Why Some Great Churches Are No Longer Great

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. I took an entire blog earlier this week to discuss this issue. 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 July 30, 2009

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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