nobody really wants to change either. It is not uncommon for the the aging members to actually have an increased expectation that it’s the pastor’s job to turn things around – even though he is now working another job.
If declining churches aren’t going to embrace a creative approach to revitalization, they may do more good for the Kingdom of God by closing now, helping people intentionally move to other churches, and then sell all of their assets and give them to another church or a mission agency. This is a hard choice, but it may also be the courageous and good choice.
In any organization with fixed expenses and low cash reserves, the is a point below which you cannot exist without (more) revenue. However, just like the US is over-retailed, the US is probably over-churched as well. We must think back to the founding of some of these churches. Aside from the plants and the country church that became a city church when the city grew, some were begun over petty disagreements and power struggles. Perhaps when this over, people will quit fighting and church leadership will quit excluding people and doing everything they can to gain more power. A church that absorbs members from others will be stronger and if the biggest problem is a full sanctuary on Sunday, they can start a second service. If that is the only problem, they should consider it a divine miracle.