Seven Common Reasons Churches Have a Dramatic Decline in Attendance

July 31, 2017

“Where did everyone go?”

A business executive asked that question when she returned to her church after some extended international travels. In the four weeks she was out, the attendance at the church had declined from nearly 600 to under 400. The attendance had plummeted in that short time by 35 percent!

To be clear, such rapid declines are aberrations. Most declining churches go through incremental, not dramatic, reductions.

We consider a church to be in dramatic decline when the average worship attendance drops by 20 percent or more in three months or less. What causes such unusual declines? Here are seven common reasons:

  1. A scandal in the church. The two most common are sexual and financial scandals. Either of those can cause immediate erosion of trust and send members out the door.
  2. Sudden departure of a pastor or staff person. I am familiar with a church where the average attendance dropped from 1,250 to 850 in just a few weeks when a malevolent power group in the church forced the pastor out. The congregation never heard a reasonable reason for the departure because there was none. The church has not recovered.
  3. Closure or decline of a major employer. Some communities are highly dependent on one or a few employers. When any one of those employers close, people who are members of churches in the community will often depart rather quickly. I saw this reality transpire many times during the great recession and when several military bases closed.
  4. The church changes its position on a major biblical/moral issue. When a church makes a major doctrinal shift, many members often exit quickly. That exit is often exacerbated if the doctrinal change is related to a moral issue.
  5. A power group continues to wreak havoc in a church. The story is not uncommon. The same power group opposes any change again and again. Pastoral tenure declines due to the leaders’ frustration with this group. At some point a large group in the church declares, “enough,” and departs en masse.
  6. Another church moves close by. The new church or newly located church offers ministries and programs the affected church does not have. Often these ministries are particularly appealing to families who still have children at home. Those families move to the new church to try to keep their children interested and excited about church life.
  7. A highly contentious business meeting. These churches have typically experienced conflict for some time. The conflict comes to a boiling point in a business meeting. Large numbers leave due to anger, weariness, or both.

Admittedly, this level of decline is not common, but I am seeing it more frequently. It is my prayer that these seven reasons can also serve as seven warning signs.

It is incredibly difficult for any church to recover fully from such a massive exodus.

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33 Comments

  • William Moore says on

    I have read the article and comments and my heart goes out to you, especially wounded pastors. I am an intentional interim. We come in after the storm (or maybe before it is over) to work specifically on spiritual issues that may be the root source of problems. With the help of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of the remaining leadership we gently work to bring healing and lead churches back under the headship of Christ. If your church has hemorrhaged lately seriously consider hiring an intentional interim, but expect God to rock your boat a bit on the way to healing and possibly even reconciliation.

  • The mainline churches have all experienced deep losses over changes in moral positions. This is true of at least 3 mainline church denominations and probably soon to be 4. The one denomination that I know of has lost about a net of 1 million members in the last 10 years. Now some of this is a lack of focus on evangelism, but the cultural accommodation to American popular culture is the primary culprit.

  • I am a lay member and I’m leaning toward the door because of dishonesty on the part of our church leadership. We have a relatively new pastor and elders. They are planning and making changes but they won’t just frankly discuss these matters with us because we might say no. So they implement their agenda with artifice and manipulation. They forget that if we are not included in decision making that we ultimately retain the power to vote with our feet.

  • I think there is another reason that is not being mentioned….the pastor is not good at teaching the Word. He stands, tells a few jokes and delivers a book report. People are hungry for the Word to be taught and preached….book reports from the pulpit are as boring, dull and lifeless as they were in 10th grade English Lit.

  • Jonah Park says on

    What about a lack of prayer? I am sure many attend prayer meetings at church but these meetings seem to revolve around personal prayer requests for the most part…we are not spending enough time asking God to transform us, asking Him to help us turn from our selfish ways and take up our cross daily and follow Him…

  • Unfortunately, it is sometimes leadership that leads to a sudden exodus. Our church, which had been Gospel-centered and growing, welcomed a new pastor. But over the course of about a year, the leadership abandoned what Paul said was of first importance – the Gospel. Some members simply left. Others left poorly. And others met with the leadership. The leadership blamed the exodus on the prior pastor, spiritual immaturity of those who had left, or on sin in the lives of some who left.

    There was no responsibility taken by leadership for the loss of the members. In fact, as noted above, those who left or those who sought to encourage a change were blamed for the exodus. The response confirmed the loss of the Gospel as the central and unifying aspect of the church.

    As committed members, the challenge became whether we should simply leave after having repeatedly and prayerfully brought our concerns to the elders, or whether we should publicly bring the matter before the whole church, or whether we should seek further meetings with the elders. Ultimately, we chose to leave. We were asked by the pastor not to share with the remaining members why we had left. We agreed but I now question whether we should have.

    We still grieve for our church and pray for it and its leadership. But we are concerned as we see others who have remained going through the same process we went, knowing that our experience, if we had not agreed to remain silent, might help them through that process. And, as we see younger believers join the church, we are concerned that they may be led away from the Gospel.

    It has been a challenging time but God has also used it to reveal our own weaknesses and oftentimes lack of Gospel-centeredness in our own home.

    • Did you ever get the issue before the whole church?

      In my situation, the church leadership refused to bring it before the church — clearly there were problems and the elders apologized “for being misunderstood” and we could never get it before the church. It appears church leadership is immune to that part of conflict resolution.

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