Can a Dying Church Find Life? Six Radical Steps to “Yes”

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

In an blogpost earlier this week, I presented the findings of my “autopsy” on a church that just closed its doors and died. I knew the church well because I had been their consultant ten years earlier. The only surprise I found was that the church kept its door open five years longer than I had anticipated.

The post generated much interest. Indeed it is still buzzing today. Many church leaders and laypersons saw early warning signs in the post that related to their own churches. Many are concerned. Many want to know if there is any hope.

The title of this post has a bit of irony. If a church is dying, it cannot then by definition find life.

I must say from a pure statistical perspective, most churches with the symptoms I noted will die within a matter of a few years. Though I don’t have hard data, I would be comfortable suggesting that the percentage exceeds 99 percent.

But among the American churches on a death march, there is that rare exception, that one in 1,000, that extraordinary situation where a church defies all the man-made odds and moves from near death to health. Those churches are rare, but they do exist.

In the midst of the gloomy news of terminal churches, I took a look at a few churches that had all the signs of impending death and then turned around to life. All of them of which I have knowledge were located in dramatically shifting demographics.

They weren’t merely churches that were unhealthy; they were dying. Even the most casual observer would have predicted the imminent demise of these congregations. They were truly sick unto death. So how did these churches do it?

Though each of the stories I examined has its own nuances, I did find some common themes. Please take careful note. My brief blogpost is not a quick-fix solution to dying churches. To the contrary, it’s the story of six radical steps taken by key members in each of the churches.

  1. A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs to him. That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.
  2. A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be their sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.
  3. That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with “our kind of people.” They saw the church to be a place where their needs were met and personal preferences catered.
  4. The group must have an utter, desperate, and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they’ve always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.
  5. The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can’t assuage their guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable, and give sacrificially of time, money, and heart. The community must be amazed by these church members.
  6. The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church. This attitude is radically different than welcoming the outsiders to “our church.” It is an attitude that says it is now “your church.”

Most readers likely understand the low likelihood of such a transformation taking place. It is so rare that, when it happens, it is often given the name “miracle.”

But we serve the God of miracles. Maybe we should expect more. Maybe we should do more.

What do you think?


  1. says

    I would so love to be a part of the church you just described! What a powerful display of God it would be to do life with a group of believers who were this serious about letting God work on His own behalf through yeilded vessels. My favorite expression in this post was the last one, “It is an attitude that says it is now ‘your church.'” Even though the expression is made toward the people of the community, it is no less an expression directed to God at the same time. It makes me want to go find a dying church and start the process!

  2. says


    Great stuff!
    God has Fellowship in this place now. In January I was called to come and be a part of this body and pastor them through transition / Church Revitalization. I am thankful the body was open to God’s prompting that death was coming without surrendering control from man to God. Our area has seen 147% growth while the church declined to less than 40.
    May we reach our surrounding and across the world with the GOOD NEWS of JESUS. I pray that we become disciples making disciples.

    Thank you for serving King Jesus,

  3. JonathonG says

    Wow, thanks for this, I was tempted to declare defeat in a work God called me to. This confirms all I was sent to say and do and gives me a measure of peace in the matter.

    I spent and entire year ministering to and getting into the lives of the people in a dying church. This church has been dying a slow death for years. To your six points: 1)Unwilling – too risky 2)Doesn’t recognize reality, or accept the truth when it is made plain. 3)Feel they have done nothing wrong and the decline is “natural” due to a changing community. 4)The church is in one of the most affluent communities in America. Apparently no need to trust God for what they think they can provide themselves. 5)Overall, stuck in the “Come and see” mentality, although a few seem understand they are called to “Go and Be”. 6)”Control” is their middle name. Unfortunately, democratic denominational leadership is the Gatekeeper for the purpose and mission of the Church.

    I pressed the six points above consistently and in love, but In the end I was marginalized, rejected and all but cast out. However, it was never about me. I will pray and watch from a distance because I love these people. I know that God loves them more than I do and that He is capable of anything.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Jonathon –

      I am thankful you have the maturity to realize it’s not about you. Indeed it’s spiritual warfare. I love you’d heart: you keep loving those people, even if from afar.

    • Ron says


      There is one word to describe success as a Pastor… Obedience. Obedience to God’s call sometimes results in death, sometimes in life. Obedient faith to God’s call puts that person in God’s hall of faith. Check out the dramatic turn 1/2 way through Hebrews 11:35 in the context of 11:32-40! Whether a man rides the wave of God’s blessing OR lives in caves during ministry, BOTH are in His hall of faith. BLESS YOU!

  4. Justin says

    Knowing that God has called me to Pastor declining churches, revitalization is rare. The key is definitely the people and their willingness to accept responsibility for neglected ministry. One must look no further than church rolls to see 100s who have left the church w little notice. I am blessed to lead a church now that has done this and God is moving. Baptisms are at 15 year highs, attendance, finances growing year after year. Now the church has chosen to merge w another established church, relocate and relaunch as a newly formed church. God is good. Great article.

  5. Elaine says


    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I am a part of a transition team at my church where we are in an interim status seeking God’s chosen one for our new Sr. Pastor. I am praying for this radical change in our church. God is THE GOD OF MIRACLES. We must get out of ourselves in order to live sacrificially and radically for HIM.

    Blessings and Love in Him!

    • Thom Rainer says

      I love your heart Elaine. I pray that you and your church do indeed see those miracles in your church.

  6. Norma Brumbaugh says

    I read this article with interest. I know good people in good churches who are unaware of what cripples and stunts their ability to grow. That which has life in its core will be real ini its out workings.Genuine faith, with a quality of oneness with Christ, will possess a spirit so Christ-like that it will cause those who it meets to be faced with the reality of their inward person, their spiritual condition. A church that IS the hands and feet of Jesus to the world around them will be known for its love and its care. The world has become a place of pretending, that which is real, if it is REAL, will stand out.

    You might enjoy reading my blog about this subject. Holy Masquerade is its title. Meridianwoman.blogspot.com.

  7. says

    Tom, I had the privilege to lead a church you describe for 17 years. I was appointed to Riverdale UMC in the 42 year of her decline in the 101 year of her existence. We did all and more tht you listed, relocated, changed names, killed the sacred cows and grew into Stillwater UMC. We grew from 35 elderly folks to 700 plus in worship at 3 sites. It can happen.

  8. Greg Drummond says

    A church I was an associate pastor of went through the death process. It exhibited much of the signs mentioned in the previous post. Now it is mostly a Sunday morning Bible study with a few remnants.

    When I was there we brought a consultant in and he talked about ‘S’ curves and ‘Rainbow’ curves. The first is about rebirth, the second is about a life cycle which ends in death. The ‘S’ curve, if it happens is a very painful and sometimes despairing process.

    But what I remember most is that the ‘Rainbow’ curve can also be seen as a natural progress of a local church. (i.e. Death, even of a specific local congregation is natural.) But this doesn’t mean that the Lord’s church won’t take other forms in the local community.

    What are you thoughts on this Thom?

  9. Denny Fusek says

    1, 2, 4: I agree if the radical transformation (and all items in these three paragraph) is the renewal of the mind through the Scriptures (Romans 12:2). If it is radical transformation to something else or for radical transformation’s sake, then I disagree.

    3. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a passage that discusses the church “confessing guilt”. I would never, as a pastor, encourage a church to do something that is not even found in Scripture

    5. I’m not sure if this can be supported Biblically. I don’t see this happening in any of the churches in the New Testament. Jesus said to go out and make disciples of all nations. Paul tells the churches at Galatia, Rome, Collosse, Corinth, Ephesus, and Phillipi to love one another. I don’t see where it says to go out and share our possessions with non-church members. I see where it says to teach them, but not to give stuff away to them. Also, the word “community” is misleading here. What is the community? In rural areas, it may be easy to define, but it is certainly not in places like California where 150 cities abut each other with little sense of separation of community at those city borders.

    6. Nowhere in the Bible is there an example of the church “relinquishing control” to the community. In fact, I would say that this is patently unbiblical. Paul doesn’t just get a bunch of guys off the street and let them decide how to run the church. If he did, it wouldn’t be a church – it would be a social club – which is what inevitably happens to churches that let the sheep dictate how the church is run.

    • Bruce Garner says

      On the other hand, didn’t Jesus actually pull a “bunch of guys” off the streets and with little instruction, send them out? When the 70 were sent forth, what credentials did they really have other than their love of the One who sent them forth? The early church, at least per Acts, was a community where folks didn’t even own possessions as individuals. All was owned by the church and distributed according to need. That, in itself, is a why of relinquishing control to the community. We do not “follow” a lot of the structure and form of the early church as described in Scripture. And, as I recall, Jesus did tell us to share our possessions and He didn’t specify that they had to be church members: He who has two cloaks is to give one away. And more clearly in the 25th Chapter of Matthew, near the end, Jesus is clear that when we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned and clothe the naked, we do this for Him. He is equally clear that when we fail to do these things, we have failed him. The former stand with the sheep, the later with the goats on the day of judgment. We focus on lots in Scripture that don’t warrant the time even as we neglect what we have been told is most important. Guess that might be human nature???

      • Denny Fusek says

        Bruce – when Jesus did this, this was not the church. This was pre-church days. It may not seem like much of a difference, but since the advent of the church there have been instructions given. Leaders must not be recent converts and must be tested (1 Tim 3). We don’t hand over leadership to men off the street in the church age.

        The passages you quoted about giving away possessions taken in context:

        Jesus’ commands: pre-church age – referring to fellow Jews – not mandated for us.
        Church age in Acts: Mandated for us, but in context, it is those in the church. I can’t find anywhere in the church age where it is mandated that churches give away possessions to those in a different “community” – ie. the unchurched.

        The shepp and goats judgment is clearly a judgment on the nation of Israel when seen in context.

        • Bruce Garner says

          I would laugh if I didn’t find this so sad. No, it was not called “the church” when the Apostles were called or when the 70 were sent. The name “Christian” wasn’t used until much later either, but I think you get the point. I have had the unfortunate experience of observing seminary trained clergy who were far less qualified or effective than folks who had a natural, dare I say, a God-given gift for ministry.

          Since the ownership of all in common by the church and the references to feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, i.e., the sheep and goats story don’t resonate, how about what Jesus said about laying up treasure for yourself on earth rather than in heaven? Churches, “the church” is neither exempt from that temptation nor immune from such temptations. Turning inward, spending all on maintenance and none on sharing the Good News, is symptomatic, at least in my opinion of yielding to that temptation.

          It’s fine to relate the sheep and goats story to judgment on Israel, but I don’t see us as exempt from its judgment. Rather, I would think we, of all people, should know better and immediately get the point.

          Quibbling over meaning, is, I suspect, also symptomatic of congregations on a death watch. When we avoid broader applicability of certain teachings, it would seem to put us in the not-so-enviable-position of the Pharisees when Jesus took them to task for missing the point and spirit of the law while insisting on the exact legalistic language of the law. On which did He place the greater value?

          Avoidance by deflection and changing the focus or the subject will not stop a decline. I don’t want to be absolutely “correct” if the consequences mean I will be the one individual left to turn out the lights and lock the door. I will indeed have missed the point of Jesus’ teachings if I land in that category.

        • Bruce Garner says

          Technically speaking, no, there was no “church” when the Apostles were called or the 70 sent out, but there weren’t “Christians” either until much later. But I think you get the point. I’ve experienced seminary trained clergy who were far less effective than some who were clearly “called by God.” I think we all have.

          If the passages about the church holding and distributing all in common and the sheep and the goats does not resonate, then how about Jesus’ comments about not building up treasure for yourself on earth rather than in heaven. The church is neither exempt from nor immune to that temptation. Turning inward and spending all on that inward look rather than on spreading the good news would seem indicative of that problem.

          Quibbling over the applicability of this or that passage would also seem to be a symptom of a church on a death watch. I recall more than one instance of Jesus having sharp words for the Pharisees about missing the spirit and intent of the law while they clung to the letter and legality of it…they missed the point entirely.

          Perhaps the sheep and goats passage was “aimed” at Israel, but I find it difficult to not apply it to the faith we proclaim as well.

          • Denny Fusek says

            “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” (Matt 16:18a)

            The key word there is “will”. It doesn’t exist yet at this time.

            You said, “But I think you get the point. I’ve experienced seminary trained clergy who were far less effective than some who were clearly “called by God.” I think we all have.”

            I agree. That doesn’t mean you turn the church over willy-nilly to the community though.

        • Bruce Garner says

          Denny, after reading more of your comments, I am afraid I have to agree with JonathonG’s comment about you quibbling just to quibble. That’s not really productive for me and takes too much energy. I believe you know the point several are making but just want to argue anyway. That’s your prerogative, but I would rather engage in a more constructive and comprehensive discussion. Have a good rest of your Sunday.

    • JonathonG says


      #3 Revelation 3:19 should give you some insight on this topic. Jesus is speaking to the Church at Laodicea, calling for the Church to repent. In context: Revelation 3:14-22 (This is that “Behold I stand at the door and knock” lesson)

      #5 Acts 2:44-47 While meeting daily in the temple and in their homes, the Church sold their “things” and gave to “anyone” who had a need. They did these things with glad and sincere hearts. Scripture records that because of their behavior, they enjoyed the favor of “all” people. When the church looks like and models the early church described in this passage, God can’t help Himself; He’ll bless that church as we see in this case. The Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved. Friend, that’s our purpose. These intentional acts of service within our community create opportunities to share the wonders and mysteries of the Gospel.

      I would argue that any church that exist solely to serve the needs of their own members is far off track, inward focused and is likely spiritually dead. Your community is right outside your front door. Jesus said to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick and shelter people. He didn’t say “but only if they are Christians or share your Zip Code and socioeconomic status”.

      #6, In context, the discussion is about a church in crisis and seeking renewal. In the spirit of this article, I think it’s fair to conclude that Thom is talking about those who claim a vested stake in or act as gatekeepers of the church relinquishing control to the new work in the existing church that God is assembling.

      I didn’t see where the suggestion was to turn the church over to the community at large and commons sense would dictate follow through on the qualifications of Elders and Deacons. God will raise up fresh leaders that will cast a fresh vision for the church. Those churches needing renewal (or resurrection) would do well to seek God’s guidance and include those God sent.

      • Denny Fusek says

        Revelation 3 makes no mention of guilt. It makes mention that the church is to repent (turn) from their sin of lukewarmness (v. 16).

        You neglected to look at the previous verse in Acts 2 for context:
        “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. ”
        It is for believers only.

        I don;t understand what you mean when you say: “Thom is talking about those who claim a vested stake in or act as gatekeepers of the church relinquishing control to the new work in the existing church that God is assembling.”
        This line makes no sense to me. What does it mean that someone claims a vested stake in the church? What if you have a church of 40 people and then 80 Mormons come along and claim a vested stake in the church? Do they automatically get it? Because by your rationale they would if they claim it.

        That’s one reason it’s important to follow Biblical guides to church leadership, and not just let the public at large decide the fate of the church.

        • JonathonG says

          We’re obviously not going to agree on a pretty basic biblical concept. Sin = guilt. Guilt from sin = the need to repent. So, “turning from sin” as you put it is the same as confessing guilt. In the book of Acts, the elephant n the room is the phrase ” to give to anyone in need”. As followers of Christ, we shouldn’t struggle with the meaning of sin and the meaning of the word “anyone”.

          Those claiming a vested interest in the church = a person or group of people who feel entitled to make decisions about the direction of the church simply because they have either 1)been there the longest 2)tithed the most 3)mom and dad were original members 4)insert reason here. I agree, none if this is biblical :-)

          God is sending new people to existing churches today to help change their course. I am one of them and have seen these issues and many more. I suppose that we do read all the time about Mormons infiltrating churches and taking them over. (sarcasm). Friend, I feel you are seeking debate for the sake of debate. I’m not interested. Be blessed.

          • Denny Fusek says

            Sin and guilt are two separate concepts and two different words in the Greek.

            As I said in a previous post: “to give to anyone in need” should be taken in context with the previous verse – which indicates it is to fellow believers – not to random members of one’s hometown.

            I’m not saying that Mormons do this, but I was using in to illustrate a point. You cannot and should not trust the church to people who are unchurched and who have little knowledge of the Word of God. The Mormon illustration is not to show what actually does happen, but what could happen should you define church leadership as “those who claim to have a stake in the church”.

    • Melissa says

      Denny, as a lay person who recently became a church member (3 years ago) and who is vested in trying to help one of these dying churches, I am so saddened by your attitude and arguing. It hurt my heart because you are showing examples of why we are losing members. I am going to pray for you and hope God speaks to you. I will continue to follow the path He is leading me on and continue to work with my wonderful Pastor and try to save my beautiful church. God Bless You.

      • Denny Fusek says


        Instead of being saddened by the fact that I do not agree with the majority of the people who commented on this link, why don’t you be sad about those who take the Scripture out of context?

        I was correct when I said that there is nowhere in the New Testament that commands people to confess guilt. This is an unbiblical concept.

        I was also correct when I said that there is nowhere in the New Testament that gives an example of the church relinquishing control to the community. This is also an unbiblical concept.

        If you want to be saddened, then base your sadness off of biblical principles and not emotion. So what if I don’t agree with the majority on this one? I am still in agreement with the Bible – which is what matters to me.

  10. says

    What you described is possible. Six years ago we were dying not so slowly. The past six years starting at 75 people God has doubled Hope every two years. It has not been easy. There have been so many desires to jump ship but knowing this is where God has called me made it worth staying and now we’re seeing the blessings of changed lives. It’s still not easy but fun doing what God desires in every church.

  11. says

    I believe a dying church can be resuscitated. It is just a lot more work and sacrifice than most of us are willing to give. Sometimes it feels easier to throw in the towel and go start a new church. But the fact is, God can make all things new. I pray for our churches, our denomination. May we always find life in Christ. Amy

  12. Kim Wright says

    Thanks Thom for another great article. I agree with you on all parts. I was part of a dying church for several years when we lived in Texas, before our Pastor passed away of cancer. I know that they have a new Pastor now and I’ve heard things a different, but if a church is dying like you said, there isn’t much that can be done to fix it. I just wonder if the members and the Pastor of my old church have what it takes to breathe new life into their church to make it the communities church and not the church’s church?

  13. Bruce H. says


    These thoughts have been on my mind recently. When I began to ponder them the TV program called, “Restaurant Impossible” with Robert Irvine, came to mind. In every show he comes in and does the following:
    1. Sees an outdated interior.
    2. Watches the operation of the restaurant.
    3. Tastes the food. (usually no salt)
    4. Exposes the management problem.
    5. Exposes the employee problem.
    6. Lays out corrective measures and allows the problem people to leave or fires them. (tough to do)
    7. Remodels the interior.
    8. Trains the management and employees.
    9. Makes a new menu.
    10. Invites allot of people.

    Your points are very true. One thing many dying churches do not do is spend money on remodeling the building. I mean go debt free.

    If I was a pastor, I would ask pastors of churches around me that had a measure of success to send two (2) of their most faithful, intelligent and Spiritual families to visit and evaluate my church. About eight (8) total with babies, children, teenagers and Senior Adults. I would have them write out their findings and then I would read them to the church. If my preaching was on any of them I would read it too and repent publicly. Once that was done I would begin to push in the direction of getting the church on track. BTY, some churches are dying due to the demographic change. Instead of selling the building, they should get a pastor that fits the demographics and help build the church until it is stable, but you don’t have to leave.

    Great Post.

    • Ron says

      Someone may have mentioned this and I missed it, but here it goes. I’ve come to the conclusion that churches are like people, they have a chronological life. Some exist (By God’s design) for just a few years. Others live and thrive for 20 or more years. Some reach “old age” (100+ years). But eventually, every congregation will cease to exist as a vibrant, growing entity… just like human beings.

      And that is not a bad thing! In fact, the length of a congregation’s life is as much in God’s hands as individual human lives. Churches live, grow, and thrive according to God’s providence. Churches decline and die the same way. Just as some people are kept alive artifically, the same happens with congregations. Some are also brought back to life miraculously (According to God’s provisions).

      Just because a pastor serves a church that dies under his watch does NOT mean he failed. Succcess and growth are also to be attributed to God rather than the man He placed there. Pride over the growth of a church and a sense of failure because of a church death both are incomplete and improper self evaluations.

      My point? Wherever you are, be faithful. If the church grows, glorify God because He caused it in spite of you. If the church declines and/or dies and you have been faithful, glorify God because “He builds up and He casts down” (Jer 1:9-10; Lk 1:52).

      The matter for each pastor, in whatever ministry position, is faithfulness to God’s call. HE is in charge of the outcome… to His glory.

  14. David L. Barnes says

    There is another way to bring revitalization to a dying church. Just last year, I was asked to leave my eighteen -year position as the Kids Pastor of a mega church to become the pastor of our church’s first multisite. A church about 15 miles away from us was dying and facing closing very shortly. The pastor at the church knew it was coming and knew he was leaving, but felt there had to be a better way. He was praying and seeking God about the future of the church, feeling God wanted something better than the demise of the church. At a minister’s meeting, he overheard me talking about our church’s desire and plan to multisite. As he continued to pray, he felt God spoke to him that the answer for the church he was pastoring to survive was to turn it over to a church like ours that had a vision to multisite and had the people and money resources to do it. He immediately contacted the denominational officials who had oversight of the dying church. They liked the idea, called our lead pastor to propose it to him, and shortly after turned the property and the church over to us. It was a smooth transition, and I wish I had the room and time to tell the stories of how the Holy Spirit was obviously orchestrating it all. The insertion of the DNA and culture of the mega church neutralized and diluted the negative past. Most of the people who had been a part of the dying church have stayed and become productive members of this revitalization. We have been there since September of last year, and already a church that had been averaging 20 or less in attendance is now consistently averaging above 150. Already we are in conversation about the need to go to two services. We have not even been able to do a launch of kid’s ministry yet due to the remodeling that had to be done on the building. Who knows what will happen when we get the facilities done and can actually market ourselves to the community.

  15. J I Wittmer says

    About 2 1/2 years ago I moved to a small town where my mother and grandmother lived. I expected to join the 1st church but Papa (God) had something else for me. The small church I joined had about thirty to forty people on Sunday morning and less than twenty on Sunday night. Side note this is one of the few churched in town with Sunday night church. The core group was less than ten and the age was sixty plus. The Pastor realized that this church was headed to death row. He has prayed and followed Papa to turn this church around. The church has added several young families and it showing signs of moving forward. The core group is now about fifteen. The leadership is in agreement that we just depend on Papa. The core group also understands the sin and professed our quit. We have a prayer meeting on Thursday only a few come. It breaks my heart; we need the fifteen to be with us (only two work) in prayer. We are working (with Papa’s help) on outreach with love. We have given up control to Papa.
    The lack of attendance at the prayer meeting troubles me. Those of us who do come ask Papa to put the need for the core group to join together in prayer on the hearts of the entire congregation. Pastor has taught “Sharing you faith without fear” and more studies are planned. The church is on the truelift.org website. Staff prays each morning. We are members of the county Ministerial Alliance (a group of clergy, minister, chaplain, and pastor within the county who meet to unite in Christ).
    The process is slow. I pray Papa will turn this small body of Christ around to life. Pray with me and our small group for this church.

    • M. Ann says

      Christ is with you.

      When so few turn out faithfully, it is discouraging. When your most faithful members are aging with failing health, the congregation loses its stamina for ever new programs, even when willing. If some of the most faithful are also erratic, controlling, judgemental, and temperamental, it can thwart the most loving person and terrify those with lesser love. Yet we are God’s motley crew and called to minister to each other just as to strangers. Especially those who need love the most.

      I was part of such a congregation. I love them dearly, and my husband served them wholeheartedly. We never gave up on them, but left when we saw that they would not and could not make real change if we stayed. Despite years of attendance of 15 to 30 each Sunday, they had been unwilling to merge with a nearby like-minded church. No one wanted to give up their building. In fact, despite their small size, they kept enlarging and improving theirs, a beautiful underutilized building. Neither congregation wanted to share their pastor, or give up the prime time for their service, much less worship together, even with a theologically compatible congregation. Now both churches lost their pastors and are finally considering joining forces.

      Joining congregations may turn out to be a bandaid, not the solution. Demographics matter. We can’t bring young families and children in when they are moving away for work. But the retired folks who can’t afford to move or don’t need to, still need fellowship, devotion, to be ministered to and to minister to others.

      I am so glad for you that you are meeting in prayer. Be thankful for the faithful devoted members of Christ’s body you have. Celebrate Christ together, and keep holding each other and your community in prayer. Wherever God leads, then act, and let God provide the resources. It depends on God, not you. God wants our faithfulness, the rest is up to him. I love that small town, that congregation. I know God will use them just as he will use your church, and that God’s measure of success is different from ours.

  16. Mark Light says

    I think the problems in the church will continue unless something new happens directly from god.
    If people examine all of the available evidence it is becoming increasingly likely that Jesus is more legend than truth.
    There may be a god, but there is little evidence which would describe even which god or how many may exist.

    • Pati Hoskins says

      Mark: It is not God who is the problem with churches – it is the servants who have forgotten who their Master is. I serve a loving, creative, wonderful Lord and Savior, whose existence is evident in every snow flake, hair of my white dog stuck to my black pants, baby’s cry, widow’s weeping. Jesus is so much more than legend; He truly is the risen Lord who is working in my life and in the lives of believers all across the earth. I pray that He will bless you and continue to reveal Himself to you.

      • Mark Light says

        Pati: Thanks. But since I posted a few months ago I have become an Atheist. I have changed my mind about God entirely and don’t believe in it anymore.
        I do share your love of all the beautiful things you listed. But I no longer attribute these experiences to Jesus or a real God. To me these are sensations from the natural world but thanks to tradition we refer to certain cultural myths. I believe we project onto our own lives the visions our culture has handed us – which is why Muslims never doubt Allah, and Jews never doubt Yahweh. Jesus is the same.
        Something to think about.
        Thanks again for your warm sentiment, Though as an Atheist I can’t pray anymore, I do wish you all joy and happiness.

  17. Amy says

    My church is dying but we finally have some hope. The pastor has left and we are now working to find an interim pastor to help us. Sadly, we have so many members who have moved on already. Currently there is a small group left, but we have to quit fighting among ourselves and quit saying “that person let this happen.” Many are to blame for things, even though the main culprit who put the fuel to the fire was the pastor. To me, we have to remember that all make mistakes and try to move on without adding to the drama. The church is filled with selfish people who want for themselves when it should a place where we fellowship and worship the Almighty. Please pray for us. I hope to share your words with my fellow believers.

  18. Max says

    Good article! I believe the same steps are applicable for declining/dying denominations. Lord knows that the Southern Baptist Convention is struggling right now! Drawing from the advice you provide:

    1. The SBC needs an anointed leader to step forward with a clear trumpet sound! Not a committee, but a leader! Not someone who organizes, but someone who agonizes before the Lord for a word for the season we are in … to call us back to evangelism and mission as one man and one heart before God.

    2. The majority of Southern Baptists, in pulpit and pew, need to humble themselves, pray, repent and seek God. We are wading deeper into a new season. Darkness is expanding and we are largely unprepared to confront it. Agendas and programs will not do it. We must return to God and join Him in His work, not ours.

    3. Widespread repentance is the call of the hour in the SBC. “IF My People … THEN Will I” … Will we? This is a time for solemn assemblies to break out in our churches … to shelve the schedule, to pray and repent.

    4. Southern Baptists have grown too dependent on our ways, which aren’t working much these days. In our pride and arrogance, we don’t experience much of His presence. The world knows us as that bunch who is always fussing about something. Before we become a byword and reproach, we need to return to God in total dependency … to hear His voice and surrender our will to His.

    5. When we substitute doctrinal belief for personal belief, we become more devoted to promoting movements in our communities, rather than the love of Christ. That needs to stop!

    6. People control organizations. God controls His church. Southern Baptists are struggling with that right now. We need to get out of the way. Nothing short of a genuine revival will put us back on course. Pastors and teachers are fine … but we could sure use some prophets and evangelists right now!

    Brother Rainer – Praise God for the individual pastors and churches within SBC who have recognized the signs you note and are making a difference at the local level to stem this decay. I pray that our denomination will soon respond on a larger scale to shed grave clothes for spiritual armament and enter the true battle again … not against ourselves, but to confront the real enemy.

  19. Buck Rogers says

    Hi Thom
    I read your autopsy article and this article with great interest. I googled ‘my church is dying’ with a heavy heart and your blog came up. My church has been great, the ministry amazing, but it has gone through two church splits, one before we arrived, and one recently. Actually when I say split, haemorrhage is more accurate. I’m sitting there and a sense of despondency has fallen. The congregation has fallen to 30 adults from about 100, the pastor now has to work full time to pay the bills, so for the first time he rolled up on a Sunday morning with no message. I love this place and it hurts me just to write this. The church has land but can’t afford to build on it, so rents but barely can afford the rent. It’s like a catch 22 situation. The ‘community’ is elderly, white and affluent. The church is only white!.
    Not after any answers, the end is enviable, but I foiund your article very interesting.
    Hoping we’re that one church in a 1000

    • Thom Rainer says

      Buck –

      I prayed for your church this morning, and I also prayed for you. With God, all things are possible . . .

  20. Randy says

    I can so identify with the last two articles. I’ve been pastoring my church for 14 years. Up until 2 years ago we had a great thing happening with lots of young people. Then our youth pastor moved to another ministry, and God began draining the tank of all our young adult families who have also moved away. No one left angry; in fact, all of them moved because of jobs or ministries that we trained them for and now others will benefit from. But it has been painful for our church nevertheless, and those of us who remain feel like a boxer in the 9th round trying to drag himself up off the mat for just one more round of fighting. I want to step aside and let another pastor come in to help revitalize things, but God won’t let me yet. Apathy has taken a toxic grip in our midst and our prayer rooms and outreach ministries are empty. I’ve struggled with deep discouragement. These articles have been helpful. I now realize I must either allow God to use me like a Moses, or plead with Him to remove me before this church dies.

  21. Steve Miller says

    I think I must be misunderstanding #6. Thom you can’t be suggesting the local church relinquishes control from the internal leadership to the incoming community. I would say there is usually a serious control problem in declining churches, but the control has to be relinquished to Jesus and his under-shepherds. The call to leadership is such a high biblical calling it can not be entered into lightly. Perhaps what you mean is the community must be offered a place in the existing congregation and any sense of ownership or a right to claim the church as “ours” must be repented of so Christ might reign uncontested as Lord and Owner of the local church.

    Thanks for all you are doing to help renovate old dying churches, you are like the Bob Vila of “This Old Church.”

  22. Pati Hoskins says

    I, along with the other members of the deacon body, was asked to read this by our pastor; technically our associate pastor, but he’s the only one we have left. Next year, “our” church will celebrate 200 years! Only recently have I truly begun to believe again that we would make it that far. Your six points rang true for our decreasing congregation. Fortunately, God has already begun this work, using a wonderful variety of voices to share the same message. It is not about my church still being there; it is about God’s message reaching the lost. No, I don’t know what God has planned for our church or for how long He will use it (or put up with us). I have been called to stay there and Lord willing, be a part He uses to breathe fresh life into it and to love those who are there and those who will come. It is, after all, a mission field just like ever other square inch of this planet.

  23. AML says

    Our church is really struggling. It seems like one by one people just found something they didn’t like, didn’t agree with, thought they could find better somewhere else and they left. The more people that left the more things declined which just caused more people to leave. When your teachers and worship team aren’t in it for the long haul – it gets harder and harder to keep the ministries strong and that deters new people and eventually causes others who are not committed to leave. Why stay and struggle through mediocre worship and classes with too wide of an age span when the church down the street has a rocking band and a high budget children’s ministry?
    I’m not jealous or envious of those churches – I just don’t understand the lack of commitment to a body of believers. We attract a lot of wounded, hurting people. Some of them get healing and leave – others get healing and stay. But many of the original ones who don’t think they need healing have left. I think they probably needed healing more than anyone.
    I’m not sure if our church will survive. We are reaching out to the poor with a community meal and a Food Pantry on a shoestring budget. Our pastor does not get paid sometimes but we still do our ministries. We are in a poor area and many of us are struggling financially. There are a small group of us who are committed. The rest show up on Sunday – sometimes – and put a check in the basket. Something has to change. We are praying.

  24. Mark Ledbetter says

    I am the current pastor of a church that is slowly dying. I just finished reading your book, ‘Autopsy of a Deceased Church”, and everything fits us to a tee. I have felt it was time for me to leave in hope a new leader would provide new life. Now I realize I need to stay and try to help determine, with lots of prayer and God’s guidance, a path to survival or at least death with dignity. Thank you for your insight and willingness to share the truth with all of us.

  25. Jeff Humphrey says

    Great article. I took a dying church in 2007. All 6 of your points are spot on. I was the new vibrant pastor with years of experience ready to bring the dying church back to life. Once we moved to the new community, the existing congregation would not let me move the church forward and the they held their ground on the last five points of your article. Even the denominational advice was to preserve the older people and maintain course. That is where I should have jumped ship and move on. After 5 years, we did transform the church but it was at a HUGE personal cost, emotionally, spiritually and financially. We were so burned out we could not see the future so we left the church in stable condition but barely. In the past 2 years, there have been 2 pastors at the church and the church has gone back down to less than 10 people and is dead. Looking back, I would have done things differently. I have taken a 2.5 year sabbatical to get my head back on straight since this experience. We recently started a new home church and life is great.

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