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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Posted on August 22, 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.
More from Thom
I am a pastor who has served 4 rural churches that are family churches. None of these churches were/are interested in evangelism other than “reproductive evangelism” (they seem to think that their children and grand children will repopulate their local church). Few will entertain the subject of witnessing to the next generation and they are content to die on the vine.
It saddens me to think that people who witnessed and now describe their parents and grand parents vibrant faith could be so complacent in their own faith and efforts.
Could have also added “Debt-Ridden Church”. We’re experiencing growth and lots of “wins” right now, but the debt continues to be a difficulty that is hard to climb over.
Read the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Southern Baptist Mark Dever. These are tremendous resources.
Thanks Bro Tom!
God has blessed you in your communications of teaching and writing.
I am a Christ Follower, saved at age 6, March 1963.
As a “PK”, and now in my own observations have seen many churches. Many are hurting and have ultimately closed.
In reaching out to Pastors I see many time exactly what you are describing here. in the four types.
Blessings to you!!
Perhaps the central doctrines need to be revisited. Involve the congregation, and especially ask the Holy Spirit, and be like the Bereans, and search the scriptures daily, to see if these things are true, to “test the spirits” of your church doctrines. Make sure you have no “Idols of the heart” as in Ezekiel 14.
As always, pray about it. Ask and ye shall receive. These things are important!
Just a thought.
I am actually sick of the idea that God needs to swoop in and save these dying churches from themselves. How about the member exercise some of that God-given autonomy,. intelligence of faith, and self-awareness. It seems like too many are buying into the life over death equation as if by life being over death that death is removed entirely from the table. But that’s not how it works in reality, nor how it is demonstrated in scripture- death must essentially happen before life can conquer it- that’s a resurrection focal point. So maybe it’s time churches actually address their issues rather than wait for a bail out, or perhaps they can die because that has to happen before new life or life re imagined can supplant that death.
I also worry how often we conflate the idea of Ex-Bible with the integration and recontextualisation of scripture in modern lives. Now, I have been to some truly Ex-Bible places where I got a 40 minute sermon that was less the Good Samaritan and more ‘What I Googled For Breakfast” but then I have also been to- and this may sound strange- Too Much Bible services, where, yes, the scripture is the center of service, but it’s the only center- there’s no outworking of God’s will or call from that text- and there’s not a lick of what the passage in question might mean or ask us to do within issues that are contextual to us; and I feel that is a monumental missiological and evangelical failure.
There is definitely something happening, and it seems to be happening suddenly, instead of gradually (not discounting the “evolution” of it all). I agree with some of the comments, that it is more of God than anything else. Matthew 15:13? In my own research, I have found that there are many “blind guides” leading the “blind”. As Paul prayed for those at the church of Ephesus, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation of the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that YOU may know WHAT IS THE HOPE of His CALLING, what ARE the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” Eph. 1:17,18.
This is the thing. Each individual has to know and understand. They can be “taught” week after week, but still not have understanding of the scriptures, not have the knowledge of God, nor the revelation of Jesus Christ. They are basically RELYING on someone to teach them. And this is why many do not read their bibles. They can not understand what it all means, and how to apply it to their own lives. Even some are afraid to read their bibles.
It’s a “heart issue” and a “blindness” issue. Only the Holy Spirit can convict a man of his sins. And only the Holy Spirit can give understanding. I fear, that not many are hearing,…spiritually. “Hearing” is understanding. “Whoever has “ears”, let them hear what the Spirits says to the churches.” With our natural ears? How can a person walk uprightly without this type of understanding? It’s a “heart issue”………as in the whole OT. Our example. 🙂
Please don’t get offended at my comment. lol…..my comments have been “spammed” on other sites in addressing these things.
I sat in church for 39 years, being taught, Sunday after Sunday, pastor after pastor, but with no understanding. “We have not because we asked not.” I have understanding now, through Christ. Did He not leave us a Helper (the Spirit of Truth)? John 14:16; 16:17. He does want us to call upon His Helper, to help us to understand and walk uprightly. I fear that, there is a “carnally minded” plague, due to simple ignorance. That’s all. 🙂 God would not have us ignorant. He love us, and wants to help us to maturity, to walk uprightly, and to endure to the end.
Jesus Christ is still willing to open man’s eyes, heal “deaf” ears, raise us from deadness, and to heal our lameness. And…..I’m not referring to spooky spirituality. I had 15 years of that nonsense. Been there, done that. The answer is for each individual to seek and find,….through our Lord, Saviour, Shepherd, Bread of Life,…Son of God, Jesus the Christ.
Do we REALLY know Him? That would be the question. And that could be the problem.
Why are people leaving the church?
I suspect they find no nourishment there. No “meat” and little “milk” of the word. (1 Cor 3) The basics are fine for babes in Christ, if they can find it, however perhaps Isaiah is speaking to the church of this day, “For, behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water,”.
Notice who’s doing this.
If I am disappointed in every church I’ve gone to, that’s a huge part of the reason.
Another reason is like point 1, the ex-bible church. Isn’t this an oxymoron? That’s like Isaiah 4:1, “And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.”
Their own doctrine and righteousness, just to be called, what would be in our age, a “Christian Church”.
Doesn’t anyone hear?
I guess my heart is with Jesus himself when he says in Matthew, “Matthew 15:7-14 KJV
 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,  This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.  But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. …….  Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?  But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.  Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
Really, I am sorry if that offends. Take it up with me if you disagree.
I feel this is becoming very true in Christian’s…proclaiming to be something they are not. Faith/Religion has deteriorated just as political offices are being sought for all the wrong reasons today.
Yes, my heart is also with Jesus when he must leave those to their free will and the very temporary rewards they will receive.
Over the years I have witnessed a decline of three of the essential elements of keeping the church involved and fired up. The first one is the lack of prayer by both the leadership and the congregation. Many churches no longer have what use to be “the hour of power” a good old fashioned prayer meeting. Some churches no longer encourage their members to attend prayer meetings. Some busy leaders do not take the time anymore to get alone with God and lay the congregation and their personal needs before Him. According to the book of Acts the first church was bathed in prayer. The second essential is the decline of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This is in many cases is a result of the lack of prayer and relying on man’s power and wisdom. The Holy Spirit has not lost its power to change people and lead pastors and congregations. The third essential is the decline of churches being involved in the Great Commission. Nothing keeps a church more fired up than seeing people saved and baptized. Many times the emphases is placed on everything except fulfilling what our Lord told us to do in the commission He gave to the disciples and all the saved. Yes we are to preach and teach the word but the purpose for that is not just to show how much we know or to increase the knowledge of the congregation but that the teacher and listener get to know the father better. Get that cart and the horse in the right place and the life will be there.
Where does the church that welcomes same-sex marriage and ordain practicing homos belong, sir?
For over three years my wife and I have looked for a church where a good number of the regular attendees are truly Christians. where the pastor is no doubt a godly man, a man of God, called by God, a place where the true bible is read and used.
people often say that they are not perfect, that none of us are and they use that as an excuse for their ungodly life and lifestyle. the word of God says that we are to repent of our sins and ask Him to help us that we might commit again. we are to list them, name them to God in prayer (those who are Christian and commit sins). repent means to admit that God is right about what we have done, that it was wrong and a sin. then we are to go in the other direction, to ask for strength from God to help us not commit them again. we have to do our part and not sin again or allow ourselves to be tempted to commit the sin(s) again. people just keep on committing the same sins expecting God to excuse their behavior. He knows our heart and if we ask forgiveness knowing that we will continue to commit the sin(s) He will not forgive us. so called Christians live as the world does, with no feeling of guilt for how they live.
these churches do not separate themselves from the world but bring everything into the church and their worship. they refuse to identify the problem makers, warn them and then remove them from the church when they refuse to stop their behavior as we are directed by God to do. a common complaint by young people who do not go to church is that they are looking for something that is real. the church isn’t it. they claim that Christians live as they do. so why get up early on Sunday morning to go to church and give them their hard earned money. the church in reality is a bunch of sinners that want to put a guilt trip on you and get your money. the present day church is a collection of dead men’s bones.
I found a great book recently that I believe gave me the answer to my question “why are todays churches full of sinners and God has been left outside?” I’ve personally asked a number of pastors “what percentage of your members and regular attendees do you believe are actually lost?” all their replies have been “somewhere between 85-90%, maybe even higher.” the book I mentioned is Power Through Prayer. it was written sometime in the early 1900’s. you would think that it was written recently. the author states that a congregation can not be any more spiritual, any closer to God than it’s pastor. if a pastor does not spend quality time, quantity time seeking God in prayer, then God can not use him and will not use him. I believe this to be our problem today. the early great men of God were men of prayer.
I have been an active leader in several different churches over the last 40+ years. I have seen many good churches in my area panic as those attending began to shrink. Several have decided to restructure the entire church organization and programs with the objective of attracting Millennials. These same churches belong to denominations that, according to a Pew Research report, have median ages of 55+ for their members. Results so far: insignificant growth in Millennial population, older members leaving because they no longer feel cared for. It is interesting in that same study, the denominations with the lowest median age are almost all highly liturgical and episcopal in organization. I’m not sure where this fits with the four types of churches but it is something to think about.
As one who is younger I want to comment on my own experience. I went from evangelical to the Anglican/Episcopal Church for the old liturgy (1662 or 1928), focus on the gospel, 12-minute homily, and heavy focus on the Eucharist. Also, they have choir, cantor, and pipe organ. The holidays were observed and lent and advent started to have meaning. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will rattle you if you have never been. Then you start to realise just what the faith is all about. I do know that the orthodox, Catholic, and episcopal churches are growing near Washington with younger people, as is the Anglican in and near London.
re my submission wherein I mentioned mutual ministry, collaborative … I then followed that with a la narcissistic control freaks. Meant to say versus (not a la). My bad.