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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  • I did “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” with a dying church. I was told by the Chairman of Deacons these exact words…”I’d rather see the church close it’s doors than to do the kind of things that book says we need to do.”

    • Wow. Those words are painful and so sobering.

      • Paul Wilcox says on

        Yes, they just want to maintain a moralistic social club. Truth and the hard work involved in “working out your own salvation”, is just too much like hard work.
        Far easier to cling to and defend old church traditions.
        Although I am born again, washed in the blood of the lamb and have my hope in the risen Christ, I havent seen the inside of a religous building for years – or ever will. Believers who occasionally get born again in such places soon have the life of God extiguished and themselves crushed by dead dogma.
        There will be hell to pay at the end of the road for those turning the house of God into a comfortable social club. They are accursed till our Lord comes.

  • This is a very good article that all should read. I’ve been sent to two churches who have been struggling and see new life happening, more in one than the other, but both growing. The difference is attitude! The one that is really working hard are taking the message of Christ into the community, the other is struggling with it, but are coming around. It’s hard work on the pastors part to be the theological cheerleader and I’m loving every minute of it. Thanks for sharing your insight, it gives me more fuel!

    • I attend a church which has made a come-back in the last 5 years and still does not know exactly what they did. They have managed to get younger people, families, and men. However, they have a service where the pipe organ is still played, loads of the Bible are read intact, and an old time 12-minute, make-you-squirm-in-your-seat homily delivered by a priest who was a lawyer. It can be done.

  • This is a great follow-up to last weeks article concerning churches being stuck in the past. The church I pastor was, from all member accounts, a dynamic, vibrant church years ago. Then something happened, no one can seem to recall to me what that was, but the church began to decline. In the last 4 1/2 years I know for a fact what the problem was: there was no passion for serving. We have, over the last year and one half turned the corner. We are seeing God’s hand at work-new families moving into our church family, souls being saved, and the membership is beginning to see the importance of being passionate about serving a Living Savior! It’s all about comfort! Churches grow, the membership gets into the comfort zone and years down the road, what once was a dynamic congregation is now just above life support status. I believe many in the church have a genuine desire to serve, but they do not see it in leadership. Not just the pastor/staff, but deacons, SS teachers, DT teachers. There must be passion and desire in the body of Christ. I know the world in which we live is not receptive to Christian ministry, but it should be of no surprise to us, that is just part of the troubles we must face. We are on the winning team, We have the greatest coach and quarterback, we should be excited about the opportunities and possibilities that are ahead of us.
    Keep pressing on! Phil. 3:14

  • Love that quote from Judges! So timely! Being over 60 myself, I’m wondering if something might be arranged to that we “old-timers” might pitch in and help our churches to grow and still have some sort of worship for us to enjoy. Many if not most of us see the need to focus on the younger generation, but feel like we are being phased out of our worship services.

    • I would suggest one of the best things you could do is use your age to get the attention of the pastor and management. It seems that they do not listen to people under 55. In evangelicalism, they baptize them and forget about them. Please convey to the management that the younger people will not wait 30-40 more years to be heard but are voting with their feet. It is the sermon, the inaction of management, and the behavior of the members that can run off more people than you can imagine. The young want to hear applicability and how Christianity applies to daily life and is not supposed to be a miserable religion. Some legalists and old timers have made it into one that people are happy to be free from.

      Also, please take the time to listen to the younger generation. Listen to their problems and struggles. Show them what love looks like as few have seen it and fewer feel like they can trust anyone. You’re obviously a woman. Listen to the issues of young females while swearing secrecy so that they can trust you. I’m not Catholic but I thought at times about going to the old-time Catholic confessional because I was not sure who in most churches could keep his mouth shut and dispense non-judgmental advice.

      • Sometimes in church, younger people are nominated to be on committees and “get more involved” in the church. That’s fine, but the old guard is not interested in new ideas nor will they accept that there might be a better way. It doesn’t take long for the younger, professionals to move on to another church.

    • Linda I am 65 and have learned to enjoy contemporary worship. If the older generation insists on worship “we” enjoy then we won’t reach the next generation. We do choose a happy medium on volume, lol!

  • To what extent should the regulative principle of worship guide us in the revitalization of a church? Preaching and teaching from the scripture is necessary, Biblically. Hymnology is so important, whether it on a screen or from a hymnal. So is preaching/teaching correct doctrine, and the best way is expository preaching. How can we have revitalized churches that reach the younger generation and un-churched people without jeopardizing these principles?

    • Traditional Hymns are an important link to the past. However, some denominations refuse sing any contemporary hymns.

      Preaching must engage the existing culture.

      If the sermon is strictly from the Biblical text, but does not connect it to what is happening in the broader culture, why go? Also, we are not still in the Reformation or at war with medieval Rome. Yes, we must know and appreciate the past (including the Church in the time of the Apostolic fathers before Augustine) but live in the 21st Century.

    • Chris Nelson says on

      Amen, I notice hardly any mention of Christ in these comments, He is to be our focus and multitudes will always reject Him. Raise Christ and let Him worry about numbers.

  • I am in a Church here in the Philppines which practice G12 system, with a purpose of ‘Loving GOD and Loving People’ and with a vision of, ‘Win souls and make Disciples’. Maybe the Churches that declines, they had only members, not a Disciple. If we raise up our members to be a Disciple, w/ a vision and a purpose then your Church, our Church will not die. Let raise up next generation to be a Disciple. JESUS last command is ‘GO and make Disciples’ (Matt.28) not Go and make members or converts. Let our purpose, LOVE GOD & PEOPLE. If we love people, let’s win them for GOD and make them like you, a Disciple.

  • …so grateful for your passion and expertise in this critical ministry, Thom!

  • Also, self-perpetuating, homogeneous leadership. Anyone wishing to enter leadership has to think like the rest. Thus, they start getting “group think” and that will sink any organization that gets a case of it. No thinking “outside the box”.

    • Thom Rainer says on


      • Don Taylor says on

        Yes, been and there and experienced that. I met with resistance from the people who are supposed to be in leadership positions. You can become a member of their board, serve on their revitalization committee and try to lead, but if you don’t think like they do or if you have new ideas that would help with revitalization that they do not agree with you are stymied. Even though it should be obvious that doing church the way they have always done it isn’t working they will not adapt. It is sad. But in these cases, until they open their eyes and get a new vision for what can be they will continue to decline until it is too late

  • George B. A. Fountain says on

    Thank you Dr. Rainer for sharing your heart and passion, for your courage to speak to these circumstances of our day, and the willingness to challenge the thinking of God’s people. I so hope we see the day where we are trully able to set self aside, embrace the essentials, look beyond the non-essentials, and walk together in unity… for the glory of our Lord and the sake of His Kingdom.

  • I am currently pastor of a church that is at the end of it’s life, if thing do not change. I hear the stories from members of the good old days. The days that they had 150 and more attending on Sunday morning. Today we are lucky if we have 25 on a Sunday morning and most of them are 60 and older. My first time stepping through the doors was as if you stepped back in time with a facility that looked like it was in the 70’s. Over the past year we have worked to try and turn the church around, cleaning and updating facilities that have fallen in disrepair. It is a slow process but the biggest factor is changing the mindset of the members. Even though the facilities is well on it’s way to being an inviting atmosphere the members still do not get it. They seem to still think that people will just show up and do not have the inviting mindset. My wife and myself are working hard to try and change this but with being bi-vocational with limited resources it can be quite discouraging. Working on our fourth year we hope that the turn-around will be coming soon.
    We have had some wins but they seem to be to far in between. I have seen other churches turn around but it can be overwhelming.
    I think the biggest thing is finding members that will come along beside the pastor and help direct this change. As I have heard others say, sometimes I think it might be easier to close the doors and start all over again.

    • Brother, I am so glad I clicked on this link today. Not because I’m in a dying church, but because you feel as if you are. Your response has both melted my heart with grief, and filled it with a fiery passion to covenant together with you in prayer and support. I will include my email in this response. Please feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll gladly do my very best to encourage you in whatever way I can.

      [email protected]

    • Wayne,

      I feel your pain, know what you are going thru! We had to tear down and rebuild a building for the church to begin seeing change. Now God is blessing and passion and excitement is returning. Hang in there, God will not let you down.
      Phil. 3:14

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I am so grateful for all of you who are willing to share your stories, good or challenging. You are helping tens of thousands of church leaders.

    • Eric Hinson says on

      Wayne, let me suggest a book that addresses Church Revitalization. It offers some excellent ideas and assessments which may be of help. The book was written by Dr. Bill Henard, a fellow Pastor and Professor @ Southern Seminary. It is entitled “Can These Bones Live?”, and would be a great resource for you or any other Pastor in a church needing Revitalization. The book is published by B&H Publishing Group, C. 2015, and is available from LifeWay Christian Sites for $14.99

  • One thing I’ve seen in many dying churches is a failure to invest in the next generation.

    Judges 2:10 10 That whole generation was also gathered to their ancestors. After them another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works He had done for Israel.

    • Sadly, people fear the next gen won’t maintain things exactly right and continue to fight the old battles. So they did not teach them anything.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Robert.

    • On thing I have seen is that one generation takes over all the things and does it well, and everyone else sits back and enjoys their services, and they usually will not share their responsibilities either- until they are unable to do it anymore. But no one feels the need to step up as they assume it will just get done, and then gripe when it does not- blaming the pastor usually. A kind of magical thinking takes hold.

      • Again, it comes down to experience. If you can play just as well as the “professionals” then you stand a chance. If not, you are pushed aside. Seen it too many times

  • Six years ago I was called to be the pastor of a church that was in desperate need of revitalization, while not dead, it was actively in decline. This is a great read and speaks to a lot of the issues facing the local church today.

    I am glad to be a part of a church that refused to die. They put their preferences aside for people, refocused on the non-negotiables of scripture and put forth the effort to show God’s love in their actions. Their ‘fruit’ bears witness to their faith.

    I would add that while it is a ‘simple’ idea…it wasn’t an easy process. Lots of prayer and sacrifice, mercy and grace.

    • Matt Lawrence says on

      Jason, I am sure your vision allowed the people to let go of the past and engage the bright future they now enjoy. Thank you for your big heart and for leading your church back from the brink. And thank you for sharing this story so it can inspire others.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Jason. Stories like yours inspire me.

      • Chris Nelson says on

        Christ is King, that is who I want to hear about continuously. Whenever and wherever He is taught, with all His doctrines, there is a thriving church, regardless if it is twenty five or two hundred.

      • While the lady spoke about singing from a screen rather than a hymn book, this has merit. I have been involved with music in the church, and our worship team rarely sings hymns. The drummer refuses to come to church if the music is not his taste. I was on the worship team, but was criticized for singing and leading “hymns”, because the people did not know them. My response is this, how can someone criticize the worship when it is for the Lord? I stepped down after one Sunday when the man in charge of worship said many do not know these songs. The next week the worship team played a song I never heard, and many in the congregation did not either. I kindly asked the elders what the difference was, and they could not answer me. I am still at the church serving in other means, but will not sing again their. God called 12 men with no experience. He called them to serve, others, not themselves.

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