Why Some Churches Choose to Die

The conversation surprised me.

I was recently meeting with about a dozen members of a church that was on the precipice of closing. During their perceived “good old days,” the average worship attendance was in the 40s and 50s. Now the church attendance was in the teens. The church was on metaphorical life support.

I shared with them some items of urgency that might give them some glimmer of hope. So I was surprised when one of the members asked me a question that seemed to come from nowhere: “Will we have to sing from screens instead of hymnals?” she asked with a tinge of anger.

I never responded directly to the question. It was too late. The few members were of one mind about an issue so peripheral I had never anticipated it. I left saddened.

The church had chosen to die.

The Need and the Passion

It is my life and ministry passion to help churches, particularly struggling churches, to revitalize. One of the greatest needs of churches today is to choose to live and to thrive.

Unfortunately, many congregations are choosing to die. For certain, they are not calling a business meeting and making a motion to die. Their choices are more subtle and, often, more incremental. But the end result is the same.

Churches are choosing to die.

Five Deadly Choices

So what are churches doing specifically that leads to their demise? Here are five of the more common choices.

  1. They refuse to face reality. I was in a dying church recently. The congregational average attendance was 425 seven years ago. Today it is 185. I could find no one in the church who thought the trends were bad. They were in a state of delusion and denial.
  2. They are more concerned about greater comfort than the Great Commission. Church membership has become self-serving. The church is more like a country club than the body of Christ. People are “paying dues” to get what they want in the church. It’s all about their preferences and desires.
  3. They are unwilling to accept responsibility. It’s the fault of culture. All the new churches in town are to blame. If someone wants to come to our church, they know where we are. People just don’t want to come to church anymore. Excuses and more excuses. I have never been in a community that is nearly fully churched. There are many people to reach. Excuses preclude obedience.
  4. They are too busy fighting and criticizing. If we could take the energy of church critics and antagonists into reaching people with the gospel, our churches would become evangelistic forces. Unfortunately in many churches, members expend most of their energies criticizing leadership and others, and fighting over trivial issues.
  5. They are confusing non-negotiables with negotiables. Almost ten years ago, a couple of men who live near me asked to visit with me in my home. They wanted me to consider visiting their church. One of the men told me their church was one of the few in the area defending the faith. I asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the faith was one particular Bible translation and traditional hymns. I wasn’t sure what happened to the bodily resurrection and substitutionary atonement. The church died within seven years.

Choosing to Live Rather Than Die

Most churches have choices to live or die. We use the word “revitalize” because it means to live again. I hope you will join me in this passion to see unhealthy churches become healthy, to see churches choose to live.

As one way of being a part of this movement of revitalization, I have teamed up with Revitalized Churches in Florida to offer the best resources we can to help in this cause. They are once again offering the resource that has helped hundreds of churches move toward revitalization.

Those churches have chosen to live.

Such is my prayer for your church.

Posted on November 4, 2015

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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  • Thom, your assumption is that churches that choose to die is due to unhealth is true, but incomplete. Churches have chosen to die because they realize the financial model isn’t sustainable, the resources (building) doesn’t allow for the necessary ministry to happen, that they need to step away so that folks in the neighborhood might be church there, or the ministry they feel called to as a community simply isn’t the ministry needed in the community. Churches choose to die for the sake of mission, a decision made faithfully so that God might raise up something new. I think that should be taken into account, and it would be helpful for you to acknowledge this faithful decision in future posts about church death.

  • Just curious, is it ever appropriate for a church to die? Are we just so afraid of death as a culture that we are afraid to let churches die too? Doesn’t death bring life, perhaps in New churches? Just random thoughts. Not saying you are wrong, I do agree with your points. I believe in the majority of cases you are right on target.

    • John Landis says on

      Thank You Kate. Yes Kate, In my opinion (not shared by all) it is appropriate for a congregation to die or end its ministry. As a Transitional Minister and judicatory consultant, I have spent over 20 years dealing with churches in crisis, many of whom should be ending their minsitry. Most are unwilling to make the changes they need. By the time most realize that they are in trouble they are way past the time when they could do what they need to recover.

      We need to hospice congregations (which includes helping them end their ministry in a dignified manner and helping those who are left find places that will spiritually feed them) that do not have a chance of rejuvenation so that they will not experience the devastation that occurs when a congregation dies and wonders why. But we need to help them leave a legacy for others rather than wasting the resources they still have. In my opinion that is bad stewardship.

      Why are we so afraid of death as Christians, even death of our churches? Death is necessary for rebirth and resurrection to occur. (I believe Jesus said something about seeds falling to earth and dying so that resurrection could occur. I don’t think he was only talking about his resurrection) We waste incredible amounts of resources trying to resuscitate congregations that will never come to life again. If we could take those resources (and I am not talking about money but the good faith efforts of those who are willing to change) and utilize them in aligning with God’s call and starting new minsitries that are responsive to the spiritual needs of those who are looking for spiritual renewal and willing to do something about it, I wonder if we could not make a major difference in this world.

  • Peter Musungu says on

    Thanks Dr. Thom and all the precious people the Lord has raised to comment and share on this very important topic.
    I am a pastor in Africa Kenya, who is also faced with the same challenge. I have been a pastor in this church for more than 5yrs now, i was called to takeover after their pastor abandoned them. well its intresting that this church is a split from another church when they could not agree with the way their bishop treated their junior pastor and on his behalf they went their way.
    Things worked out well, and we have many gains to thank God for being a slum church widows and orphans have been converted to christ and some have had help from the church. it seems there was no vision and or the vision was not clear, well because i really need help here, we are now on the decline, and are faced with a challenge to close down, we have a few of us, with limited resources which gives me very little time for the few who remain because i have to out of my way to do some manual jobs to take care of the needs of the church like rents and what have you.
    I am in between, welcome all the help out there, trusting God for direction kindly i am asking is it possible for revitalization????
    My email address [email protected] i welcome and appreciate your prayer, shared experience, word of wisdom, any support that will bring glory to our God by leading us to his will. God bless you all

    Pastor Peter

  • Andrew Drury says on

    Thank you for all these comments.
    My wife and I attend a church in the UK where I recently came off the leadership team because of similar issues. We are seriously thinking about joining another fellowship.
    The church had made several really bad decisions before we joined them, so the warning light should have been on when we considered linking into the church.
    I sense several common threads running through these posts:
    a) Lack of concern for outreach – reaching out to the lost – where church members are content for others to do it for them
    b) Lack of adherence to God’s Word and the principles contained within it (in my case, I was told that precedents trump the Bible!)
    c) Unwillingness to move on in God – people content to have the same experiences time and time again without moving on to where God is now.
    d) Weak/overly strong leadership (it was the former in our case)
    I am glad that God is in control and wants to develop our character to conform to what He wants for us (Romans 12: 2) as a result of these experiences.

  • I have looked over these posts; very insightful. Several members left, impart, as a result of lack of discernment. When leadership isn’t chosen with gifts the Holy Spirit gives, the “church” will not survive. The pastor should not dictate to leadership and leadership should not default to only the pastor. A certain amount of vulnerability could be healthy for a church instead of a “steral” environment. A pastor applying for a pastorate position should be aware of “baggage” brought with him. Three pastors at the same church as my husband and I have attended for over 20 years have been more of a dictator than a Shepard. Allowing members to use the Holy Spirit’s gifts should be encourage to use them as well. This same church at one time had two Sunday morning services down to appx. 50. The Constitution was changed as per pastor’s wishes (“he left his job as an attorney). Sometimes is not just programs, worship songs, or excitement to reach out to non believers; it may be of lack of encouragement and sense of worth given to attendees. Enough said on these issues. Thanks for having an apportunity to express my insight.

  • Shane Moffitt says on

    When my church called me to pastor, they had declined to 12.
    That was 10 years ago.
    Over the years, as we grew, most of the 12 left.
    Some of them seriously didn’t like growth or new people.
    Some of them were angry because they lost “control”.
    But today, God is blessing and lives are being transformed.
    The battles still rage over preferences from time to time.
    However, I learned that the battle belongs to the LORD.
    My calling is to preach the Gospel and love unconditionally.
    After using PowerPoint for over 6 years ~ we still have a few that resent it.
    I simply refuse to “major on the minors” and serve the best I know how.
    Psalm 78:72 NIV
    “David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skillful hands he led them.”

  • Thom,
    I pastored a church in the Midwest for 10 years prior to coming to my current church. It was an older, “set in their ways” mindset group, but after about 3 years I had won enough “younger people” to get approval to bring in a screen and projector. Almost all of our older members were either opposed or at the least very hesitant about this and I heard a lot of comments (direct and indirect) about the evils of bringing “rock” music into the church.
    On the very first Sunday we used the projector we didn’t sing contemporary music, but went back and pulled some old hymns out of the 1956 and earlier hymnals which were not in the hymnal the church was currently using. These were songs that they had grown up with and the result was very positive with many people saying, “Well why haven’t we sang these before?
    Our reply was that those were songs no longer in our current hymnal, but with the screen and projector we were no longer limited to just using the hymns printed in our current hymnal. One older lady told me after the service, “I didn’t think I’d like this idea of using a projector. But I really like it now because we can sing what ever we want.”
    In no time whatsoever, the older members were won over to the idea of using a projector and screen. It took a while, but eventually we were able to work some old and new songs into our worship and have a blended worship which seemed to please almost all our members.
    Sometimes church leaders need to take a step backwards, before they can move forward.
    thanks for the article.

  • as a retired pastor I expect to be sharply criticized for the following comments but the we must face this truth too.
    I am interim in a church that is dying from pastor abuse of the past few pastors. yes, it is the church’s fault partly for not using due diligence in seeking pastors. I have seen it in other churches as well. abuse from name calling from the pulpit (worst church I have ever seen, sorry excuse for a church , are direct quotes ) as well as other action such as infidelity, internet porn, and the list goes on. satan has a host of those who will lead churches to destruction. and in my experience there are those who are attracted to those things.
    I served as interim in a church the pastor was caught soliciting sex from over the internet and when I arrived they were divided over whether the pastor should have been fired or not. leadership meeting were punctuated with curse words and yelling as a result of the way the last pastor led.
    My first pastorate was in a church that the pastor settled business disputes in the church in the parking lot with his fists. then he burned all the loose furniture he could get loose and all records he could before the fire department arrived.

    all that was to say we pastors better be in tune with God and be as perfect of an example as we be. Our people learn from example so when we start accusing the people of not caring etc wee need to hold up the mirror.
    pastors, I love you and pray for your success but let us not put all the blame on the church.
    humbly waiting your lashes
    keep the faith

  • I have been going to a very old-fashioned church for all of my 20 years. The worship music is 1800s hymns with no passion or fervor, Sunday School classes are targeted at the middle-aged and older, and because of those combined factors, I am currently the only one my age that attends. The messages are presented from a pastor who does not seem to live what he preaches, and his whole family projects an attitude upon the flock of condescending and arrogant self-importance. At one point, I volunteered to lead a small Sunday school for three other young men my age. (A deacon approved) The first week we met, the pastor made his son go and watch over my teaching. The knowledge that if I made one incorrect declaration I would be done teaching was a lot of pressure, and I’m not sure exactly why the lesson wasn’t good enough, but the next week I was told to go back to the “adult” Sunday school class and that was the end of me being allowed to minister in the way I felt that I was able. The next week, I led a Bible study in the parking lot before Sunday school since I wasn’t allowed to “in church.” The other young men involved in that whole situation have now left this particular “church” and I honestly am very happy for them. The pastors sons are away at seminary, cementing their legalistic and ritualistic doctrines further into their minds, until they can return and take over the church, continuing the heart-breaking cycle. The last time I saw the one son, he was preaching in a fiery way, but it was suffused with showmanship and flair, as if he was trying to show himself to be the most righteous and godly preacher that ever lived. I actually cried right there and then, because I don’t doubt that he is blind to his own lost soul, blind to the place that his arrogance and indoctrination have brought him. The most lost among us are those who think they are saved. I have tried expressing my thoughts and feelings with my (much respected and loved) parents, but they are emotionally attached to this church, and take my bad experiences as a personal attack to them. They have called me arrogant, ignorant, childish, and immature for attempting to flee this place of haunting hymns and damningly dead doctrine. If it wasn’t for a few amazing friends that I know from outside this church, if it wasn’t for my girlfriend’s faith, it wasn’t for the faith I see in other Christians, I would have lost my faith long ago. Something that is designed to heal the broken should not cause so much bleeding in the soul, it should not perpetuate depression, a community should not sink me in my loneliness. I am stuck going to this decaying church until I have saved up enough money to buy a car, or can finally move out of the house. Until then, it’s a prison. I hate going to this place. It spiritually, emotionally, and (sometimes) physically hurts. My church has shown me that this is what Christianity looks like. I pray to God that they have been wrong.

    • Ryan,

      I came to Christ in a church that sounds remarkedly like the one you just described. God has since allowed me to experience a number of churches of different backgrounds, and I can assure you that a true church of Jesus Christ is more alive, more focussed on enhancing peoples’ lives, and more in love with the Savior than anything you’ve yet to experience.

      May God help you move on, perhaps even while living under the family roof, to a church where you can grow much more in your faith and most importantly, be used to glorify our Lord and God.

  • Joseph & Denise says on

    I am so thankful for this article. I was sitting on my bed reflecting after a very trying day of worship, in the church that my husband and I planted. I have found myself overwhelmed and very discouraged. I never knew that ministry could be so hard. My husband and I started a church two years ago with no more than 10 people and of those ten four were adults. Since our start we have had several people come and even return for second visit but for whatever reason they don’t join. I have to admit that we have not been the biggest fans of social media (advertising) but our budget is small so we are taping into what resources we have. We now have a little more than 2o members but half of them are children (teens) and the rest are somewhat older 50’s and 60’s and not really in positions to lead the way we need. I am very sad to say it but I have questioned God and myself so much asking him if we are doing the right thing. My husband is so giving working two jobs and pastoring to make sure the church has it’s needs meet financially. We recently joined a body but I am a bit apprehensive about reaching out for help. I am hopeful that God will speak and give us clear direction. My children have grown so much from working in the ministry and most of our members are new to the body of Christ, we really need some support, both spiritual and otherwise. Please keep us in your prayers that the help we seek will soon appear.

  • Dr. Rainer, you said you have teamed with revitalized churches in FL to offer the best resources. What resources are available to my FL church?

  • Frances Watsonj says on

    The thing I see in churches today is the people don’t want to be faithful and obedience to the work set before them they take on jobs but are never present or do not want to commit themselves to the work most just want there names listed

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