Six Stages of a Dying Church

It’s not a pleasant topic.

But if we don’t talk about dying churches, we will act like there are no problems. As I wrote in Breakout Churches, the first stage for any church to reverse negative trends is awareness or, stated another way, confronting the brutal realities.

Somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 churches in America will close their doors in the next year. And many of them die because they refuse to recognize problems before they became irreversible.

So, it is with both sorrow and great love for local churches that I share a pattern that is increasingly common. I call it “the six stages of a dying church.”

  1. Denial. The church is declining numerically, but no one seems concerned. Fewer people are reached with the gospel, but no alarm sounds. The church’s impact on the community is negligible, but life continues in the church like nothing has happened.
  2. Recalibration. There is a sense that something’s wrong in the church, so the church responds in one of two ways. Do more of what we are doing that has proven ineffective. Or, secondly, seek a “magic bullet” program, emphasis, or new pastor. The church does not really want to change; it just thinks it needs an adjustment.
  3. Anger. Church leaders and members begin to recognize that the magic bullet did not reverse the negative trends, so they deflect the blame. It’s the denomination’s fault. It’s those young people who don’t respect the way we’ve always done it. It’s the messed-up culture. It’s the people in our community who stopped attending churches. The anger in these churches is palpable.
  4. Exodus. The church had been losing members gradually to this point, but now the outflow increases. And even those who don’t officially leave attend less frequently. The worship center is desolate on Sunday mornings. The anger in the church moves to demoralization.
  5. Desperation. For the first time since the dying process began, the remaining members say they are more open to new ideas and change. But their words are more words of desperation than conviction. They now see the handwriting on the wall. Their church will soon die.
  6. Death. The church becomes another sad and tragic statistic. At best, the church deeds its property to a healthy church. The process from denial to death in the recent past would take as many as thirty years. Today, the process is much shorter, ten years or less.

Churches have broken free from the death stages, but they are rare. And the longer the church waits to make substantive changes, the more difficult it becomes to reverse the path. It’s significantly easier to make changes at stage one than stage four.

Also, keep in mind that nearly nine out of ten of the churches that die are in communities that are growing.

The problem is not a shortage of people. The problem is a shortage of courage, commitment, and sacrifice.

Posted on June 12, 2017

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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  • Richard the Saddened says on

    Before step 1: The words of Jesus are not known very well. especially his commands. What is known is not taken seriously, therefore not followed. The Old Testament and Paul and the Big Picture (eschatology) are more popular than knowing and believing in Jesus, his incarnate ministry and his words.

    “All covenant, no Kingdom” churciology fails because it ought to fail.

  • Richard the Saddened says on

    Before step 1: The words of Jesus are not known very well. especially his commands. What is known is not taken seriously, therefor not followed. The Old Testament and Paul and the Big Picture (eschatology) are more popular than knowing and believing in Jesus, his incarnate ministry and his words.

    “All covenant, no Kingdom” churciology fails because it ought to fail.

  • Kingsley Effiong says on

    how can you recognized a death church

  • Pastor Benjamin Peter Okpara says on

    Recommend exhaustively solutions of A DYING CHURCH in this modern time in history,

  • Obey ll Chron 7:14 and do what the apostles did in the Book of Acts. House to house witnessing and teaching bible studies. Receive the Holy Ghost like those in the 10th chapter. Speaking in tongues as evidence of the infilling of the Holy Ghost and being baptized in JESUS NAME.

  • John 15 New International Version (NIV)

    The Vine and the Branches

    15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

    5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

    9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

    The World Hates the Disciples

    18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’[b] If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’[c]

  • I am writing to seek help any kind including prayers for my old church in Indonesia. It has all the signs of a dying church , in fact is probably at the last stages. The remaining congregation are without a shepherd fractured and lost and require healing and revival. If anybody knows anyone in Jakarta Indonesia please can you get in touch?

  • Jay Jaddis says on

    Jesus, Himself, suggested that some local churches would lose their lamp stand. When a local gathering no longer serves its purpose that is what happens. The growth of house churches, coffee shop churches, family churches, etc. simply means that they are serving the purpose the Holy Spirit planted them for. What God isn’t blessing loses momentum and eventually the inertia to keep it going is gone. How much better to recognize the birth and death of local assemblies as normative rather than keep it going on life-support until even that runs out.

  • Carry E. Spann says on

    No mention in the comments you made as to the decline of church membership and attendance, you failed to mention that the lack of truly “Biblical worship music” has much to do with the decline of church attendance and growth. This is logical when you understand that when the traditional worship (i. e. “hymns”) were written and introduced to the congregation at the end of the pastor’s weekly sermon they were summaries of his sermon. For instance, John Newton – a pastor, summarized his message by “lining out” the phrases in his sermon that he had just preached with musical phrases known by the congregation. The hymn known as “Amazing Grace” was sung this way on January 1, 1773, six years before it was published as a hymn in the hymnal called the Olney Hymns in 1779. In those days, the hymn “Amazing Grace” could not be sung at a Sunday morning service in his church (an Anglican church) in which only certain hymns were allowed in their Sunday services. The hymn was first introduced at a week-day service at Olney, England using a different tune than what is sung in America today. The tune which we now sing with the text which was Newton’s sermon summary was based is called NEW BRITIAN. This tune name probably came from a Christian diocese in the state where it was first published in 1835. Could it be that the lack of soundly Biblically based hymn could be a cause of church attendance?

    • feroz khan says on

      thank you sir, for been bold to write on dying church . we got to go back to the begaining how the church was conceived and birth . without the Holy Spirit presence nothing happeans everything is just dead works . how the church today needs first touch of God retoration of joy of his salavation .

      what is needed is fresh move of the Holy Spirit ,his fire to burn once again .
      psalm 85v6′ wont you revive us again ‘

      thank you
      feroz & roselyn(fiji lslands)

    • My husband and I had the privilege of living in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England for a number of years (even though we originate from the USA). I worked at the Cowper & Newton Museum as a volunteer for a time, and we attended St. Peter & St Paul Anglican Church in Olney as well. Thank you for your comments. We did not know this particular piece of history, even though we know other interesting facts about the area. Blessings to you. Cheers!

  • I am in a dying church, yet our out reach has many non church members attending. The above process does not apply to our experience. We have gone down a different track to where we have ended up. The one thing that is missing is the pain that members feel for a dying family.

  • Steve W. says on

    I think we should also differentiate between a dying church and a shrinking church. If the Lord is bringing new people to visit, many of whom are staying, joining, serving, then I would not call that a dying church, even if total attendance is down. (Note the key word – MANY – I don’t suggest any church hang their confidence on a single new member from 5 months ago).

    While not looking to blame the culture, and while not being stubborn in sticking to the “old ways” there is a point where we need to recognize things have changed in this country. And one major way is in the use of technology. The ministry reach of a church, especially when it comes to teaching the word and sharing the gospel, can be wider than just the people in attendance on Sunday morning.

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