The Three Most Common Sentences of Dying Churches

If churches could speak, what would their words be on their deathbeds?

You don’t have to wait until a church closes its doors to hear some of the sentences that led to its death. Indeed, these three sentences, or something similar to the words, are pervasive in too many churches.

  1. “We’ve never done it that way before.” This sentence has become the classic example of a church resisting change. While we should never change or compromise the truths of God’s Word, most change resistance is over methodologies, preferences, and desires. Unfortunately, these battles are typically over matters of minutia. One church recently had a battle over using a screen in the worship services. A matriarch argued that the Apostle Paul did not have a projector screen. I guess Paul was comfortable with his printed hymnal.
  2. “Our pastor does not visit enough.” Churches with this complaint often have highly unreasonable expectations of the pastor. The pastor could visit members 24/7 and it would still not be enough. Some of the church members in these churches compare length and frequency of pastoral visits to see who is getting the most attention. These churches are inwardly focused and headed for decline and, many times, imminent death.
  3. “People know where our church is if they want to come here.” This sentence is fraught with problems. First, it assumes the church is a place, that the physical location of the church building is the church. The church, working under this erroneous assumption, can never get outside its walls because it will cease to be the church. Second, this sentence is often used as an excuse for congregations to stay in their “holy huddles,” and never evangelize the community. Third, in some cases it is a cover-up sentence for prejudice and racism. The community outside the church has changed, but the church has not. The members of the church really do not want “those people” invading their fortress.

Numbers of churches are closing their doors every day. And the members of those churches would have never thought that sorrowful day would arrive.

You have an opportunity right now to look at the warning signs in your church. If these sentences, or some variation of them, are part of the common language of your congregation, the church is in trouble.

Yes, your church can turnaround in God’s power. Unfortunately, most church members of these congregations will not forego their personal preferences, comforts, and prejudices to change.

And that type of mindset, sadly, is a certain path toward death.

Posted on September 26, 2016

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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  • Have you ever done any research into whether a change in a church as to Wednesday night Prayer Meeting from several members offering prayer in past years for the list of those requesting prayer and concluding with the Pastor praying the final prayer, to most times there is at most one member plus the pastor praying, and often no one prays except the pastor? The Chairman of Deacons thinks that if a Deacon prays at that time then members will think they are trying to control everything, but Pastor always waits one minute after the last person to pray before he offers the concluding prayer. That gives every person who feels led to pray the opportunity. It just seems that we as a church just aren’t feeling led anymore. Is this in any way connected to being a dying church? We often have visitors and prospective members visiting on Wednesday night. I am concerned about how they view that usually only the pastor prays for those requesting prayer, and how he feels about the lack of prayer support.

  • I would removed #2 from the list. I would say that a church where people desired pastoral visitation was a healthy thing. It is where people attend church out of tradition, and attend its meetings passively and indifferently that things are in a serious condition, not where people are actually keen for pastoral visitation. Many people are opposed to pastoral visitation because they resent the idea of the pastor having too much direct input into their lives, and don’t want to be held to account for the way they are choosing to live their lives. Of course pastoral visitation can be misunderstood and abused (by both pastors and members of the congregation) but that is no reason to abolish it.

    But something which I would add to the list of key signs of a dying church is, “I don’t understand.” A church might organise special events, or deliver leaflets to thousands of houses advertising its services, and try to do well-meaning things to try to entice people in. But all their attempts end in failure because they are out of touch with the non-Christian mind and with a non-Christian culture, and at the end of the day they are dejected and ‘can’t understand’ why no one responded to their invitations, and can’t see what is so off-putting or unenticing about their methods. They can’t see their building, their services, their own behaviour and manners, and their own advertising, from an outsider’s point of view, and they waste all their time and money and efforts by making foolish mistakes which undermine all the good they aimed to do – like producing leaflets to put through thousands of doors in the neighbourhood, but failing to get the leaflets proof-read first, thus making the church look ignorant and illiterate, or using modern technology in the church services to appear to be more up-to-date, when no one in the church is able to use that technology effectively and seemlessly. A pastor who is trying a catch up with the times to appeal to a younger generation might look daring and well-meaning to older generations, but foolish and inept to the people he is trying to reach. If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well, and if it can’t be done well, it’s often better not to do it at all.

    • (And I’m a perfect proof of my own hypocrisy and ineptitude by failing to adequately proof-read even the first sentence of my above comment!)

    • I have to agree with Dr. Rainer on #2. Too many churches expect the pastor to do all the outreach. That way he becomes the convenient scapegoat if the church doesn’t grow. Many times the people who complain about the pastor “not visiting enough” never do any visitation of their own. That’s pure, unadulterated hypocrisy.

      • Ordinary church members cannot really supply the need for ‘pastoral visitation’. Pastoral visitation is not merely a social call. Nor is it just a time for the pastor to have fellowship with people. It is a time for him to instruct people in a more specific and individual way, and gauge where they are at in their spiritual lives, to find out what they need to grow. If the people who are grumbling that the pastor doesn’t visit them enough only do so because they take pride in showing hospitality to their revered pastor, and get an ego-boost out of his visits, they would probably soon stop hankering after more visits if he used his time with them as he ought, and would rather he didn’t visit them in order to probe into their spiritual lives, to instruct, correct and rebuke them.

        Just because pastoral visitation ‘can never be done enough’ doesn’t mean that it can be dispensed with. Preaching twice or three times a week isn’t enough in an ideal world but that doesn’t mean that preaching can be dispensed with too. (Though really there is nothing to say that individual instruction isn’t just as much to be considered preaching as the lecture delivered from the pulpit on a Sunday).

        Pastoral visitation doesn’t have to be overly burdensome or time-consuming. It doesn’t mean the pastor has to even leave his office or his home. Richard Baxter’s idea of pastoral visitation, if I recall correctly, was simply that families would come to see him at appointed times. If a pastor just set aside one hour a week to receive two half-hour visits from families in his congregation he could see hundreds of people in the course of a year. And where there were single people, after an initial meeting to get to know the individuals, he could match them up with other suitable people so that they could come together as groups to see him – people of similar ages and interests and problems, who would need the same sort of teaching. If he had three people at each visit on average, that would be over 600 people seen in the course of a year. As few churches have that number of people, a pastor could schedule to see all members of his congregation twice or year, or even once a month. Richard Baxter thought once a quarter was ideal but he himself could never manage that due to the size of his congregation and workload and had to settle for once a year.

        Pastoral visitation also strengthens the church. The individual pastoral care can inspire people to study more avidly, thus enabling people to learn at a much quicker rate. It allows the pastor to recognise early on any signs of giftings which could be utilized in the life of the church – so that he can try to train up and bring forward those individuals he thinks show promise instead of leaving it for the presumptuous to put themselves forward later in life. He can team up people with similar visions who could work together in serving the church in specific ways. He can spot the heretics and troublemakers and know who to keep his eye on to make sure it doesn’t spread. If people are on friendly terms with the pastor then they are more willing to submit to his authority. In normal churches, if a pastor offends someone they just leave and go elsewhere without repenting or maturing. But where a friend rebukes them they are more likely to bear with him and humbly accept the truth of what he says and profit by his discipline.

        When the pastor gets to know his people as individuals it makes him more approachable and people will feel more able to include him in what is going on in their lives. If he is going to purposely distance himself from the people by avoiding systematic visitation of the entire congregation, he needs to ensure he has some other method of hearing news of what is going on in their lives. Unless he has an organised system of pastoral visitors who do the work for him and then report back to him, the most simple method is to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s also less risky. If there is a hierarchy through which information has to pass to reach the pastor’s ears then it will breed an atmosphere and habit of gossip. Also, if the pastor listens to people directly, if people can tell him things directly, they won’t feel the need to grumble to others about what they would like to say to the pastor if they got the chance. People don’t gossip maliciously about their friends, but if the pastor isn’t counted amongst their friends he has no protection.

      • (The number of visits in a year should read 300, not 600)

      • >Ordinary church members cannot really supply the need for ‘pastoral visitation’.

        In terms of somebody saying “The congregation cares for you”, ordinary church members can be much better than church staff. For a surprising percentage of hospital visits, all that is needed, is for the patient to feel that the congregation does care about them, during their hospital stay, and recuperation period after being released.

        For the infirm, shut-in, etc having individual congregation members visit is far more meaningful than having the pastor doing the visiting.

        >It is a time for him to instruct people in a more specific and individual way, and gauge where they are at in their spiritual lives, to find out what they need to grow.

        That would be the task of the Elders. In how many churches do you see the Elders visiting the sick, infirm, shut-in, etc?

        >If a pastor just set aside one hour a week to receive two half-hour visits

        That would 104 visits per year.

        For the 59% of the congregations in the United States that have less than 100 people in attendence at a service on Sunday Morning, that solution sounds good. One not so little problem. Life is messy, and people’s lives can get very messy. For a person in a crisis, waiting χ months for a pastoral visit won’t work.

        For the 50% of the Christians that, in terms of Sunday morning attendance, go to a church in the top 10%,that solution omits at least half of the congregation.

        >people of similar ages and interests and problems, who would need the same sort of teaching.

        That doesn’t take care of the “odd person out” phenomena, which is increasingly common. The individual whose reference points, be they be theological, cultural, social, or something else, are completely unknown to the rest of the congregation.

        >The individual pastoral care can inspire people to study more avidly, thus enabling people to learn at a much quicker rate.

        That would discipleship, and appears to work better when conducted at the small group level, than at the individual one-on-one level.

        >When the pastor gets to know his people as individuals it makes him more approachable

        Pastoral visits are all but irrelevant to a pastor either being approchable, or knowing their flock.

      • I would agree with you on several of your points. Pastoral visitation is not just the visits which the pastor does, it is visits of a specific nature and is a specific form of ministry. Just going out for a chat and coffee isn’t enough to qualify it as being a PASTORAL visit. And pastoral visits are concerned with overseeing people’s spiritual health rather than their physical health – it is far more important for pastors to give precedence to people who are spiritually sick rather than physically sick. Thus, as you say, pastors aren’t always the most suitable people to visit someone just because they are ill (I made the same remark myself on one of the blogposts about ‘fifteen reasons why a pastor shouldn’t visit much).

        Elders ought to be qualified to oversee people’s spiritual welfare and so I agree that they could do all or most of the pastoral visitation of one of the elders wanted to give all his time to teaching. But that doesn’t undermine the necessity of pastoral visitation which is what some of these articles seem to be saying.

        The 104 visits a year, seeing three people on average at each visit, does mean that over 300 people are seen. And it makes allowances for people who do have to be seen individually. Three is only an average. Families containing more than three people would be seen at one visit, thus allowing time for attention to be given to people who needed to be see individually. 59% sounds like a pretty good number. Better that 59% of churches benefit than all 100% suffer because pastoral visitation is taken away entirely.

        ‘Odd people out’ often don’t commit to any church and attend regularly, and if they do, it’s not ideal to let their isolation continue, which is what would happen if they were just allowed to continue to attend with no personal attention given to them. Better to at least attempt to integrate them by pair them up with people who could begin to make an effort to befriend them.

        Small groups aren’t without their problems and can encourage an insular mentality, becoming small club-like units in themselves, where people care only about each other and exclude others from joining. If you get a good group together where people are all serious, and all able to trust each other and be honest with one another, they can be reluctant to take new members into their midst who they knew couldn’t be trusted with confidential information and would spoil the dynamics. Pastoral visitations help to keep people outward looking, and help find people’s gifts and find ways of utilizing them in the life of the church.

        And visitation surely must affect how well a pastor can know anyone in his flock. He can’t get to know them very well if he never has time to talk to any of them.

      • Brevity is the soul of wit, and it doesn’t do a bit of harm to blog comments, either.

  • Perhaps a good subject to go along with this one is what to do when there are as many former members in the church’s community as members attending worship services.

  • A group of us ‘newer’ members have tried everything over the years to get a decent sign in front of our church (which is hidden behind a wall on a main street with lots of traffic). The best quote from a long-time member: “Why do we need a sign? Everyone knows where we are.” Oh yes, and we are not thriving by any measure: attendance, giving or missional activity.

  • Great post Thom,

    I would add another common sentence:
    “I’ve never told anyone that I go to church or about my faith.”

    The challenge for all Christians is to live a life where we see ourselves as all ministers of the gospel called to go tell people about Jesus in our own relational networks. Our churches will never grow if we just expect folks to come ‘to’ church.

    We, the church need to go to the world and be in it.

  • We just hosted Dr. Bill Henard at our association’s annual meeting. We did this in conjunction with a conference on church revitalization. We had a great conversation and my congregation now understands that we are indeed a plateaued, and slipping towards declining, church. I rejoice that they have seen this!

    This morning, I received this email in my inbox and was amazed because I have heard all three of these, especially #2!, in the last week.

    I will be printing this off and bringing it to the discussion my congregation is now having in two weeks because of Dr. Henard’s messages.

  • The twin statement to #1 is “We’ve ALWAYS done it this way.”

  • Janet Foster says on

    Yes, change may be needed, but what if Christians are untaught in the Word. God does not give us freedom to do whatever we want. He sets down the principles for us to follow, which I am sad to say have not been taught in such a long time that people are not aware of those principles. A resource I strongly recommend is Dr. Peter Master writing “Worship in the Melting Pot”, which can be found on:

  • Phil Hoover says on

    A wise person once said, “If you want to go fast, go it alone…if you want to go farther, then go together…”

    Asking people to go “together” requires something from everyone…from the pulpit to the pew.

  • I have been pastoring a church for two years and even as the church shows signs of change the Holy huddle group just made #3 to me. Now they are telling me I must go. It’s hard to understand !

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