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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  • The saying “at its inception are the seeds of its destruction” is applicable to a local church. The embryonic worm in its foundation goes unnoticed for many years, and then the foundation crumbles because of the persistent, although silent, eating of the worm.

  • Bert Bagley says on

    Wow…my covenant group is constantly talking about this issue. Do you have any specific lists of places you are referencing? Thanks for lifting this up.
    Bert Bagley
    Moody Methodist
    Galveston, Texas

  • Dr. Rainer,
    You are so right. It is much easier for me to want in others what I may be lacking in my own life. So many times the truth hurts. PSU is a painful example of that. Thank you!

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Mark –
    Repentance must begin with our own selves. Since true repentance is between God and an individual, we can’t convince or persuade someone else toward repentance. We can, however, pray that God will use us to be examples for others.

  • I have seen several times where you’ve said a church needs to repent of pride…i believe this is true of our church where I am Associate Pastor. How can I encourage the leadership to take this seriously (and still have a job)?

  • Thom,
    Thanks for this heart-breaking but thought-provoking article. I wonder if “going into debt” would also be a major factor?

  • I think it would be a fascinating study to map out the decline of these churches. Where did the changes begin? Were they staffing changes, did the board turn over, or did people just get tired?
    Collins’ book was phenomenal, and there is a great deal of transferable material in there, but the church is a completely different animal…
    I think that a study on how churches fall, and how to prevent that fall, could be enormously helpful… and incredibly fascinating to pursue.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Steve –
    You are exactly right.

  • Steve Hogg says on

    Jim Collins research and conclusions in “How the Mighty Fall” speak clearly to this issue from the perspective of the business world. His conclusions translate to the church world very easily.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Robert –
    Thanks for your heartfelt comments.
    James –
    I’m still struggling about my next book. Maybe God is telling me that I’ve written enough books. Good leaders know when to move on. I just pray that I will have that discernment to be a good leader. Thanks for your confidence in me though.

  • James Eddemeyer says on

    Please, please write a full length book on this topic!

  • Robert McGillary says on

    I really don’t like this article, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s painfully true for my church and me. Truth hurts at times, but truth can be the beginning of hope.

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