When Great Churches Fall

The names of the churches stare back at me.

There are 876 churches in all. Most of them have their names written in my books. They are Effective Evangelistic Churches, High Expectation Churches, Standout Churches, and Breakout Churches. Three books were written on these churches. My teams did hundreds of hours of research.

Though quantification of church health is difficult, we attempted to look at health from several perspectives. Evangelistic health. Discipleship health. Doctrinal health. Fellowship health. Worship health.

We know that our measurements are fallible, but we still think we identified some of the greatest churches in America.

But now some of the names stare back at me. Not all of the names. Just some of the names.

From Great to Mediocrity

The names I am seeing right now are churches that are no longer great. They have fallen from the lists. They no longer meet the criteria.

We found some of the fallen churches from statistical follow-up. We found others in consultations, and still others from familiarity with the churches. Some people told us that other great churches had fallen on tough times. And some people even questioned if our studies had validity since those churches had fallen from greatness.

Again, we make no claim of infallibility in our research. But we do believe that our research is sound. The studies that we did, however, were mostly “rear-view mirror” studies. We looked at churches from the past several years to the present. But past accomplishments are no guarantee for future health. Churches can reverse their positive trends.

It’s those churches whose names are staring at me.

Hubris, Denial, and Nostalgia

Of course, the single word question that disturbs me is “Why?” I am tempted to lead another study, this time on fallen churches, but I do have sufficient information for now to see how the fall begins. I classify the reasons into three words, and they are not mutually exclusive.

Hubris. The word means pride or excessive self-confidence. Here it refers to church leaders who have seen great days at their churches, and who are convinced that their churches are the models for others to emulate. They talk about the methods they used, instead of the biblical principles and passions behind the methods. Since theirs was such an effective church in the past, the leaders see little need to do things differently today.

Denial. It’s a characteristic of church leaders of fallen churches. They simply don’t want to face the facts. The church is not as evangelistic as it once was. People are not growing in the Word as in the past. Expectations are lower, and so is morale.

Nostalgia. Most churches have a period in their history that stands out above others. But some churches still live in that period though it’s long past. Nostalgia is fine if it is simply the act of fond memories. Nostalgia is sinful if it keeps the church from moving forward in Great Commission obedience.

What Now?

Where do these churches go now? Is it possible to move from mediocrity to greatness back to mediocrity and then back again to greatness?

Absolutely. All things are possible through God.

The first step is repentance, a confession of any sins of pride or self-sufficiency.

The next step is a reality check. Instead of living off the past of recognitions and accolades, it’s time to have a hard look in the mirror. A church can’t get well if it’s unwilling to admit it’s sick.

Then the church needs to learn its community again. Make no assumptions that the present is like the past. Get accurate information. Live incarnationally. And then contextualize for the new realities, not those of the past.

Finally, move toward radical obedience. This life is too short to play church games. Time is running out fast.

And then, the once great church can, in God’s power, be great again.

Posted on November 9, 2011

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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  • Jerry Chase says on

    “A church can’t get well if it’s unwilling to admit that it’s sick.” Man, is that ever the truth! I know of one now.

    While this essay wasn’t quite what I expected, I DID like it . . . for at least the fact that the author never named names of “the fallen”. This is fine discretion; yet the message is timely and salient.

  • What we need is a theology and practice conducive to repentance and evangelism. In my research in church history for 6 years, it was interesting to note the theology of the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions was a view that certainly promoted a sense of humility and is well-summed up in the most popular hymn of our day which comes from that period, namely, John Newton’s Amazing Grace..how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. But we are afraid of our own founding theology. How sad! I found that it was so constructed as to enable and empower the believer and minister to be balanced, flexible, creative, magnetic,and constant. No one seems, however, to want to look at one of the key documents of that great era, meaning Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt, which called for prayer on the part of believers in all denominations for the propagation of the Gospel among the nations. Inspired by the nearly 100 promises recorded in that tract, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Luther Rice, and others begin to pray for the Gospel to spread to other nations, and then they made an effort, resulting as we now know in the Great Century of Missions. In a biography on Martin Luther King, Jr.,I came across a reference to Arnold Toynbee, the great British Historian of the 20th century, asserting that the renewal of Western Civilization could come through the negro or as we say today, the African American. My research in Baptist church records and history certainly point to the fact that the Black folks recognized the humane teachings of the Bible in the local churches…even if the White folks back then did not always practice what they preached. Personally, I think that a better understanding of our history and theology and a consequent prayer effort could lead to a Third Great Awakening which might involve the conversion of every soul on earth (hopefully beginning with this generation) and continuing for a thousand generations (at least 20,000 years) and reaching thousands and thousands of planets (thanks to the scholar most deem as responsible for limited atonement..I refer to Dr. John Owen and his book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and by way of reference in Andrew Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation). A close and careful study of the documents of theology and visitations in the period from 1700-1820 could do much to enlarge our understanding of what is involved in the way of the nature of the ideas and how they apply to produce desirable results. Who knows what an informed decision and commitment to seek God’s favor for such a visitation as I have indicated might mean for our future, should the Lord delay His coming?

  • I wonder if the reason “great churches” fall is TOO much reliance on the business principles that “so easily” apply to churches as they do businesses.

  • The church of Jerusalem had an attendance that was estimated to be somewhere between 125,000-150,000; hence, God’s intent for a church is not to die but expand. The church of Jerusalem did not die, God’s people went elsewhere and continued in the work. The church name is not as important as the people. If the people continue the work of God, the “church” has not died, even if the name did. Many churches stop having church, because people stop coming. They “cannot afford” to financially keep it going. The Bible makes statements such as “greater works shall ye do” and “I have given you life that ye might live it more abundantly.” In lieu of these truths, this means that we should be growing and bearing fruit. We should be growing both spiritually in our personal growth and also in our church growth. We must not let our churches whither and die.

  • Suggestion: Churches have lives just like people do. Some live 20… 40… 80… 150 years. People can exercise to extend their life, but they will one day die (Effects of sin). Churches can do things well to be healthy, but eventually this broken & sinful world catches up with them. Not only that, God moves his activity from one area to another (The Jerusalem church was running in the thousands for a while… but {regardless of what they’d have done} was scattered by God for His purposes)) and so the decline or death of a church may well fall within God’s activity and purposes.
    Are there things a church can do to be healthier? Of course! But even their progress is under God’s direction as per Hebrews 6:3.
    I’ve had this theory for 20+ years… I’m sure someone has written it somewhere, but I haven’t read it anywhere I can remember. Just a thought.

  • A huge factor is the the type of pastor that you have. The question that you must ask yourself is:
    How candid can I be with my pastor?
    If your pastor is an insecure leader, then you will not be able to address this issue without a long process.
    If he is a secure leader, and you are used to being very candid with conversations and ideas, then there is a good chance that you will be able to address it fairly easy. Go to him with the perspective that you have been dealing with this personally in your life and have recognized this same issue in the church. Ask him how you can help him change this mentality. By asking him what you can do, it is not just bringing him a problem, it is showing him that you are committed to helping him fix the issue. He might even ask you for ideas. (If he is a secure leader)
    You have to start at the top. If the followers are to change their mindset, this will have to be pushed by the Lead Pastor. If you cannot convince the pastor, you have some tough decisions to make. Is this the type of program you want you and your family to be a part of?

  • Thom, I back fully what you say about it being an inward problem of the individual in direct correlation to sin and one’s relationship with God. Good stuff!
    With the head issue of the churches’ decline we have to visit many issues. There is a “root” of the issue; however, it is being fertilized by various things. I would like to add one fertilizer of this “root” problem.
    One of the biggest reasons why I believe that big churches fall is that they lose their focus. It has been said that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I agree with this philosophy totally. The pastor is to steer the focus of the church. The mission of the church is world missions. (Acts 1:8)
    One of the many reasons why a church loses their focus is because they feel like they are not getting anywhere with this focus, or they get caught up on many secondary issues. In this day in age, many decide that they are going to change their message when all they need to do is change the methodology of their efforts.
    Yes, the world is changing. We do not live in the same day in age that we used to; however, God’s Word does not change; hence, our message should not. We have ran the church and it’s outreach ministries the same way for hundreds of years. Yes, it may have worked 100 years ago, but the methods need to change. We need to “kick out the sides” of our church “box,” so to speak, and go back to the book of Acts and see how they did it back then. If we want to impact the world like we have been commanded to, then we have to go by the example that was given us.
    -Filled with the Holy Ghost
    -One Accord
    -Praying Daily
    -Teaching/Meeting Daily (the Bible says, “…and from house to house”) This does not mean that everyone must meet together daily, it means that groups from the church should meet daily. It does not have to be at the church house either.
    -Evangelizing Daily – Church members daily sharing the Gospel with people about Jesus Christ
    These are not all of the things that a church should do or be a part of; however, these should be primary focuses. More often than not, these are not primary focuses in most churches today. Praise and worship teams, humanitarian aid, etc… These focuses may not be wrong, but if they are not driven for the one purpose of reaching more with the Gospel, we have a problem with our priorities. Hundreds and thousands of churches are lost each year because of the lack of focus on these examples that have been given to us in the book of Acts.

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