Why Your Church Will Die Within Five Years

I became fascinated with dead and dying churches about thirty years ago. 

I know. It’s morbid on my part. 

My fascination turned into somewhat of an obsession that I wrote a bestselling book on the topic, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, several years ago. It still has robust sales today. It obviously hit a nerve. 

One of our team members at Church Answers got the domain, churchmortician.com, as a joke a few years ago. We still have it, and it is forwarded to churchanswers.com. 

The Church Consultation Requests Deluge 

We are receiving more consultation requests at Church Answers than at any point in our organization’s history. Consequently, we are doing more on-site and virtual consultations than ever. 

But here is the difference. About half of the requests are from churches that will likely die within five years. The congregations are on a death march. For the first time, the leaders of these churches, pastors and laity alike, are no longer in denial. They know their churches must change or die. 

We pray each time that our intervention is not too late. 

The pandemic accelerated and exacerbated the gradual declines of churches where they became obvious paths toward death. There have also been dramatic culture shifts to a less favorable, even antagonistic, posture toward churches. 

Why the Churches Will Die 

I really don’t think I have an obsession with dying churches. My primary focus is living, not dying. It has always been my prayer that I can learn from the deceased churches to help living churches thrive. 

We see a very clear pattern in place with dying churches. I hope these five observations can help you and your church move toward thriving instead of dying. 

    1. Dying churches have abandoned evangelism. Your church will not have sustained growth without evangelism. You are no longer in a Christian-friendly culture where non-Christians desire to be identified with a local congregation. According to our consultation work in the post-COVID world, your church should be reaching one person (usually measured by baptisms, conversions, or professions of faith) for every twenty in average worship attendance. Thus, if your church averages 100 in attendance, you need to see God reach five non-Christians every year who will become followers of Christ and a part of your church. And the five per 100 number is just to stay even. That can be daunting for many churches. We began offering The Hope Initiative to help churches jumpstart prayer and evangelism. We know beyond a shadow of doubt that the need is great. 
    1. Dying churches major on minutiae. As a favor to a local pastor, I met with the few remaining members of his church. For some odd reason, the pastor was convinced they would listen to me and get serious about doing whatever it takes to survive. After I made an impassioned plea for the church to become a Great Commission force in the community, the pastor asked if there were any questions. One woman asked with a bit of an edge, “Will we have to read the hymns on a screen?” The church closed its doors seven months later. 
    1. Dying churches have high levels of gossip and conflict. Church members will expend their energies in one direction or the other. If the church is not reaching beyond its walls, the members will become inwardly focused. They will gossip about the pastor and other members. They will have silly arguments over inconsequential issues. 
    1. Dying churches do not comprehend the urgency exacerbated by the pandemic. The majority of American churches were in decline prior to the pandemic. COVID accelerated and exacerbated the decline. Dying churches are in denial. Their leaders and members simply do not realize how little time is left before they must close their church. 
    1. Dying churches see the pastor as the silver bullet. Consequently, the pastor is consistently the perceived person to blame for the decline in the church. It is also common for dying churches to fire pastors frequently. They think that the silver bullet pastor is out there somewhere. 

I have been doing church consultations since 1988. I have never seen so many churches just a few figurative breaths away from death. Church Answers created The Hope Initiative (hopeinitiative.com) as a 30-day jumpstart in prayer and evangelism. We pray that churches of all sizes and levels of health will engage in this ministry. 

We specifically pray for the dying churches. 

We pray they will do something before it’s too late.

Posted on August 7, 2023

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,
    This is an excellent (and sad) article. If believers don’t see themselves as everyday missionaries, if they focus on minutiae or view the pastor as the savior or scapegoat, they are falling away from gospel truths. I would add to your list that if the church doesn’t learn to reach out to and enfold the diverse people in their midst, it will stagnate or die.

  • My well worn out consultation phrase: “The days of lost people showing up at your church front door are over.”

  • Curtis Nester says on

    Some churches keep changing pastors, when they need to change lay leadership.
    If a church is dying the Nominating Committee needs to make some changes.
    There needs to be some weeping at the altar and a new commitment to live for the Lord and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
    Sheep give birth to sheep, not the shepherd.
    And, I’ve noticed that people like to go on mission trips to other places because its exciting.
    How about being missionaries in the community where the church is located?
    Minister to the needs of people and win them to Jesus and the church will be Revived.

  • Pastor K says on

    Too true. My Church has ALL the symptoms. I saw them immediately when I was appointed Pastor 3 years ago. Only one person is serious about evangelism and is treated like a leper. I told the officers we had 15 years until the death of the Church. Now, I’m going to revise that to 5 years.

  • A couple observations. Point 1 and point 5 are real and hard to change. Often, they are related – the congregation wants to clergy to sell the church and be the principal evangelist. Thus, when the silver bullet pastor isn’t the lead evangelist (because the pastor is one who equips the laity for their ministry) in the community the honeymoon is over.

    A difficulty with dying churches is the ones dying have little understanding of how long the process of death has been occurring. Not ironically, the death of a church often takes decades to manifest itself. In a recent reflection the remaining members of our church speak about events from 1999-2001 which set in motion their death. In that period they had an external shift, a bridge was taken out which placed the church on a dead end road in farm country. The internal shift was a change in the governance of the parish, they separated from another Episcopal Church with whom they had shared a clergy for most of the 20th century (multiple clergy).

  • One cannot ‘sell’ what they don’t have. When a church is down to a dozen or two or three, it has likely become simply a local religious club. How attractive is that? Especially these days! When it’s about bringing ‘fresh blood’ into a stale assembly, why should I, or anyone else, want ‘in’?

    The characteristics you describe, such as gossip, traditional ‘we’ve always done it this way’, majoring on the minor, and expecting the pastor to ‘fix’ everything pretty much identify a church that should die. These people don’t need to start evangelizing, they need a new heart and a fresh relationship with the Master. He doesn’t/can’t do much with people more focused on themselves than Him. (See Jesus in His hometown…).

    While I applaud your heart to salvage some of these churches, I actually disagree with the Evangelism is the Answer solution. It’s a band aid on a fatal wound. They’d be evangelizing a message that only got them to where they already are. Efforts to make converts and new members only exacerbates the problem and misses the point. Only disciples can make disciples and it’s as natural as breathing when you know the Master. Listening to His voice and responding obediently will solve the evangelism ‘problem’. Dying churches haven’t been listening for a long, long time.

    I do agree that it is grievous to see…

  • Neil Pithouse says on

    Must admit I’m struggling with the evangelism math for my congregation which only has 7 members – at 1 new christian for every 20 regular attendees just to stand still I’m thinking our figure would have to be 1 new christian every 3 years…

  • In my opinion the greatest reason churches die is because they don’t deal with grievances. I personally have never seen Matt 18:15,16 followed. And I have certainly never seen anything dealt with on a church wide level.
    Perhaps gossip should be taken seriously. I know that it poisons relationships.

    Some “faultfinders” have some significant observations. Not all complaints are about the length of the sermons or how loud the music is. Sometimes the congregation is led by a personality rather than The Spirit of Christ.

    Yet, knowing there are all these conflicts, communion is consumed without any consideration of its requirements.

    By the way, I attended a Bible study that used Autopsy of a Deceased Church. They forgot what it said as soon as they closed the book at the end of the study. Their playground for 2-12 year olds is a monument to neglect. I took a picture of it but thought better of confronting them with it.

  • I’m surprised there have been no comments, Dr. Rainer. The one thing I never see even in a dying congregation is a change in lay leadership. I guess beyond a point no one cares and point of no return has been crossed.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      It has indeed been quiet, Mark.

    • Neil Pithouse says on

      I suspect the lack of change in lay leadership is either that the people who have the time and are that way inclined are already in charge and no-one else wants the role or that the existing leadership freezes out any attempt at a change and the potential new leadership accepts the status quo and joins everyone waiting for the church to die or leaves and moves on to a church that appreciates them.

  • Larry Webb says on

    I talked to a long time member of my church and told her that I was going to prayer walk and do door hangers on every home in the area surrounding the church. She said that was tried back in the days of the churches bus ministry and it did not work. I did it anyway and a family came as a result of the effort.
    It is necessary in this church because they are down to 12 regular attenders.
    I was inspired by Church Answers to do this and my wife that said do something if you are bothered by no evangelistic outreach.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for your faithfulness, Larry.

    • Neil Pithouse says on

      I found the comment that “It is necessary in this church because they are down to 12 regular attenders.” very telling. This is the sort of thing all churches should be doing as a matter of course day in and day out regardless of their attendance figures.