The Faster Pace of Decline Toward Death of Many Congregations


Based upon an aggregate of several research projects, I made some notes of growth and decline rates of churches and summarized my estimates into five categories by worship attendance changes over the previous five-year period. I compiled the following numbers ten years ago:

Growth and Decline Categories of North American Congregations 2009

  • Fast-growing (growing greater than 5% annually): 12%
  • Growing (growing nominally to 5% annually): 23%
  • Steadily declining (declining 0% to 3% annually): 34%
  • Rapidly declining (declining 2% to 5% annually): 21%
  • Declining toward death (over 5% decline annually): 10%

This past week I conducted the same exercise based on some of my updated research and the research of others and estimated the following:

Growth and Decline Categories of North American Congregations 2019

  • Fast-growing (growing greater than 5% annually): 3%
  • Growing (growing nominally to 5% annually): 24%
  • Steadily declining (declining 0% to 3% annually): 32%
  • Rapidly declining (declining 2% to 5% annually): 22%
  • Declining toward death (over 5% decline annually): 19%

My numbers admittedly are estimates, but they do have some quantitative basis, such as denominational statistics, research by LifeWay Research, and the data available in the increasing number of consultation and coaching requests we receive.

Obviously, the staggering reality of these numbers is the pronounced change in the two extreme categories. We are seeing a marked decline in fast-growing churches and a marked increase in churches declining toward death.

As I prayerfully consider these trends, I have a few immediate reactions and thoughts:

  • We need fervent prayer more than ever in our churches.
  • Our church leaders and members must let go of the idols of the past and traditions that hold us back.
  • If we are not focused and intentional on evangelism and sharing the gospel, we are little more than a religious social club.
  • We must stop fighting each other and understand who the real enemy is.
  • Church leaders should humbly seek interventions of coaching and consultation to  see how God might lead us in fresh and exciting directions.
  • I have seen too many churches breakout in God’s power to maintain a defeatist attitude. The One who resurrects the dead can bring any church back to life again.

This information is sobering. But it is not hopeless. God is not done with us yet.

Let me know your thoughts.

Posted on June 3, 2019

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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  • DeWayne Wyatt says on

    I am familiar with a church that was once the flagship church of the county. In the mid-90’s, the average Sunday School attendance was almost 600. Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it was not unusual for the SS attendance to be below 200. As I read through your “immediate reactions and thoughts,” the first five are accurate descriptions of this church. This is a church with immeasurable resources, but with these five realities of the church, it is continuing to decline. The leaders continue to reject any thoughts of revitalization efforts.

  • Mary Taylor says on

    What a heartening article. I hope to witness at least the start of the peaceful slide into irrelevancy of organized religion in my lifetime. Perhaps this is it.

  • As a new deacon, I sense trouble in our church. My business background tells me the difficulty might be originating from a lack of clarity in job duties (job descriptions) for church staff. Do you recommend churches have formal descriptions for its positions, as well as clear goals, and regular assessment? Accountability in my workplace often comes from well-thought-out goals, and clearly-defined expectations. Is this the case in churches too?
    I truly wish to help heal some things in my church, but I certainly don’t want to apply something from the business world that shouldn’t be applied to the church.
    Can you help?
    Thank you.

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