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 read through several of the responses and agree to large degree.

    Our church is one of the exceptions to some of the generalizations I have read. We are a small country church that was founded by Methodists in 1886, closed in 1966 because of a dwindling congregation that merged with another, and reopened as a non-denominational church in 1972. I’m coming up on 2 years as pastor next month.

    We fill a niche for the local small community because we are so traditional and conservative. People come because we sing hymns and preach from the Bible. A lot of old-time Methodists like us and have asked me about membership because our church is what they had when they were growing up in this part of Texas as opposed to women ministers preaching a social justice message in larger towns around us. We’ve increased attendance from 15 to 35 a week.

    Right now our biggest problem is overcoming the valuing of smallness and status quo. The growth we have is from non-members caring about souls more than members do.

    I’ve emphasized that numbers are nice, but they’re not my goal. Teaching our people to be faithful and obedient is. God will give the increase as He sees fit.

  • george chew says on

    It is a paradox when we see a dying church in a growing community. It has become a declining faithful few . Youth ministry is not considered important and childrens’ sunday school has been displaced by sporting activities. It is not a shortage of staff but lack of courage , committment and sacrifice.
    Let is take a leaf from the early community (Acts 2:42-47), which has grown to a global church ,the church declared by Jesus Christ(Matt 16:18), from a learning, caring , worshiping and witnessing fellowship

  • Thanks for writing this. Your first reaction or thought was “We need fervent prayer more than ever in our churches.” I agree, and desire to do/have this in our church. But how are churches praying fervently well?
    This question is for anyone doing it effectively to answer, but how is this actually taking place in your church. In my church context, in a small town, with mostly two parent working families, a prayer group or time(s) tend to have some energy initially, then lose momentum and numbers quickly. What is working to keep people collectively as the church praying fervently together and on their own time?

  • I am Association Mission Strategist for a Baptist Association of 63 churches. Our Revitalization Team recently did a study of each of our churches for the last 10 years.
    The results of this study are alarming and sad.
    19 churches on Life Support
    10 churches rapidly declining
    24 churches plateaued
    10 churches growing
    I think this is a fairly accurate picture of the church in America.

  • Research: “Change = (Dissatisfaction x Vision of Preferred Future x Knowledge of First Steps) > Resistance.”

    No dissatisfaction and/or no vision of a preferred future and/or no knowledge of first steps, then no overcoming resistance and no change. Today, it seems dissatisfaction has increased and a preferred future is envisioned but knowledge of first steps (and of sustaining ones) is missing–despite blogsites like Thom’s and thousands-and-thousands of training-related dollars changing hands among us. OD experts would say, “Put the change agent on your staff as an employee,” lest the training of a consultant is forgotten as soon as he/she says “Good-bye!” to your congregation for the last time. I think those change agents used to be our Ministers of Education (or equivalent titles with exact same duties) who were fully-supported by their wise Senior Pastors; when they were replaced with other kinds of staffers lacking the same training/knowledge, then the local church’s decline was excellerated. In my town, there are no more MEs–and only one church growing numerically, primarily at the expense of the others (transfer growth, not evangelism growth). If nothing else, a return to small group Bible studies with clearly-stated church growth-related tasks would be a help when executed.

  • Your council is spot on sir. Much of the issues that you so rightly pointed out (lack of prayer, removing idols from our lives…) is infighting. Is it not true that believers attacking other believers is the same as persecuting Christ (Acts 9)? Great labor of love on this article sir…and taken to heart by me, a pastor that is seeing this happen right before my eyes…and it grieves me. Imagine how Jesus must feel when He sees a bloodied Bride, with her sleeve torn, hair’s a mess, wedding gown is a ripped, and she has a black eye. It’s lik the Bride’s been fighting with herself again. If this grieves me (and you sir), imagine how this must grieve our Lord.

  • Thank you for your objective research and for sharing your wisdom. Since the conference in Nashville in Oct., ’16 Ive been reading your posts and books and regularly strive to apply and share the principles you share. We’re by no means “out of the woods yet” but have seen some marginal growth. If, and when, you have the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the “non-traditional” church of the future (2029) may look like. God bless.

  • I am currently serving in a church that is declining and the worship/music style is being pointed out as the main reason for the decline. We use a blended style of worship with keyboard and recorded accompaniment for both the worship choir and some congregational singing. There is the belief that if we just change our worship style to contemporary, it will solve all the problems. It doesn’t help that a new contemporary church opened in our downtown aimed specifically at reaching young adults. As the music minister, what suggestions do you have? My prayer life has intensified greatly over the last few years as I struggle to keep relevant.

    • JTG –

      You should join the Worship Revitalization cohort with Mike Harland. It will be incredible.

    • I read this comment yesterday and I have hesitated to respond to this as I want to always be constructive. Personally, I was the music minister for 5 1/2 years. It began with a blended worship style. We slowly changed it to a more contemporary style though we throw some hymns in every now and then. The net effect on our church was 0. No new attendees. No new salvations. No new baptisms. No new anything except some new songs.

      As you can see in my post above, when I began as our pastor in December 2017, we focused on the true Biblical mission of the church for a solid year. Everything was Gospel- and mission-focused. I really didn’t teach or preach anything else for probably 16 months. Today, our church has more than doubled in 18 months (32 average to 67 average) with 14 salvations so far in 2019.

      Music style may help attract someone for a moment, but it will not make an eternal difference for the person. Consider Tim Keller’s VERY traditional church that keeps growing and planting and growing and planting. And I say this as the guy who made the change to CCM and I’m still our lead guitar player (and yes, I’m loud and play a Les Paul through a Marshall at church!).

      Regarding the other contemporary church, let them reach who they can reach. Pray for the Lord to help you preach and teach in a way that causes heart change in your current congregation. What I have discovered is that growing a church is something I had to stop trying to do. It is cliché, but I really did have to focus on growing people spiritually. I have intentionally avoided preaching that is basically a Ted Talk with a Bible verse. I am a mental health professional, so that would be a very easy thing for me to do. However, the Lord has greatly blessed our refocus on His Word and, particularly, the Gospel and He has used it to change the hearts of our current congregation to the point where they started reaching others.

  • Kevin McNeely says on

    I was hired to restart a church. We started with 15 members that chose to stay. We updated the sanctuary and changed the whole worship service. Thirteen left but we kept pressing forward. It’s been four years and we have 2 service that are full. We stream in our senior pastor 1/2 the time. This frees me up to evangelize and teach the leaders . I appreciate your work Thom and enjoy your encouragement. I pray that these stats turn around.

  • Pastor James O’Neill says on

    This was a very interesting read, which obviously brings about many thoughts. Some of great concern and others of what course correction is needed.
    And as I look at the 2 grouping most effected, I realize the commonality is astounding but experienced in 2 extremes, both of which bearing bad fruit.
    So what are the commonalities,
    Each whether the attractional church, fast growing or the old traditionalists are holding on to something severely misguided.
    And it is idolatry, one thinking creating an atmosphere , a service , or a program could produce an end , that only God’s presence and Spirit led can achieve. The traditionalists grasp on a a ritual or a tradition in the same vain.
    Both are rooted in the sin of unbelief,.
    The greater question in all this , is can we the church return to a place where Jesus Christ is enough.
    Dean Martin Lloyd Jones early in his ministry, convicted by God and dealt with both extremes as people were leaving the church. His aim was high, yet God honoring, remove all distractions so people can come back to God.
    By the preaching of the word, applied by the Holy Spirit.

  • Dr. Rainer…

    Thank God for your research and your heart. I pastored in Marietta, GA for many years – a church going through a rapid decline in the community. Through the change in the community and ethnicity around us, the church had to make some serious changes. Without immediate changes, the church would not survive. In October 2015 the church made the important decision to merge with Eastside in Marietta, Georgia. Now, the church I pastored is doing exactly what I am convinced God intended it to become – a multi-cultural ministry center. In addition, our Hispanic and Haitian congregations meet at Eastside’s Austell Road Campus in Marietta. During each week lunches are given out daily, a crisis closet has been formed, a newly built “computer room” for the public is in place, and our new congregation, Mosiac, is growing considerably. Under the leadership of Eastside, the church is beginning to flourish again.

    Our new campus pastor on location is bilingual in Spanish and English. I knew the church MUST become a ministry center to the neighborhood. God has allowed me to live long enough to see this change take place. Revitalization is happening!. To God be the Glory! Thanks, my friend, for your heart for evangelical churches. I am so grateful for your leadership in helping churches in decline by mentoring them in revitalization for this century and beyond.