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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  • I’m the pastor of a church that has been in decline for a decade. I’ve been at the church for 7 years. The first 5 1/2 I served as the worship leader. I have served as the pastor since December 2017. We averaged 30 on Sunday mornings with no one receiving Christ that I could remember.

    Since then, we just had an average of 57 for March, 73 for April (Easter), and 67 for May. We have had 15 salvations this year with most of them being baptized in our church and some of them going to a family church to be baptized.

    Here are my observations:

    1. Preaching and teaching heavily focused on church mission for a solid year. Not a Sunday sermon or Wednesday lesson went by without it.
    2. A focus on the Gospel. This was particularly important to reestablish what Dr. Rainer called the “theology of lostness” in one of his books (can’t remember which). I believe the Lord has used this to change the hearts of our congregation to become more outwardly focused.
    3. Personal evangelism training. I developed lessons for this based on a Biblical framework of different evangelistic styles.
    4. Name change. I don’t know if this had any real impact or not. It’s hard to measure. Our leadership team felt that our church needed to rid itself of stigma from the past. We felt that a name change might help us do that.
    5. Prayer. I don’t put it last because it’s the least important. I put it last because it’s the most important thing to remember.

    God is not finished with the church!

  • Ray Arnett says on

    What does this statement mean? I have seen too many churches breakout in God’s power to maintain a defeatist attitude.

    • Gloria Austin says on

      Ray, I believe was this is what the statement should have read:

      “I have seen too many churches REJECT breaking out in God’s power-and as a result, have maintained a defeastist attitude”.

  • Why is it so hard to do anything in most churches but sit, listen, and donate? To contrast, habitat for humanity makes it easy to volunteer. Everything seems to go one direction in church. There are few ideas from the leadership (that are mentioned) but almost no one knows how to get face time with or an idea in front of the leadership. Too often the same leadership that got the church into a decline is the same group who would have to reverse their previous decisions or lack thereof. In the private sector this does not always occur without new leadership, but in churches the turnover in leadership rarely happens.

    • Leigh Anne Bell says on

      Our church just completed a merger a year ago. It isn’t as easy as you think. We gained members and also lost members who weren’t happy with the merger.

  • Eric Luedtke says on

    Two things I have observed in my years as a pastor.

    1. I think some of our statistics are a bit skewed because: A. we are being more honest about them (I’ve served three churches that have shown “significant statistical adjustments” when there has been a transition in pastors – read as “the statistics weren’t accurate for a number of years) B. We are not measuring the same thing we were measuring 10-20 years ago (AWWA for example does not account for the cultural change in travel and lifestyle habits of many of our members who are able to travel to be with extended family and are worshiping in places other than their home congregation)
    2. While some local churches are “dying”, their “death” is giving birth to something new. So rather than transitioning the ministry of “First Church on the Block” to change with the needs of the neighborhood, “First Church” closes its doors and the resources are poured into “New Movement of the Holy Spirit” which launches a vibrant ministry to reflect how God is moving in the neighborhood now. This is something to celebrate, even though it can mean some grieving for members of “First Church” – and it means that the church is still vibrant even if “First Church” ceases to exist.

  • Judith Gotwald says on

    “We must stop fighting each other and understand who the real enemy is.”

    Who is the real enemy? Is there only one? Does the real enemy self-identify? Is there a right answer? Are there wrong answers? Are we just supposed to assume it is some standard answer, God vs Devil? Have we met the enemy and is it we?

    • I heard an Episcopal priest ask in a homily why the enemy is too frequently the person sitting on the same pew but who does not agree with us 100%.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Ultimately Satan is the real enemy.

    • Larry Sams says on

      I am not a pastor. nor an elder. Just a lay person. I believe people cannot be the enemy. Jesus stated “Get behind me Satin” to Petter. Was Peter the enemy or he voice of the enemy. We do not nor should battle against flesh and blood. We should show Christ “fruits of the spirit” to flesh and blood. Satin and his demons are the enemy.

  • I recently had a conversation with the Director of Missions for our local association (we are SBC). He said that on average he is closing one church per year just in his association. That was frightening – no awakening. I will fight for/with my church – and with the Spirit – against the forces committed to bringing us down. We are pressed down but not destroyed, etc. We need fervent prayer for all our churches and (I am convinced) a primary focus on making disciples both in the church and in the community. It does no good to make “converts” if you are not discipling the converts you have into people who can pass on what they’ve learned (2 Timothy 2:2).

  • Douglas Falknor says on

    I am curious about the impact megachurches are having on this dynamic. Are a disproportionate number of rapidly declining churches in areas where a megachurch has opened a campus in the past 5-10 years? Were large churches which were steadily growing now listed in other categories due to a megachurch campus opening in the same region? Has the rapid growth of some megachurches peaked as they mature, reaching an upper limit on the number of new campuses they can open and maintain?

  • David Viland says on

    This is a sad trend that shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus Himself said there would be a falling away. But as I work with churches I see many things that excite and encourage me. I see several commonalities among churches that are growing:
    1. They speak/teach the truth from God’s Word.
    2. They actively reach out to the people of their communities
    3. They serve their communities
    3. They are agile in all they do, in other words they are able to flex and change from traditional approaches in order to reach people for the Kingdom.

  • J.R.B. says on

    I have hope founded on prayer and outreach fo our small country church.

  • Dr. Rainer…I LOVE your work.

    I’m a younger Lead Pastor (37 this month) leading a reapidly growing church in East TX.

    I am not a part of any denomination or network.

    I see things getting worse before better. I think the current ‘traditional model’ of church is in the death rattle…..but something better will come from it.

    I hope to be able to help make that corner with my church and in my ministry.

    The church that will be effective for my children’s generation will NOT look like churches from 1990, and I imagine that the model will evolve more rapidly in the next decade.

    I am VERY optimistic about THE Church…..but I’m not sure the current tradition church model that was once so impactful in America will survive the next twenty years.

    I love you…..thanks for being such and encouraging and wise voice for young pastors like me.

  • Joshua Trowsdale says on

    There is always hope. We’d been firmly entrenched in the “declining towards death” for several years but, as people have begun letting go of an “inward-focused, tradition-based” ministry focus and started to embrace a “community-focused, disciple-making” model, we’ve seen the turn-around begin. Worship attendance is up about 25-35% in recent months and the children’s ministry attendance has doubled! Praise God that He is faithful if we will only submit to Him and His Word!

    • I love stories of God’s work and hope! Thank you, Joshua. You are well named

    • Community focused Disciple making? How exactly is that done? My heart breaks every time my wheelchair bound son goes to Sunday school only to be avoided by leaders and students. He is a living breathing soul, yet treated as if he does not matter in the Kingdom to come. He is away for weeks at a time, due to medical issues. No one from the youth department comes or calls to check on him. I’m not complaining because this is an issue in many congregations among youth as well as adults. What’s going on?

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