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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  • Marcia Broady says on

    There are real reasons why some small churches lose membership, especially those in rural areas. The reality is there just aren’t as many people living in the country as there were back in the 80’s. Since then most rural areas have been in decline. That does not, however, mean the church can’t be vital and active. Our rural church was in decline for several years due to some terrible things that happened with a couple of their pastors. However, the people stayed focused and when they called my husband to the church everything it was with a sincere desire to heal and grow (give God the glory!). While we are still small – our people are very active and we have been growing. Our demographic is mostly retired people so our congregation is largely over 65 – but we have a large percentage of people attending Bible study, our missions giving is about 40%, though our building is soon to be 150 years old it is maintained well and is inviting. The most wonderful thing about our church is the acceptance of people no matter their “station” in life. We have some people who are very well off and they socialize with others with no attitude of being better. Our church helps the poor in our congregation and community more than any church I have ever been associated with. I don’t think church vitality has anything to do with the style of music (we use hymnals and a screen), it’s all about sharing the Good News and reflecting the love that God has for us. I guess it sounds like I am bragging, but my point is that an old, small congregation can still be “on fire.” In our area, our church has developed a reputation as “that church that prays for people.” Praise God!

  • This article touches on a lot of issues that are pertinent for churches in the city where I live. When I went to the church I pastored it was past its glory days and the membership was small but decided to appoint me and keep going. I had few significant arguments about implementing change. We saw some small growth but lost more members through death than we added. By the time I had been called to another position the church was reaching the point where it could probably only afford to pay me for another year. Again they decided to keep going even though it meant some radical surgery in terms of how things were done. I returned recently after two years and was thankful to see that it was flourishing- much more than it had ever done in my time.

  • I’ve been in youth ministry for about 10 years, and I’ve seen alot of shifting blame as far as the decline in church membership. A huge thank you Thom for writing Autopsy. It was a confirmation that we had become luke warm at best, and was the spiritual shot in the arm that we desperately needed. I read it, then bought a copy for the deacons and former pastor. I told them to read it and pass it on to someone else (sorry Thom!). Ever since (against the wishes of several in the church) my wife and I do community outreach every Sunday night with whatever youth show up…and God is faithful. Our children and youth ministry has more than doubled and still growing. Also, we have a few new adults coming as well. We’ve recently been blessed with a new pastor that believes in reaching the lost and hurting. Thom, Autopsy is a home run.

  • This is a powerful article., I personally believe a church must first choose to be an alive and thriving “Great Commission Church”. However many only choose to a great community church, which is choosing to eventually die.

  • I recently resigned a pastorate where the church defiantly made all five choices of a dying church. It had reached the pivitol point I refer to as “The Kadesh Barnea Moment”. I made the decision I did not 40 years to wander or squander. The exact time of death was called when there was a total rejection of church discipline for those openly living in scandalous sexual behavior, both heterosexual and homosexual. I personally biblically counseled the individuals involved for several months, but they refused repentance and reconciliation. The deacon body leadership rejected moving forward with discipline, preferring to “leave well enough alone”. They feared offending other family members and being perceived as an unloving church. It was an outright rejection of the Gospel and its power to save. Another sign of death was the persistent refusal to participate in any discipleship, fellowship or evangelism. Church was nothing more than showing up for the 11 am ” Worship Service”. It is vital to evaluate the spiritual health of the congregation. What you maybe trying to pastor is a church in name only.

  • It is a sad thing to see a church die but the greatest sadness come from realizing that a dieing church is such because their lost their first love. (Rev. 2:4) It seems the church od Ephesus is a prime example of the church my father Pastore for 20 years.
    There were good times when numbers where high, but as those people got older so did the thinking. Jesus was always proactive is reaching the lost and that is how we should be. But as I watched and tried to help as a young adult all I saw was pride, pride in how great things were. And it was never the churches fault as described in this article it was always the culture, the people who left were wrong, or the younger generation just didn’t get it.
    The truth is pride is killing that church. The hardest decision was leaving after all the investment and sacrifice my family made there. But as a husband I could no longer watch my family suffer because of their pride. First I am the head of my house then a member of the church and it was never more clear when the leaders of the church told me I wold kill the church if I left.
    The pride of that church was it’s past, it’s doctrine rooted in the denomination. As Rev 2:4 says we lose our first love. We defend the faith but without actions outside the church and call it enough. v.5 says it all repent and return. To the work you did at first. Defending the faith is iportant but if our faith produces no fruit in performing the great commission then Christ says the outcome is clear.
    Brothers and sister, if we are to honor God and glorify him we must be active. The American dream had lulled us to sleep and we need to wake up. We need to live as if all wa have is for God service and not our comfort and gain. I will be praying this for all you here who are facing such trials that your congregation may return to their first love. God bless and strengthen you.

  • After living through an incredibly painful church experience at trying to revitalize a church I have learned many things regarding ministry and leadership. I hope some of them might be of benefit to someone who is reading this and needing encouragement. I will share just two things that seem most pertinent to those reading this article and the responses.

    One, a bad church experience does not mean you are a failure, are not a leader, or that you have not been called to ministry. It breaks my heart to read the post by Jim above. Sometimes churches have zero interest in actually being biblical and reaching people with the Gospel. You cannot lead people who do not want to be led. That is not an indictment on the leader at all. Scripture is replete with examples of godly men who did the right thing and were rejected by the people they were called to lead. Sometimes the people are unregenerate, and cannot be led. Sometimes they refuse to follow. Sometimes it is just a bad fit with pastor and congregation. But coming to the conclusion that you have failed is not necessarily correct and I encourage you to find some brothers who can come around you and help you honestly evaluate the situation.

    Two, though we all agree the best case scenario is for churches to be revitalized and repositioned on truth and refocused on mission, it is not always a bad thing for churches to close down. Maybe they were never more than a church in name only anyway, or maybe they have long ago ceased being a body of believers, but if the people refuse to follow leadership, obey Scripture, and be on mission for Christ, then the place needs to close down. Not all dying churches are in that situation, but I think more are than we want to admit. We need to start being okay with that idea as it would lead to less hand-wringing over some churches that are constantly killing pastors and not being a Gospel witness. Seeing a church that is not preaching, sharing, or living out the effects of the Gospel close down is a net win for the Gospel as they are actually detrimental in their existence teaching a warped view of Jesus and the Gospel. We should rejoice that those places close down and might be replaced with something more faithful (enter the need for church planting).

    I spend much time praying for pastors and churches who are currently attempting to revitalize and live. I want to see churches break out of their decline and grow again. I also don’t want to see any more pastors destroyed by churches that refuse to do what is necessary. It is becoming epidemic and good men have been hurt deeply by places that we would struggle to really call churches by any definition. I am thankful for the work of Dr. Rainer and others who are providing such great encouragement and resources, and the only thing I could add to their work would be to say that it is okay, and even good, for some churches to die.

    • Jason –

      You demonstrate great wisdom and offer some encouraging insights. I really have nothing to add to your comment but to express my appreciation to you. Your heart for churches and pastors is clearly evident. Thank you.

  • Christian David says on

    What a wonderful eye opening so glad I clicked and opened this page .it is encouraging to know people are turning their Churches around .Start at the bottom build a strong foundation faith prayer fellowship . if a farmer doesn’t cultivate the ground and prepare it for the seed he cannot expect it to produce fruit in the harvest . we need to prepare our remaining congregation on how to receive and encourage potential new members .people like to feel part of something and not just a number . to feel welcome is to feel a belonging don’t let a new family sit on their own they can do that at home get their names use their names often let them feel you already know them and share all of this with God because unless you are doing all of this with God then you are on your own .

  • I have been the pastor of a small church for ten years. My first pastorate. I was middle aged when I was called to the church and now I am an old worn out man. I have no zeal left in me. The church was dated when I arrived. I was able to get approval for a projector for the sanctuary and that is the extent of updating to the 21st century. All other ideas quashed. I was particularly dumbfounded when, during a business meeting, one of our older saints said she would fund a children’s playground and it was declined. Voted down. The church did not have to foot one penny and it was declined. Our attendance has diminished from about 60 to 30 on Sundays. Many spiritually young believers left because they were criticized out the door by some older men. I could go on but there is no point. I am distraught over the slow death of this church and I willingly take the blame. I did all I thought possible. I prayed for guidance, growth and for God to move us. I have decided I am not a leader. I have failed these people and God and I will announce my resignation at the end of the year. I know this sounds like a sob story. It isn’t. I posted this as a way to get this off my chest.

    • Jim –

      I am glad you are able to use this blog as a way to get the frustrations off your chest. Don’t assume it’s all your fault or that you are a failure. Some churches just refuse to change. Your church has chosen to die despite your efforts. I am praying for you right now.

    • Brother Jim:

      Dr. Rainer is right; you should not blame yourself. The pastor cannot grow the church alone. Growth requires the people in the church taking responsibility and desiring growth and following the pastor’s leadership. For ten years you preached God’s Word, prayed for the people, and ministered to their needs and hurts. God’s Word does not return void, but accomplishes the purposes for which it was sent out (Isaiah 55:11). I have no doubt you did more good than you know. Stop beating yourself up and blaming yourself. Perhaps it is time to move on to other ministries, but God is not finished with you. You may be suffering from burnout, depression, exhaustion, or all the above. Take some time off. Take a sabbatical to rest, heal, and re-energize. And then rediscover the wonder of walking by faith and serving our Lord. I wish you the best, my brother, and I will pray for you.

      • Thank you, Dan. I appreciate your words of encouragement to Jim. I get the impression Jim is one great pastor whom God chose to go to a recalcitrant church. I don’t understand why, but Jonah couldn’t figure out why he was in Nineveh either.

  • If a church’s goal is not to make disciples, then does it need to exist? It seems to me that, if it’s not about the fulfilling of the Great Commission, then its reason for continuing may be self-perpetuation, and that’s the wrong reason.

  • The Bible does not support age segrated ministry. This is why our youth are so self-centered. The Bible is our guide.

    • Christopher says on

      Argument from silence. The Bible does not give particulars on methodology. It’s true the Bible does not say we should age segregate our teaching but it also doesn’t say it’s wrong to do so. While the message never changes, the methodology must change. The reality is, right or wrong, that we live in a very age segregated society (point #1). Furthermore, I can’t image what’s wrong with trying to teach children or students on their level. Do we send 6 year olds to high school? No, we send them to 1st grade.

      I do believe that the entire church, all ages and preferences, should come together for worship because we are one body. However, I see nothing wrong with targeted teaching and additional worship opportunities for students.

  • Robert Turner says on

    Good words, Dr. Rainer.

    Here in Pennsylvania/South Jersey we have been working with dying churches to help them serve as catalysts for a new work being started in their setting. I have had the opportunity to work with four such churches in recent years, three of which made this decision and one that declined and unfortunately is continuing to experience a slow death. Those that did choose to allow new life to be birthed out of death have not regretted their decision. In fact, in every case some of the members of the former church have transitioned to be part of the new church, with the full understanding that it is a NEW church and not just the old one continued.

    In one of the churches I was working with they had already made the decision but needed encouragement that they had made the right choice. (The new church planter had not yet arrived on the field and so they were in the “in between” time.) In meeting with them, I felt led to use Jesus’ words in John 12:24, “I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (HCSB) I shared with them that their church was exactly like the seed in this passage, and that by giving up their life, they were becoming the catalyst for new life to emerge. This seemed to provide a great encouragement to them and afterwards several told me God used this passage to assure them they were doing the right thing. A new church now exists in their location and God is doing great things there. So happy that dying churches can be catalysts for new life to emerge.