Five-Questions-to-Ask-to-See-If-Your-Church-Is-Dying

Please forgive me for the morbid and depressing title and content. I don’t think posts such as these encourage many of you.

I guess the impetus for writing such an article is the work I am doing to finish my next book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I have dealt a lot with the death of churches in my research and writing for that book.

The Research

Before I go further, let me define a dying church. A dying church is a congregation that will close its doors within 20 years if it continues its current trajectory. “Trajectory” includes many variables such as attendance, financial giving, demographic trends, and age of members.

Why would I include such a long period of 20 years in the definition? Simply put, churches hang on to life tenaciously. The members, despite how few remain, are highly reticent to close the doors of the church.

According to my estimates, about one in four American churches, or around 100,000 churches, fit the definition of a dying church. My estimates seem to have been confirmed with a recent study by LifeWay Research. The research team conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors.* One of the response statements the team asked the pastors was: “I am concerned that the church where I am serving is dying.” Here are the responses:

  • Strongly agree: 7%
  • Somewhat agree: 15%
  • Somewhat disagree: 19%
  • Strongly disagree: 58%

So 22 percent of the pastors either strongly or somewhat agree that their churches are dying. That number is close to my own estimates of 25 percent. I would further postulate that another 25 percent of churches are struggling, and could move to the “dying” category easily.

The Questions

If one-fourth of churches are dying, and if another one-fourth of the churches are struggling, how can we discern signs of these problems before it’s too late? May I suggest five questions you can ask?

  1. Has worship attendance declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
  2. Has budget giving declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
  3. Does my church look more like the community or less like the community than ten years ago?
  4. Are church conflicts significantly more frequent today than past years?
  5. Is your church’s budget decreasing its focus on reaching and ministering to others beyond the church?

Of course, these questions are not infallible indicators. They should, however, give a good indication if your church is directionally headed toward dying or not.

The Solution

The good news is that a number of churches, tens of thousand, are moving from death or decline to growth and life. I would love to hear from people in those churches.

What will it take to reverse the trends in dying churches? What has your church done to reverse that trend, or is your church firmly set to close its doors within the next several years?


*LifeWay Research conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors from September 4, 2013 to September 9, 2013. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor or minister. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational groups of Protestant churches. The completed sample provides a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.1%.

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Comments

  1. says

    One way or another, churches will eventually die. Most churches that are dying think they must survive. Jesus said just the opposite. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain (John 12:24). Most churches are trying to figure out how they can get more people in the building. If churches want to experience new life, they must figure out how to get folks out of the building and into the community. Jesus also said, “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). This principle of giving applies corporately as well as individually.
    I am old enough to remember the days when a person had open heart surgery, they would keep them in bed, immobilized for days. Now, hours after surgery, they have the patient on their feet, walking the halls. Why? Because doctors found out the body heals quicker and better if it is exercising.
    The same is true for the Body of Christ.

      • Omar says

        I recently moved to a new town and while looking for a church I could call home , I found a church where there are zero members the only ones there are the pastor and his wife and while talking with him he says its been just them two for the past 4 yrs , he blames the people that people just dont want to attend church or that people dont like the teachings so they dont go , what is your input?

    • says

      I absolutely love your analogy of the heart surgery patient. I will be sharing that in the future with some conversations I need to have. Thank you.

    • Terryl Delaney says

      Randy,
      Thanks for stepping out and starting the “conversation.” I love your heart and concern for the church that I deeply love, too.
      I believe the text you quoted, in trying to address the problem of declining churches, specifically applies to the harvest that will grow out of Christ’s death and resurrection. I’m not sure that it has a good application to a dying church. I’ve been in ministry for nearly 50 years and it’s been my experience that when a church dies…it dies. I’ve only seen a couple instances in which a few families from the dying church created a new, thriving church.
      Perhaps a better text to consider is found in Matthew 16.18, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Churches tend to die when they become disconnected with Jesus (“Apart from me you can do nothing.”).
      The moment Christ’s church becomes “MY” church it begins to decline. Non-church people don’t come to church to see the way “I” or “we” like or think church should be. They come to see and experience Jesus.

  2. says

    It seems to me that dying churches may not be the most important problem, but rather a symptom of a deeper root problem. One of the root problems may be that believers have turned the responsibility of their personal spiritual growth over to the church, and the church not only allowed that to happen, but encouraged it! This at least stifled spiritual growth, if not killed it. We are trying to give the responsibility of personal spiritual growth back to our attenders. We try to see our responsibility as church leaders to encourage them to practice daily and weekly spiritual disciplines, especially daily devotions, weekly small group participation, weekly ministry/service, regular giving, regular witnessing, discipling, scripture memory, and fasting. We do this on a quarterly basis, and have been doing so for a number of years. This turnaround is a slow process, and we aren’t sure if the evidence is there just yet to support it, but we believe and pray it will eventually yield more than mere attenders, but true disciples growing in their faith, while discipling others along the way. This fruit will be the result of a dynamic internal spiritual transformation, ie. Christ living in and through them, not something the church has produced. These kind of disciples will turn our churches around!

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Amen! Up to the last sentence.

      However, we need to realize that there is not a reliable connection between church attendance and mature Christianity. While mature Christians will most likely be involved in a church, it is possible for someone to attend church faithfully for years without ever becoming a believer or maturing as a believer.

  3. Chris Flora says

    It seems that some churches are hanging on physically, but are dead spiritually. Maybe another question to ask would be related to the turnover rate and turnover reason(s) of pastors leaving. I’m guessing there would be some things in common.

  4. kim farlow says

    Your questions will not find a church that is truly dying internally even though it is growing externally. The world wide Emergent church is an example of a church that would do well with your test but they are not preaching the true gospel and teaching God’s truth. Growth is defined by the Father by the growth of the soul unto obedience to the pure truth of God and living under the lordship of Christ. My heart would rejoice no matter the size of the church if it was preaching and teaching the truth. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ISunNFRGw

  5. John Harper says

    If anyone needs some encouragement, I would recommend a book entitled “Turnaround Pastor” by Don Ross. This is the account of how Don took the role as pastor and how Jesus resurrected this church. Today this church is on the mission of Jesus and reaching their community in Seattle.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      I would recommend the Bible–“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:4–6, NIV)

  6. Scott says

    When you are the pastor of a church suffering significant attrition this article touches on a terribly tender, painful hurt.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Particularly when the success and failure of the church to grow are always tied to the pastor. Is it possible to be faithful even without growth? Jesus ran off huge crowds by offering them his body and blood for lunch–“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26, NIV)

      If Jesus is indeed the Shepherd, then our job is to be faithful–“This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2, NIV)

      When we confuse fruitfulness with numbers, we miss the obvious point–“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:22–24, NIV)

      I am unaware of any passage that connects fruitfulness with numbers. In fact, I have noticed that once the gospel left the Jewish community, the number of believers in a town is never mentioned again. Maybe we are making a mistake looking for the spiritual by testing the physical.

      • Pastor Al Young says

        Many churches are driven by numbers and nothing else. I hve noticed that when Jesus is no longer the focus of the ministry, the growth of any and every church will suffer.

        • Charlie McClelland says

          This doesn’t seem to hold true–there are some “churches” that are very large and growing whose focus I would argue is not on Jesus. The Mormon Church is an extreme example of this– Wikipedia says–The records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints show membership growth every decade since its beginning in the 1830s. Following initial growth rates that averaged 10% to 25% per year in the 1830s through 1850s, it grew at about 4% per year through the last four decades of the 19th century (the Utah polygamy years). After a steady slowing of growth in the first four decades of the 20th century to a rate of about 2% per year in the 1930s (the Great Depression years), growth boomed to an average of 6% per year for the decade around 1960, staying around 4% to 5% through 1990. After 1990, average annual growth again slowed steadily to a rate around 2.5% for the first decade of the 21st century, still double the world population growth rate of 1.2% for the same period.

          It appears to me that the only reliable thing we can say when a church’s attendance is growing is that more people are attending this year than attended last year.

  7. says

    Our church has shown growth in the last 3.5 years. From about 50 to 80ish. I am the new minister in that time period, but the winds of change were coming before I got there. As in Ro. 8.28 God has worked all things together for good for our church. The amazing thing is that many changes both small and large were greeted with an open attitude. Some worked some did not but we had the guts to try and allow the Spirit to move. PTL

  8. Mike says

    Had Lifeway called me, I would have answered “Somewhat agree.” Our average attendance has declined significantly. A high percentage of the decline is the result of people relocating to another state. We have not replaced those who have moved away with mature believers who move into our area nor have we replaced them with new converts.

    In the last 18 months, we have reduced staff to one full time pastor. We no longer have any office staff. We have reduced our missions support by one missionary. We are surviving financially because we have no debt.

    We have a committed group of about 125, but when I read this post, I thought, “That’s us.” After 13 years of ministry here, I do not know what more I can do. We may be dying.

    • jonathon says

      > high percentage of the decline is the result of people relocating to another state.

      Does the change in congregational attendence mirror local population changes?

      This leads straight into three categories that are ignored by those five questions:
      * The mean, mode, and median age of the congregation;
      * The church that is dying, even though all of the numbers increase each year;
      * The church that is growing, even though all of the numbers increase each year;

      For the first group, one is merely looking at death rates of the individual members of the congregation, and extrapolating that to what will happen to the church. When the mean, modal, and median age of the congregation is more than 65, you have a church that either targets the elderly, or a congregation that is going to close its doors within fifteen years, because the members are not replacing themselves.

      For the second and third group, the issue is if church growth is greater than, equal to, or less than the change in the local population, over the same time frame. This is basically the proposition that “if you aren’t growing as fast as the population increases, you are in decline”, and its reverse proposition that “you are growing if congregational attendence is less than the population decline”.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Change your focus–“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, NIV)

  9. says

    Dr. Rainer,
    I always greatly enjoy your articles and what you have to say especially as someone who is not just a new pastor but as someone who is trying to “revitalize” a church. I have been a youth pastor for nearly 20 years and took my first Senior Pastor Position just over 4 months ago. At that time we were running in the low 50′s we are currently running typically in the 70′s. When taking this church I had remembered many things I had read on your blog and various places and quickly tackled the things I knew I could change right away. We have come up with a Mission statement, a logo, I have redone our website, etc. Next year we will be focussing on how to best impact our community as I ask for our evangelism budget to be raised from 800 to 8,000. I praise God for people like you who are willing to help pastors like me. Especially when I look around my community and see several churches being planted and having an abundance or resources and sometimes wonder how we are going to accomplish this. Honestly, I would have to answer in a negative light to all 5 questions but this is something I hope God helps me to turn around and by his grace I know it is possible.

  10. says

    Only if a church seeks to live by the Spirit of God will this trend reverse. We are told over and over in the New Testament to “live in the Spirit” to “keep in step with the Spirit” “walk in the Spirit.” This has nothing to do with spiritual gifts, but with being obedient to God and turn from pursuing trends and styles to pursing God with deep passion. I see churches of all stripes, traditional, contemporary and in between who are living by the trends of the day. They are “growing”, but that will not last. My own church who was racked with conflict and disunity for 10 years is now in the throws of real revival. We pursued God by doing the following: 1. Beikng broken before God [Psalms 139:23-24] – giving over yourself to God on a daily basis and let Him squeeze all sin out of you, 2. Begin to walk humbly before God [Micah 6:8] – drop every bit of pride and unwholesome talk and seek God’s face, 3. Hold yourself more accountable to God and confess every sin in your life, [James 3:1] 4. You must tell others [Matt. 28:19-20] If you are living by the Spirit, then you will tell others to come and be apart of living by the Spirit. God is transforming the people in my church, but the church had to come to the truth that decline cannot be reversed with the things of man, but it must be reversed with the things of God which are brokenness, confession of sin and pursuing God with all you have. God does not measure “success” by numbers, but by broken and contrite hearts and seeking God’s face daily. The Lord will bless beyond number. I believe God does not want any church to die, but he wants all churches to live..live by walking in the Spirit of God and keeping in step with the God’s Spirit. Just look at the 2 most blessed churches in Revelation 2-3 and see what they didn’t have and what they did have. We must begin to worship in spirit and truth[John4:24], not by trends and styles or human effort, but by the Spirit of God.

    • kim farlow says

      Amen John! In defining growth we should also focus on those things that are eternal [are we biblical and are we winning souls], internal [spiritual growth of members] and are we being a family towards our brother and sisters in Christ through fellowship outside of church services. We should not just focus on those things that are external like numbers. Questions 1 and 2 all numbers Questions 3 and 4 have valid yes and no answers. Question 5 context matters.
      Has worship attendance declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
      Has budget giving declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
      Does my church look more like the community or less like the community than ten years ago?
      Are church conflicts significantly more frequent today than past years?
      Is your church’s budget decreasing its focus on reaching and ministering to others beyond the church?

  11. Lee says

    I just begin as Transitional Pastor of a small dying church, with a Covenant Agreement. I agree that God doesn’t want any true church to die, but it does depend in large part on the members humility, confession, repentance, and obedience. Please pray for this small body. Thank you all for your remarks.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Wow! How do you know that God doesn’t want any “true” church to die? If a church’s growth depend upon man’s actions, then man deserves the glory. It seems to me, we are called to faithful followers of Christ, if no one goes with us, God will still reward us. “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:57–58, NIV)

  12. Gary Showalter Jr says

    I just started pastoring a church 2 months ago. Based on church information I have seen, the money brought in has gone down as well as attendance. But since I have started, I have noticed the church is still a loving community with its focus being to reach people. I believe most of the negative stuff I found about the church resulted in the church not having a pastor.

    • Gary Showalter Jr says

      I want to correct myself, it only meets 2 of the questions, the attendance and budget giving. The budget giving has been down, but missions giving has been up. So the church is bringing in less, but spending more on local missions. It is encouraging to have this happen.

  13. says

    Thom,

    Very good article on a subject that is prevalent in many older churches today across all denominations. As an intentional interim minister I often am contacted by churches that are dead or nearly dead and in denial. They seem to have a similar mindset as well. Which is; “If we can just find the right pastor, he can turn this around.”

    Unfortunately, this tends to be the time period when the church goes through one pastor after another when the church doesn’t grow or revert back to that special time in 1972 when Pastor Smith was there. So even though it seems like a church should know when it is dead or dying, much of the time they may sense something is wrong, but refuse to admit that their situation is as bad as it really is.

    It breaks my heart when a church asks me to come present the IIM process to their leadership and there are some that really know they need help, but when they put forth the opportunity to the deacons, elders or congregation it gets voted down either because they have the pastor/savior mentality or they “don’t want someone from outside telling us what to do”. (Since the IIM process is church driven, we never “tell them what to do”. Action taken and direction is always guided by the church)

    Thank you for a good article and even though it may seem obvious to those of us that work with churches that are in decline, it is information that pastors and church leaders really need to be able to properly evaluate the condition of their church.

    In Christ,

    Peter Wolf
    IIM Pastor BGCT Network
    http://www.intentionalinterimministry.com

  14. Randy Eilders says

    I would like to add to the conversation of dying churches coming to life and growing healthy that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and loving people is what God is doing in our midst. Also as Paul tells timothy to watch your life and doctrine and in so doing you will save yourself and your hearers also. Paul tells the church at phillipi to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God works and wills in you for his good pleasure. Jesus lost his life for the sake of the world but specifically for his chosen 11 and we are called to lose our lives for the sake of our congregations. Are we willing to die for the people in our churches? Just a few thoughts to add to the conversation. Thank you Thom for your thoughts and blessing us as pastors. You are loved.

  15. says

    Thom,

    Thank you for highlighting this subject matter. The topic of plateaued and declining churches is all too often ignored and yet bringing awareness to this subject has become increasingly important over the last decade. The exponential increase in the number of declining churches in the United States is the very reason for the ministry of Kairos Legacy Partners. Kairos exists to HONOR the legacy of the local church by facilitating the faithful stewardship of Kingdom resources.

    We provide a variety of services including a ministry analysis service (guiding churches toward revitalization, restart, or a Legacy option) but most importantly, we are committed to lending a helping hand to the leadership of churches during these difficult times.

    • Kairos provides encouragement and support to faithful, but weary church leaders;
    • Kairos can assist a church with the issues it faces as it nears the end of its life-cycle;
    • Kairos honors the legacy of the local church; and assists in re-purposing its Kingdom Resources into other vibrant and forward-moving ministries, so those Kingdom “talents” are faithfully used in Kingdom service!

    If anyone is struggling to answer the questions you’ve outlined above, we encourage them to contact us. We also highly recommend learning more about Legacy Churches by reading the Legacy Churches book written by Dr. Stephen Gray. You can find more information about the book here: http://www.kairoslegacypartners.org/resources/legacy-church-book/

    If you are interested in hearing more about our ministry, we would love to talk with you personally. Please send an email or give us a call – http://www.kairoslegacypartners.org/about-us/contact-us/.

    We look forward to connecting with you.

    Yours in the Master’s Service,

    David T. Pace, President
    Kairos Legacy Partners

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Isn’t it amazing that even with the abundance of “life giving commercial ministries” available, American churches and number of Christians continues to decline. According to Wikipedia–Since 1949, indigenous Chinese Christianity has been growing at a rate unparalleled in history.[17][46] Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist of the New York Times wrote on June 25, 2006, “Although China bans foreign missionaries and sometimes harasses and imprisons Christians, especially in rural areas, Christianity is booming in China.”

      How does this impact our “professional” church revitalization, restart, or Legacy option?

  16. says

    I am currently the part-time pastor of one of these churches. The church is 95% over of the age of 75 and has a weekly attendance hovering at 30. When they called me as pastor, they explicitly told me that they did not want to do anything “radical” or change. They wanted somebody to love them in the here and now. I believe the people know in the heart that they will close once they are gone and they are ok with it. It used to make me sad for them – for what they are missing out in the Kingdom of God. I’ve come now to realize they have a great legacy and they know they do not have financially or physically what is needed to transition into a modern church. So in the meantime I love them, teach them, memorialize them and will possibly be a part of their grieving and memorializing the church they once knew and loved as a vital body of believers back in the day.

  17. says

    Hi Tom.
    Your article touches on themes we deal with every day at Blessing Point Ministries (blessingpoint.org).

    There are several excellent resources available for sick, dying, or dysfunctional churches. Healing the Heart of Your Church and Body Aches both by Dr. Ken Quick as well as The Path of Revival by myself address the underlying dysfunctions that often lead to repetitive cycles of pain in the history of a dying church.

    I would also recommend to readers that they take the free online ministry assessment called ChurchScan which helps you discover the true health of your church and serves as a great discussion tool with your leaders. See http://blessingpoint.org/churchscan/.

    To those of you who are church leaders (not to mention transitional leaders such as Intentional Interims) that feel like the prospect of renewed corporate health seems like a distant dream, I’d encourage you to look into the resources I’ve mentioned.

    The Lord of the church is so patient and gracious that when His people hear from Him afresh, and respond to Him, he often brings a new spirit into stagnant churchs!

    Warmly,

    Rev. Mark Barnard, President
    Blessing Point Ministries
    Mending the Tapestry of Church Life

    • Charlie McClelland says

      I find it amazing that the prescription for the ills of the church is a book authored by a man. Are we conceding that God had not given us the information in the Bible for life and godliness–“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, NIV)

  18. John Fusek says

    I think that my solution would depend on the population demographic of the city or town, but I think the solution for most dying churches would be a church merger.

    I live in the second largest city in my state (although it is a small city), and it seems that in this city there are a lot of dying churches with mostly elderly people. The older people complain that all young people want is “youth programs” and they cannot provide an adequate youth program because there are no youth AND no willing workers. Obviously, this trajectory will lead to a dead church in 20 years because no sane parent would want to go to a church where there is no youth program and they are spited for wanting one.

    So the young people will go to the bigger church with established programs. It’s not a bad thing. It’s only bad for the elderly church. I don’t think it’s a concern that churches themselves are dying. It’s more of a concern if overall church attendance drops (which I believe it has dropped). Of course, someone will reply that its about relationship, not attendance, but I am only looking at that which can be measured.

    So, let the elderly churches merge in with other churches, sell the land, and give back to the church. That seems like the logical solution to me.

  19. JD says

    I am the Youth Minister at a dying church. I handed out your article on the deceased church, along with the 1938 mission statement and a graph showing the decline since 1993 at a board meeting. It was uncomfortable but we faced reality in June. In July, at the board meeting, I handed out copies of “I am a Church Member.”
    In August our pastor resigned. By September half of our congregation had read the book at least twice. The Pastor’s last sermon was Sept 15th. We have grown every Sunday since, with the last two Sundays attended as well as any Christmas or Easter in the last 2 years.

    If the trend continues, I would love to tell you more.

    PS: our average age is about 65.

  20. Patsy says

    Thank you for sharing this timely thought. The importance of realizing that as a leader we are to train the congregation to do exactly what the bible says GO OUT and call them, MAKE follwers of JESUS by the example that they SEE what being aCHRISTian means will cause them to come into the church. People have taken the responsibility off themselves and placed it soley on the Pastor. A good GOD fearing, loving, humble leader needs to properly teach the people the Word and take honor in knowing he is with the help of the Lord raising up men and women of GOD. The leader shouldn’t have a desire to me needed he should have the desire to be succeeded.

  21. says

    Churches have been asking the unbiblical question for many years, “How are we going to grow the church?” It is asked of every pastoral candidate. The question is indicative that our focus is on ourselves; inward focus leads to decline. The Scriptures and the Lord never asked us to grow the church. We are commanded to make disciples. When we are obedient to that command then God will grow the church. When we focus inward we chase programs and patterns that make us look our societal context, mistakenly thinking that will draw in attenders. What our society is looking for is Christian churches to just that, a church of followers/disciples of Christ that is distinguished by love and wholly devoted to sharing and serving Jesus. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:44

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Amen.
      I realize there is a line between being unfaithful and unproductive. I have always struggled to be faithful to Jesus in all I do, regardless of the outcome. This is while I have seen other pastors who have a larger attendance, budget, building and whatever–lead their people astray.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      I always wonder how to apply Jesus’ statement–“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:22, NIV)
      to the church growth idea.

      We can have an effective church growth and missionary program and yet–““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15, NIV)

  22. says

    A great blog! Thank you for sharing this research! I myself became the pastor of a dying church in Round Rock one year ago that averaged 20-25 in attendance. Our church hurt and we allowed God to take us through a time of healing. We began to focus on loving our community and not worry about the finances. And praise God, we had a high attendance yesterday of 93! Overall we’ve had 30 additions to our church and 12 professions of faith! God gets all the praise and glory!

  23. Charlie McClelland says

    There is another issue. Is it possible to be dead even while it looks to be alive. This is one of the problems we have when we attempt to use the physical to discern the spiritual. While this may make some sense from an “economic” view of the church. I think the process poisons the well in dealing with real issues.

    I find there is very little about this subject in the Bible. The only place that comes to mind is in Revelation.

    The problem with Ephesus was they had left their first love–not really measurable, In fact it sounds like they were doing well–“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” (Revelation 2:2–3, NIV) Jesus told them that even though they were doing well–if they did not repent He would remove their lampstand.

    Jesus says to the church at Smyrna–“I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9, NIV)
    They sound like a church that is “dying” but Jesus has nothing but praise and encouragement for them.

    The Church at Pergamum seems to have allowed the teaching of Balaam to infect their church.

    The Church at Thyatira had slipped into immorality–“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelation 2:20, NIV)

    Then Jesus says-““To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1, NIV) Sounds like they passed the physical test, but failed the spiritual test.

    Philadephia seems to be another church Jesus commends–“I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8, NIV)

    To Laodicea Jesus writes–“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17, NIV) Again, the church sounds like it is doing well physically, while they are dying spiritually.

    All of these churches could have answered your questions and sounded like a healthy growing church, but all of them are gone today.

    Cults and Liberal churches may look healthy from your perspective, so maybe we are looking at an economic model because we cannot adequately measure the spiritual.

  24. William Thomas Pomeroy says

    What can be done with a pastor who is unwilling make these changes and is insecure and threatened by anyone who is willing to reach out and ffulfill the purpose of God in the church? Help please. Do not give me churchy answer and say just pray. I feel we should put legs on our prayers. Please help.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      I don’t know you or your pastor. As Proverbs says, “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own.” (Proverbs 26:17, NIV)

      The saying is that fools rush in where angels fear to tread–so here comes a fool.

      The first thing I see is that you assume your changes, even if recommended by Thom Rainer, are ordained by God. If your pastor were posting here, he may be asking for advice to deal with members who refuse to follow his godly leadership and are attempting to lead the church astray.

      Once we deal with the fact that we cannot reliably tell what is “God’s Will” in a particular situation as it touches non-moral issues–whether to build or not to build, whether the church should change the music or not, whether to adopt a different outreach strategy. All of these policy issues exist without any comment from God–we can begin to discuss options.

      Depending upon your size of church and the level of cooperation needed to make the change, you will need to make a sale not only to the pastor, but also to a sizable majority of the congregation. If you succeed in convincing the pastor to make a change which alienates a large segment of the congregation, you may have won the battle and lost the war. Your pastor may be aware of intrinsic problems in the congregation of which you are unaware. It would be difficult to agree with your proposal when he is convinced it will do more harm than good.

      Let’s say for sake of discussion that your proposal will be in the end will be both effective in reaching new people and maturing believers in the faith. If you do not have the political juice to get your proposal adopted, you have at least two options. The first is simply to change churches–find a church with a pastor who sees the wisdom of your ideas.

      The second is to begin an informal unofficial ministry. You might approach the pastor with something like this. “Pastor, I am going begin a read through the Bible class in a year (if that is your idea). I don’t need any money to do it, but I wonder if you would prefer I do it during the Sunday School hour, Evening Bible Study Time, Midweek service time, or would you prefer I do it at my home some other time?

      You are not asking for permission to do your idea, you are simply asking when he would prefer you do it. This works with anything except material changes to the existing program of the church. It also seems to at least be hinted at in Acts–“But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” (Acts 19:9, NIV)

      If your idea is successful, by asking when to do it you have paved the way for your pastor to adopt your ministry church wide at some future time. If your current church does not want to have anything to do with your ministry, then it may be time to find a different church.

      Realize we in America do not believe anyone needs the permission of the existing church structure, or the government to do ministry. This was the case in England–the church “licensed” pastors and imprisoned unlicensed preachers. We only need approval if we want church financing for our ideas, or to use existing facilities or meeting times for our ideas.

      You need to watch your behavior–God is interested in you acting with love and respect toward people in your church who disagree with you. Paul wrote–“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1–4, NIV)

      I believe God can overrule bad decisions by people for His own purposes. Either way you can be faithful to God and to your heart.

      Oh, and you could pray about it :-)

    • says

      The problem with numbers is churches often don’t see the people that represent those numbers. I have been in church ministry since 1979 and I saw too many times pastors and others who measured the “success” of the church on the numbers of people(not on the people themselves). What we should be doing is looking at the numbers ONLY as a reference point. The greatest measure is measuring things by God’s standard. Churches who focus on winning people to Christ and then following up in discipling them may not be the biggest church in the community, but they are rightly using God’s measure. In the short term these churches grow more slowly, but their numbers stay up in the long term.

    • Charlie McClelland says

      Interesting idea.

      Sometimes numbers can mask people. For example The Holy Spirit took Philip away from a multitude of new believers to the desert road for one person.

      In addition I believe the only time Luke counts the gentiles in the book of Acts is the number of people who were aboard the ship that sunk and were rescued. Not once in the New Testament do I see the number of the gentile believers given. This is in contrast to the fact that he gives the number of Jewish believers at least twice. Slim evidence I realize, but maybe we should not be counting at all.

      Think of what would change if we never counted people. Could we have adopted a type of Balaam’s error(profit?) and made it a core issue in our church?

  25. Lawrence Chua says

    The Church where Jesus is present. They come and meet Him.
    When the Holy Spirit is out poured and experienced. They are connected.
    Every Sunday we gather in the embrace of Jesus and we abide in Him.
    We bear spiritual fruits and The Lord adds the physical numbers as well.
    We have been growing progressively in discipleship and love
    Jesus. We number by the thousands. Lift Jesus up. He is the attraction.
    Bless you and May Jesus give His desired increase for His Church.

  26. says

    This article caught my attention because I attend a very small church, the building is non-insurable with more leaks than members…and I thought, surely we fall into the category of a dying church. But the article was actually encouraging and will be shared with the pastor because none of the five questions apply to us. We’re small and the growth, though not in numbers per se, has surely been in spiritual maturity of the faithful members who give generously to support the work of the ministry. Thom, love your articles – they are very relevant and ask hard questions. This particular topic did concern me though…nothing wrong with the “spiritual” church, it will not die…and as believers, we tend to forget that we are the church.

  27. says

    Birth, life, death, these are inevitable. Not a single congregation exists today from those started by the Apostles themselves, including Paul. It is possible in our time to prolong a person’s life well past a quality existence. We do this as well with churches. I recently visited a church in Ireland that was started in 1624 and ultimately the building converted to bar and restaurant in 1998. The wiser souls among us have embraced the concept of hospice care, embracing death and facing it with dignity while appreciating one’s history. Many of our dying churches need a hospice partnership which will help them celebrate their history and gift their resources to future Kingdom ministry. Kairos Legacy Partners is committed to being the hospice partner for churches. We are creating a culture to Honor | Appreciate | Love the local church.

    R Paige Mathews, Vice President
    Kairos Legacy Partners

  28. Ros Mayfield says

    We are running the Alpha Course at our church and we’re beginning to see real change. People young and old meeting Jesus for the first time. Some are unchurched, many have been ‘de-churched’ over the years, but at the Alpha Course they find a safe place to ask questions and build relationship without prejudice. We’re also seeing a grass roots change in our members who are more outward-focused and growing more and more hopeful about inviting their friends, neighbors, relatives and coworkers to an Alpha party as an introduction to investigating who Jesus really is. It feels like trying to turn the Titanic with a tiny rudder sometimes, but hopefully we saw the icebergs in time and are taking action soon enough to ensure we keep sailing! Looking forward to reading the new book. Loving this blog and grateful for all the wisdom it contains. Many thanks.

  29. Jeff Sexton says

    I am gravely concerned because there are some people who would rather fight and hold on to their past than to recognize that all things change and so must we. Then you enter into the territorial battles, one upmanship, political power struggles. In the process we are losing an entire generation who choose to not enter the fray. But we blindly fight on, “because its for God.” Really? Why are we so foolish?

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