Four Types of Churches That Will Soon Die

August 22, 2016

Death is not a topic we enjoy.

Death of churches is not a topic I enjoy.

You see, I love the local church. I love it despite it’s flaws, sins, and hypocrisies. Jesus loves me despite my flaws, sins, and hypocrisies.

But too many churches are dying. And the rate of dying churches is accelerating.

I am concerned. Certainly from a biblical perspective, I understand the bride of Christ will be victorious. I understand the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).

But that does not mean individual congregations won’t die.

They are.

They will.

Unless God intervenes.

In simple terms, there are four types of churches that will soon die. It is sad to watch the churches in these categories. Some congregations are in more than one category. And some are in all four.

  1. The Ex-Bible Church. These churches have abandoned the truths of Scripture. A few are explicit in their denials. But many just give lip service to the Bible. The congregation does not study Scripture. The pastor does not deal with the biblical texts and the whole counsel of God. The Bible is just another book that rarely gets read, studied, or proclaimed. The Word of God has no power in these churches.
  2. The Country Club Church. Members in these churches see their membership as perks and privileges. They want their styles of music, their worship service times, their types of architecture, and their preferred lengths of sermons. They pay their dues, so they should get their benefits. Or so the thinking of the members goes. Don’t ask them to evangelize, to put others first, or to make sacrifices. After all, it is their church.
  3. The Bad Words Church. If you want to see a “good” fight, go to these churches. Their business meetings are more contentious than a presidential election. You can count on many of these church members to speak to or email the pastor regularly. And those words of communication are not nice words. These are the churches where bullies go unchecked, where personnel committees and boards work in darkness, and where gossip and backstabbing are common. These churches expend most of their energy on bad words. They thus don’t have the time or energy to share the good news.
  4. The Ex-Community Church. Go into these churches and look at the members. Go into the community and look at the residents. They don’t look alike. They don’t dress alike. They don’t go to the same places. The community has changed, but the church has not. “Those people” are on the outside. “Our kind of people” are on the inside. The idea of building bridges to the community is resisted if not repulsive.

How many churches in America today clearly fall into one or more of these categories? I have not done objective research, but I would not be surprised if the number is more than 50 percent.

Too many churches are dying.

So how do I remain an obnoxious optimist about churches in our nation?

The answer is simple. I am seeing how God is delivering a number of churches from these death throes. I will share more about that positive reality in the future.

In the meantime, let me hear from you.

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126 Comments

  • The compounding tragedy is that because such churches exist or are on the path to death, those who are sons and daughters of those in these churches will be left behind.

    When they see the hypocrisy that flows from these churches, they leave the church and often never return.

    How did so many get away from Loving God and Loving People and Making Disciples as their mission?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Somehow the churches moved from mission focused to inwardly focused.

      • Thom, How do you move them from being inward focused to being mission focused?

      • Just a suggestion: don’t try to win the war, win some battles and see some progression. What is one thing that can become outward-focused by Christmas 2017? What steps/actions can be planned that will work towards that becoming reality? Don’t forget to pray; planning and execution is only our part of it. Taking all the Promised Land must have seemed impossible, and the first action was to walk around a walled city several days and yell real loud. There’s no way most of those people skipped on the prayer part as they carried out the plan; i know i’d be praying something like, “ok, we’re marching around these walls, and i feel really stupid…God–i hope You’re going to do something!”

  • Ken Dillingham says on

    #4 may be the most nuanced because we recognize that the Scripture says, “Come out from among them and be separate …” In what ways do you see this tension resolved to be different and yet not being different in a “dying” sense?

  • Our church is all four of the items plus. A former pastor of the church told the deacons that they could run the church he was just going to preach. So you can guess what shape this church was in when I can. Hopefully we are making progress to change and become a God centered church.

    • I think it depends on the situation. Some pastors get so caught up in the administrative stuff that they do a poor job of preaching. In some churches, it is best for the pastor to hand of some responsibilities. One of the reasons churches have deacons is to take part of the load off of the pastor.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      My prayers, Allen.

  • …you think your blog describes more than 50% of the churches in America…

    I’m a 27 year old seminary student… I think a lot about the churches where the congregation aged, the church never really had a strong youth ministry, and now it seems like their days are counted – like that church isn’t gonna be around any longer than the age of the “youngest” senior citizen in the church. does this sounds like the kind of church you’re describing in your blog?

  • It is genuinely heartbreaking to watch many of these churches die needlessly. I recently observed a church reject a package of much needed changes because the leadership was afraid a handful of members might get upset. The bold leadership that was needed was nowhere to be found. But I suppose that the lack of bold leadership might be one of the reason the church is currently in such bad shape.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You nailed it, Mike.

      • Mike. we left a church over 1 year ago, due to this kind of thing. Older members would not agree or change even carpet because of how some ONE else feels and have been there the longest. They come to church, go through the ceremonial steps of there own and do not get out and evangelize. I think the church, period, has got to get there feet dirty, walk among the community in the run down motels where the drug addicts, the poor and the down trodden live. My small down has at least 5 different motels that are now homes to all sorts of people. The interstate changed directions of people who traveled on the 31-W stretch between Louisville and TN. The motels began to take in transits and other types of families. Churches act scared to reach out and just pray with them at there doors. IF they come out and welcome you you fine, if not, pray for that room. There are so many things that need to be done on the level that it is. Not my level, but ITS LEVEL. Meet the needy where they are, cause some of them are not coming near these pristine churchs that only show concern for the ones inside.

  • This is very true in our state of SC. We are taking a team to Taiwan soon and will be leading training for pastors there. They have 150 year history of evangelical church growth and now find themselves in decline. They are not outward focused and not training leaders. We will use this article and our Church Health materials to help their leaders in Taiwan catch a fresh vision for the Church according to scripture. Thanks

  • “…God is delivering a number of churches from these death throes.”

    Unless this so-called deliverance starts with a church-wide repentance towards God, I don’t see how their deliverance can come from him.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Yes. Repentance leads to obedient action.

    • God works in many ways. My church is not yet at the point of repentance, but God is working a “so-called” deliverance in it little by little. From day one I have been leading this church back to the Bible in a variety of ways and God is blessing that effort. People are reading more, attending Bible Study, memorizing passages, etc. I am confident that repentance will come because God will use His Word to make it happen – in His time and in His way.

  • I used to serve the students at a church that met all four of these criteria. It was spending my time on staff without ever having a staff meeting, going to the closed door leadership team meetings, sitting through business meetings where nothing got decided but feelings got hurt, hearing constant gossip, hearing people throw tantrums about the worship pastor changing which song we sang during the invitation, being told what kind of students should be in the student ministry, and sitting through sermon after sermon that didn’t touch the Bible that caused me to seek pastoral ministry rather than youth ministry and led me to enroll in seminary. Your book “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” and others by the Lifeway Research Group have given me great hope for the future, and helped me see my desire to revitalize/replant dying churches. Thanks for all the work you do.

  • Lowell Dooley says on

    I am interested in the “ex-community church”. When these churches finally leave the community due to refusal to change, what are we seeing filling the Spiritual void? From one personal experience I am seeing a community with no soul- crime, death, drugs, prostitution, etc. The ‘moved-community’ church still struggles too. Sad.

  • Yep, I was at an information meeting for a type #3 church last night. Everything is done behind closed doors. The elders think they are better, more knowledgeable and spiritual than everyone else. They manipulate through lies and distortion. Then expect everyone to go along because they used to be a type #1. The old saying of “money, power, and sex” rule is true here as well as in the world. It is amazing the congregation acts like sheep ready to be sheared and still give, and mostly to propagate memories and victories of the past. The old time cheerleaders arise and try to scramble everyone to remember with good sounding and long stories of past glory. SAD.

  • Great insight into this needed discussion. As an associate pastor, I recognize certain points that can be addressed in my current ministry position. It’s difficult lead change from the middle when you are the only driving force.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Yes indeed. Leadership at all levels must buy in.

      • Hank Prins says on

        William, leading up is never easy, but if you are consistent in your approach using every opportunity in love, respect, and genuine concern for the greater good, it is possible. Choose to take on one issue at a time prioritizing the needs.

      • It is possible to do good things from the 2nd chair. Don’t forget who the Lord’s anointed is, it is not the 2nd chair. However, the 2nd chair can do some great things. Look at Jonathan and Barnabas.

      • are you Christian

    • are you Christian

      • Churches are dying because of a lack of commitment to christ, consecration,prayer&fasting no love in their heart for the lost and the lack of the Holy Spirit being involved in the ministry. Some may disagree but we need a fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost with power. The Holy Spirit was in Christ and He came upon Him and anoited Him with power just as He did all the way through the book of Acts because the continuation of Christ ministry is being done through the Holy Spirit and the Church today. Without the Holy Spirit it is like trying to run a machine without oil, look at the five foolish virgins in the bible without the power of the Holy Spirit you can do nothing. How to get oil in your vesel is by commitment ( obedience, consecration, absolute dependence on the Lord ), fasting and prayer, and sould winning. Without holiness you will not see God’s presence.

  • Neal Saltet says on

    I have just finished reading Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I am a United Methodist pastor called back into service after trying to retire to serve one of our churches that is dying. I’m trying to learn all I can about how we might survive and this book was a good start.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Neal. My prayers for your church.

      • I think a main part of future churches is small churches allowing a large healthy well resourced church to empower them with healthy leadership, biblical vision, and spirit filled excellent worship.

    • I really do understand where you are coming from Thom but some of my colleagues and I see another problem that is causing the church to die and that is those that are in the pew are simply not able to to fulfill the abomination that we are given in 1 Peter 3:15.
      There skeptics, agnostics and supposed atheists outside the church and this is where we are to take the Gospel message.
      Apologetics is a very much needed addition to the local church ministry and yet we see very little if any taking place in our churches today.
      We see a lot of teaching but never anything in depth or how to present to others what we know and why we know it, nothing is ever taught about Epistemology or Ontology and I personally believe this is a big mistake.
      One of the big problems in the local church is, how do we get our members motivated to want to learn and move out the shallowness that we see?
      I am in no way saying that we do not have good and well meaning people in or churches, there are plenty, they work in the church doing the best they know how and still the is the lack of that degree of knowledge that would allow them to defend the faith with confidence and I have seen that lack of confidence in the knowledge to be able to defend the faith.
      Getting the members interested in Apologetics seems to be the monumental task at hand.
      My professor friend and I are really at a lose in how to get people interested this.
      We must teach this within the church having adequate lesson materials before we can take it outside the church.
      Even though this is an academic in nature I am in no way advocating it as a substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit and a good knowledge of the bible, for the non- church goer we have to start some where for those that question whether or not there is a God and and dealing with the Theodicy in why if God exists does He allow all the misery in the world today.
      Our culture is such now that the church must change how it administers the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
      I am at present doing this through social media and have been able to come in contact with people that have questions and also am associating with Ratio Christi which is an out reach to Indiana University, Purdue University ( IUPUI ) Indianapolis.

      I would appreciate any insight on this subject for the working together for Christ and His Kingdom.

      • This is love; not that we love Him, but that He loved us. We love Him because He first loved us.
        If you want people to fall head over heels in love with the Father, you must show them His love to them. He loves them, even in all their sin, the same as He loves Jesus (John 17:23). Most Believers have no idea, so let’s tell them.

      • mike pittman says on

        We as the body of Christ always have to remember as Randy S. did above the : Love is not what we say, but what we do. We have to be willing to meet peoples needs where they are first , then allow Holy Spirit to open the door for future ministry to those people.

      • Amen!

      • Rev. K.J. says on

        I have gone to many Conferences, Seminars, & Workshops on Apologetics in my area of Tulsa! There are many groups / churches in our area that are working together to bring different speakers to use their expertise to train those who are of the willing! It takes effort, but I see things changing with God’s leading! I have invested both time & money not only to attend, but to continue on my own to continue to study! I am a retired teacher/coach! I use some of my time to blog & tweet as I continue to learn & share my Faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord & Savior!!!
        Rev. K.J.Winnie

      • That is great, KJ.

      • This is good if the teachers and speakers used the Bible and the Bible only to teach from. But you say that you bring in people to teach and speak from their experience which is flawed from the beginning. They are only teaching false doctrines, wrong and personal interpretations of the Bible and traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation for many hundreds of years. This is why there are so many different denominations who believe different fallacies, but yet there is only one Bible which is the truth.

      • Sure!

      • jonathon says on

        >I have gone to many Conferences, Seminars, & Workshops on Apologetics in my area of Tulsa!

        How many of those seminars on Christian Apologestics started with the proposition _There is no God, Jesus never existed_ ?

        Or, if that is too hard, used material such as _Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show that Jesus Never Existed_ by David Fitzgerald or _On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt_ by Richard Carrier or _God: The Most Unpleasant Character in all Fiction_ by Dan Barker, as their jumping off point?

        We aren’t a world where the default is that there is God, much less that the God of the Bible is Supreme. Rather, the default is that there is no God, and that those that have any religious faith, are suffering from a mental illness « DSM-5: 297.1(F22)» , and require immediate psychotherapy,

        As such, Christian Apologetics from even twenty years ago is generally useless becuase it starts from false axioms.

      • Annette Masters says on

        Hi Jonathan a good resource is found in Freedom In Christ Ministries. Take a look ficm.org.uk?
        The FICM discipleship course. the Grace course. The Freed to Lead course. And the new resource just released is for the 18-35 year olds.
        We took all our church through the discipleship course. It is Biblical and sound I would do nothing if it was not. The really wounded people we took through the Grace course. Very many of our congregation were set free from bondage to all sorts of rubbish etc learned the truth in the scriptures and took responsibility for their own lives and walk with Jesus. Many have become leaders in the church and outside as well. Recommend you look at the website and send for a few books.

      • jonathon says on

        FICM is about discipleship, not apologetics.

      • Did you really mean to use the word abomination?

      • I’m glad someone else asked that. Did he mean ‘admonition?’

      • From a United Methodist perspective, the church fails to get people in the pew excited about God because the teaching is muddled and fragmented. I reached a point that I became so lost and confused that I distanced myself from all things church, stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it; it was my foray into what all I did not understand/know about basic orthodox Christianity, especially what I call the “Big Theology” of who God is and who I am. On the other end of this overwhelming experience I was left with a multitude of feelings/thoughts/impressions, the primary one being “Where has this clear teaching been all my life?”. Hard on the heels of that were two other thoughts: “There is absolutely no way a human could have made this up!” and “I would be absolutely stupid not to buy into this!” My analogy of the whole experience is that it was like I had been staring into the shadows trying to make sense of what I was “seeing” and all of a sudden somebody started throwing on a whole series of high intensity lights. All of a sudden I had an understanding of God that I never thought possible! All the random pieces of Christianity I had been collecting for over 50 years finally had a home in this most amazing understanding of God’s unfathomable love for us; and I was finally folded into that amazing story of unfathomable love; the Bible started making more “sense”. Since the Heidelberg Catechism emerged out of 1600’s Germany, I was also stunned at the amount of knowledge the rank and file Christian of that time and place were given compared to the confused and random drivel I had been stumbling around with!

      • Rev. Robert L. Sawall says on

        I am a retired pastor of 50 years. I’ve instructed our youth in the basic teachings of Scriptures with Luther’s Small Catechism. The catechism is tremendous. My students knew the basic teaching of Scripture well. I was proud of them.
        But I’m not proud of myself. I failed to instruct them as to how to defend the faith. I fear many of my colleagues thought that if they know the basic teachings, they will be able to defend themselves against all the attacks that will come there way. That’s not true.
        With the war against Christianity in our universities and with our government, they are bewildered with worldly wisdom and know not how to stand up to it.
        Those who are instructing the youth, must also include apologetics, the ability to defend faith in Jesus Christ against all those assaulting God’s Word and the youths inidvidual faith.

        Pastor Bob Sawall
        enjoyed 88 years of God’s unconditional love in our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ.

      • One main thing is that a lot of so called born again Christians are not born again. That’s the reason there’s no Holy Spirit teaching or guiding them nor even understanding the Word of God.

    • Didn’t Jesus warn that He would remove their light, or lamp, or candle if they didn’t stick with the truth (Revelation 1-3) ? Maybe they weren’t teaching the Gospel which is Grace (Galatians 1:6), but mixing it with laws and regulations which is what Paul cursed. Mixing the two covenants is like putting new wine into old wineskins, or mixing cold and hot: getting lukewarm.

    • Galen Currah says on

      Whilst nursing the sick and burying the deceased, a family must keep on bearing and rearing new generations.
      A well-attested pattern in Western religion remains the congregation whose believers have departed, leaving the unregenerate who have adopted a Christian subculture.
      The encroaching persecution will prove a boon by forcing a return to NT patterns of church life with its emphasis on obeying Jesus’ commandments, empowering each other to spread the Word, continually launching tiny cells, and employing resources to meet urgent needs.
      It remains astonishing what God is willing to do through ordinary believers who avoid adopting chapels, chaplains, and chaplets.

    • Commit to teach and encourage the church congregation to:

      Worship and Praise in Spirit and in Truth.

      fast and pray early as a body, whether is before Sunday service, midweek service or any other day.

      To not just read, but to study the Word of God daily.

      To place importance in evangelizing, to carry Gospel tracts at all times and give to people everywhere they go.

      To exercise true fellowship; if there is a plummer and another brother or sister is in need of plumbing work, let that brother help.

      Reach where the need is, prostitution sites, bars, night clubs, gentleman’s club, etc.

      You can make a big difference brother, my prayers with you.

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