very-sick-churches

I like to be a bearer of good news. I like to be able to be positive about situations, especially when those situations involve churches. At the same time, I refuse to deny reality. Such denial can only lead to a worsened condition.

For the past several months, I have been researching and writing my upcoming book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. The book actually began with a post on this blog. The responses to that post were overwhelming, so much so that I decided to expand it to a short book that will be released by B&H Publishing in May 2014.

Churches typically do not move from good health to dying overnight. It is usually a more subtle deterioration. I have identified five simple stages:

  • Health
  • Symptoms of sickness
  • Very sick
  • Dying
  • Deceased

I estimate that about 40%, or around 150,000 churches in America, are in the very sick stage. They are one stage away from being terminal.

Is it difficult for a church to move out of this stage before it becomes terminal? Absolutely. Most churches will continue to deteriorate. But I always have the hope Jesus gave us when he responded to His disciples about the rich young man: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:24).

So what are some of the indicators that a church is very sick? Again, terminology and definitions are imprecise, but here are some of the more notable signs:

  • Significant numerical decline over the past ten to twenty years. Most of the time we measure worship attendance for this metric.
  • Prolonged times of apathy. Occasional times of intense conflict. The church seems more apathetic than anything else, but conflict can arise with surprising intensity.
  • The church is not known in the community. Ask a clerk at a store in the community. You may be surprised how few even know the church exists.
  • New members are rare. The exodus clearly exceeds the inflow.
  • Revolving door of pastors. Frustration and conflict limit the years of pastoral tenure.
  • The “good old days” are typically twenty or more years in the past. There has been a long season since anyone felt really good about the church.

Very sick churches do not have to manifest all of these symptoms, but they typically have at least three of them. Once they move to this stage, reversal of the deterioration is incredibly difficult. If the members had recognized and acknowledged the problems earlier, the help could have been more beneficial.

I do have a few examples of churches that did reverse the course of their extreme sickness to health. They are rare. I hope to share what took place in those congregations in a post in the near future.

I would love to hear from you about this brief analysis. What do you think of the stages I delineated? What are your insights on the six signs that a very sick church will manifest? Do you see any of these signs in your church? What is your church doing to reverse any negative trends?

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Comments

  1. kent anderson says

    Have you looked at the Veritas program of the Evangelical Covenant Church. It is a church health and vitality series of experiences that is being used throughout the denomination. It might prove interesting and helpful.

  2. says

    My current church, which is also my first, was in one of the last stages when I arrived. Their specific stages of decline were 1. Separation from the community (not responding to changing times ) 2. Unnecessary building debt. 3. Conflict. 3. Apathy. 4 no new members. 5. No adult baptisms. 6. No effort to reach the community.

    Our approach has not been changing any programs, but changing the culture of the church. Gospel-centered expository preaching, modern worship, casual dress, guest-friendly services, new member class, new logo and web site, social media presence, lots of effort put into children’s ministry, renewed awareness of missions and the persecuted church, community outreach efforts, among others.

    By Gods grace we have doubled in 2 years , though a massive building debt still remains. Looking forward to your book so we can know what to avoid!

    • Ken says

      JD, I would love to visit with you about your approach in changes that were made. I am a new pastor and still very much in a learning state.

    • says

      Thanks for another great post, Thom, and JD for the encouraging story of your church growth. I pastor a mostly conservative small church within a liberal denomination in upstate New York. Living in middle Tennessee for seventeen years, I had the opportunity to see GREAT churches flourish, both as a member and through serving in lay leadership. Applying “Nashville” style evangelism to this area, e.g., weekday programs that meet needs in our community, conversational, one-point messages that center on Christ and feel relevant to visitors, and building strong, inclusive one-on-one relationships, we’ve seen 30% growth over the past year. Last year, our church of around 100 had no baptisms. This year, we’ve seen twelve, almost all were adults formerly unassociated with our church. Also, ten adults attended our new members class and officially joined our membership.

      • Thom Rainer says

        Wow. That is another incredible story. God is still doing great works in many formerly sick churches. Thanks Chris.

  3. Ken says

    Great post! I wait for your post on the churches that were able to turn it around. I am the pastor at a church that is between ‘very sick’ and ‘dying’. I have been here about five months. The members are outwardly supportive of change to bring in new (younger) folks, however when we talk about actually changing an aspect or ministry of the church because it is ineffective, the response I get from several is, “We have always done it that way.” Frustrating to say the least, but I can’t help but be hopeful and excited that our church can once again grow and reach the lost. Any ideas or suggestions before your upcoming blog?

  4. Anonymously Hopeful Pastor says

    I came into a church that was showing 5 out of 6 symptoms you listed. I’ve been here a little over 2 years. Like JD, I’ve been working on changing the culture of the church. Along the way, we’ve been rebuilding our children’s and youth ministries. We still have a long way to go, and we’ve come to realize that, without God’s help, we can’t do it. Yet, we know that with God all things are possible. For that one solitary reason, we still have hope. The way I see it, the main problem we’re having, as it relates to growth, is two-fold: we can’t get so many of our own members connected with a small group, and we can’t get the families of the children and youth that we’re reaching to attend. (We have a van ministry.) That said, I know there is hope. We’re set to baptize 6 children/youth in the very near future, and we’ve already baptized about that many (or more) in the past year.

  5. Jim Riley says

    Thom, you described, to a T, the church God called us to pastor. BUT GOD has helped us stay and see a miracle. In January we celebrate our 10 year anniversary of pastoring at this church and are so thankful that it is now a healthy, growing body of believers that are making a difference in the Kingdom and in our community. Thank you for all you do!

  6. Jeff Hyatt says

    Thanks for your analysis, Thom. I was called as the pastor to a church in Duluth, MN who had been in serious decline and some members were questioning whether or not it would even survive. I instigated a re-visioning process, led by representative members of the congregation. We started from scratch with the question, “Who does God desire that we become?” From that question came a complete reorganization, staff priorities, etc. It led to several years of growth spiritually and numerically. In the end, the ‘old guard’ (not necessarily the older people) successfully undermined the direction and leaders through withholding of giving, dropping out as volunteers as critical moments, etc. Long story short, it led to breaking up of the church. Is it possible that some churches want to die?

  7. Don says

    The thermometer of Church wellness should in no wise measure in degrees of numbers (attendance, new members, etc.). Why not factor into this analysis the Church’s ability to preach against sin, regardless of what’s collected in the offering plate, or how many are uncomfortable in their pews!
    Is it more important for the Church to “cry aloud” (Isa. 58) against sin or preach “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6).
    Truth has fallen in the street (Isaiah 59) because the Church has so watered down the standards of holiness that the sinner cannot distinguish between God’s people from any others. And who’s the winner in all this? The chief deceiver and manipulator; who continues to sell mankind the same lie: “Thou shalt not surely die!”

    • Mark says

      Don,

      We are not called to “preach against sin.” We are called to proclaim Christ. The world is weary of the Church telling them to “be better.” They need Christ. Christ doesn’t call us to do better but to love Him with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. We need to stop telling people to “turn from their sins.” They need to learn to “turn TO God.” There IS a difference. When we merely turn from sin, we do so in our strength. When we turn towards God, THEN we find that our only desire is Him.

  8. Matthew Hooper says

    Wow I knew things were bad at the church I just took over, but man we scored 5 for 5 in the very sick scale. We may need a Doctor.

  9. says

    Thanks Tom for this book very timely. I’ve been a pastor in the Lutheran church for the past 20 years. The church I am now at in Orange County for about 10 years. We have seen attendance go down from about 600 to about 450 per week. So in that sense there is some cause for concern but there are some other key areas of church that are going well. For instance about 50% of or members are involved in some kind of service or Outeach. 25% are involved in LifeGroups which are sermon based relational small groups. Another 25% are involved in a discipleship training program where they are in a one year program and given key biblically driven tools on how to be a disciple and the skills necessary to make disciples (this was adapted from Mike Breen,3d Ministries) Also over the last 3-4 years giving has gone up per household so that we are targeted at over 100% budgeted income for the year. We have been doing 3 new member classes a year and receive about 25 new members per quarter.

    So while the attendance numbers concern us for sure, some of the qualitative numbers look pretty good. We also see living in the land of mega churches that when we ratchet up the challenge in our preaching and teaching some members who are not connected tend to go church hopping. I am sure you are familiar with that phenomenon. So my question for you is what do you put more weight on, the number of disciples or church attenders. As my friend Nicky Gumbel from the Alpha Course brought over from London says, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to MacDonald’s makes you a cheeseburger. ”

    I would appreciate any comments you have for us as we seek to be faithful to the Great Commission Jesus gave us.

    Peace in Christ,
    Pastor Mike Anderson
    Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
    Irvine, Ca

  10. says

    Thom, I think you have hit the primary areas of issue/indicators. Many of these are symptoms of much deeper problems. The one that I am currently researching/writing on at Southwestern is unbiblical staff terminations, which falls under your category “revolving door of pastor.”

    It is amazing to me the number of staff that are outright terminated or secretly forced to resign over nothing biblical. The SBC has followed the trends since the early 80’s (support in this area seems to be quickly dying, however) and the top 5-8 reasons don’t change much and have NOTHING to do with Scripture or breach of office. Things like personality conflict, control of the church, pastor was too strong or weak of a leader and so forth.

    I don’t think the average church member/volunteer leader understands the severe spiritual consequences that come from treating the leaders of the church in this way. Where is the long suffering? Where is the grace? Where is the mercy? Where is the compassion and loving kindness? Forgiveness and respect?

    Something needs to be done to stop the problem, but with our heels so dug into “church autonomy” (in my opinion it almost an idol) I don’t know what we could do change the situation.

    Thanks for you posts and your leadership. i pray for you and Lifeway regularly.

    • Mark says

      Shelby,

      I think you are truly on to something.

      I agree that “church autonomy” is an idol. “Congregationalism” is also an issue. How is it that the sheep choose the shepherd? If the congregation “votes” on a pastor because they “like” him, what happens when those feelings change? Too often, the person is shown the door and the church splits (or at least looses members). Then the name of God is “blasphemed among the Gentiles.”

  11. Dan Barnes says

    Enjoyed reading, I Am A Church Member.
    On this article:
    I agree with your analysis of a very sick church. I’ve been at the same church [pastor] for 18 years.
    We as a church have been very successful over the years but in the last year we have entered that “sick” stage…first time ever.
    1. numerical decline – …not terrible but noticeable. Averaged 425 last year down about 5% this year.
    2. Apathy – it seems as if people have gotten use to blessings. Also having intense conflict from long time members and they can’t even explain why or won’t explain why they are upset…it is hurting church.
    3. Our church is very well known in community but decreasing. As pastor I’m growing weary of being that catalyst.
    4. New members are rare. Again, growing tired of beating the bushes plus the many other duties.
    5. Frustration and conflict limit the years of pastoral tenure.
    6. The “good old days” seem to be just yesterday but hear some we’ve never had good days.
    Struggling. Want to keep up the good fight…any advice?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Dan –

      I hope to offer some insights in the near future. Fortunately, it seems as though you are in the early stages of sickness. There is hope.

    • Brian S says

      I heard it said at the recent Renovate Church Conference that a church in need of rejuvination needs a new pastor. Either the existing pastor becomes renewed in their soul and becomes a “new” pastor or they leave and a new pastor is called. It sounds as if you either need a renewal from God or you need a new ministry. Also, I understand you situation, as I have been in my current pastorate for 14 years and have experienced similar events and emotions. Currently God is in the process of renewing me through a verse: John 15: 5-8

  12. rachel says

    the lord will clean his houses out first before he sorts every where else out on his return so many of yours and everyones churchs have lead so many miss belieaves about our holy farther that people no longer trust the churches people are taught they are all saved wrong we are not even when you have been baptized you might not be saved and yet you wounder why churches are dying out ,look at the way they are ministered they lead people to the wrong belives and missunderstandings

  13. says

    Brother you are dead on target. One thing I would like to say. As I was preparing to preach at a local church last week the Lord revealed the true condition of the church in America. When He did, it broke my heart. For the first time in my life I grieved over the church, not a denomination or specific church body, but the whole body of Christ because we are so lukewarm. If we compare the most active church today with the average church of yesteryear we will find compromise, faithlessness and habitually going through the motions of being the church. As Luke 18:8B so painfully says, “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” I am not trying to be a prophet of doom. I only want the people of faith to wake up, see where we are and turn back to the Lord before it is too late.

    • says

      I have been lately trying to answer a Calling from God to join with Him in a movement to focus on the Unity of the Spirit, that would (I should think) answer that very problem. If we can get enough church members to join us (He only knows how the denominations are too used to doing things their own way to be of any use to Him), we may be able to salvage something of His work in the United States.
      We might start with a new statement of the Fundamentals. Not as a bullet-point list of things one must believe to be accepted as a Christian, but as a process of change, a renewed mind, believing God’s Word to receive faith to continue in His work in our lives.
      I won’t go overlong here. If you want to read more of what He’s telling me, you can read it at the OneNote Web App document I created yesterday morning (I’m calling it “Become As One,” after a song He gave me). I haven’t shared it with many. Maybe you’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end. Just let me know, if you care to take a few minutes to read and contemplate the idea.
      Thanks for your precious time, and may God bless you and your ministry in Him!

  14. Larry Elrod says

    Thom, your blog is very insightful. I think that regardless of the size of a church, which may be limited by other factors such a location or culture, the main determinant of a church’s health is the evidence of the presence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as lives are saved and transformed through the Gospel. A church may continue to exist for years after they are spiritually dead. A church that is not proclaiming the Gospel is just a very nice social organization which may be very popular with her members and her community.

  15. Mark says

    Thom,

    We are coming back from the “dying” stage. I have been at my current church almost a year. It is said that pastors should not change anything their first year but I made a change in worship and service style. We are small and have lost a couple of people but we have also gained numerous people as well.

    I find that the issue we struggle with is apathy and comfort. We all have a favorite chair we sit in don’t we? Why is it our favorite? Because it feels good and conforms to the shape of us. Churches are often the same way. We want things comfortable for us.

    That being said, several things have occurred to me during this past year:

    1. The pastor is NOT the agent of growth in the church. I urge all pastors in this situation to remember the calling they had to their current church. If God did NOT call you to your current church, please spend a LOT of time in prayer and surrender to Him and give Him your congregation. You may have taken your position out of pride or arrogance.
    2. Perseverance and patience are of utmost importance. Do what God has called you to do and do it unto the Lord. Be patient. Your working with sheep and they are resistant to change. Remember, Abraham had to wait 25 years for Isaac.
    3. Be sure that your identity is found in Christ and not in the “success” of the growth of your church.
    4. Programs bring people but rarely change lives. If your people don’t value the lost and dying, they won’t engage the visitors of programs. Emphasize the two greatest commandments.
    5. Do all things out of a response for God’s love and grace and NOT as the mark of a “good Christian.” People quickly relate obedience as a way to earn God’s approval instead of as a way to show their love for Him. The lost don’t want another thing to “do.”

    I have a long road ahead of me but I know, without a doubt, that God called me here. He is faithful to complete the good work He has begun.

  16. Debbie says

    Great insight! I have personally witnessed all of the symptoms in my home church, but God is the great healer! We have had the same pastor for 48 years, and God has taken us from near death to restoration to conflict, to cleansing and learning the role of what a “real” church body does. The pastor? He’s my dad!

  17. Poking The Fire says

    Been there, done that, served there in my last congregation. You nailed it… HARD. Sad thing is most churches don’t realize… nor will they admit, their condition. There are too many broken churches that think beating a dead horse will help it win The Run For The Roses. And that is sad indeed…

  18. says

    Bro Thomas,
    Thank you. Your analysis is a good one. I think the figure would be more than 40% if you include those churches that only allow a certain level of health. A few power brokers will “let” the pastor lead the church to a certain level of health before they see their influence slipping and pull the plug. This takes the form of nitpicking, criticizing things that in the past were not an issue, and no longer protecting him from critics. In effect, they “let the dogs out.” So, they cycle. This facilitates denial so they can point to prosperous times at various times. I was the 3rd pastor in a row to be fired. In looking back, the attendance grew to the same level each time. The statement followed, “we’re good people who keep getting bad leaders.”

  19. says

    Dr. Rainer,

    Your post is spot on. I am in my 4th year as pastor of this particular church; I just finished a growth seminar for our church, which has been in a downward spiral for several years. [I found some useful resources in Gary McIntosh's TAKING YOUR CHURCH TO THE NEXT LEVEL for that seminar]

    One way we have chosen to confront the decline is by the use of a list of new residents in the community at large, available at http://www.nncs.com. As others have said, we have also worked on changing the culture and the ethos of the church family; this is the most difficult of the challenges. I am working deliberately, seeking to educate the family as we implement changes. It’s slow, but it’s bringing more along than abrupt changes would have.

    I look forward to your final product.

  20. Poking The Fire says

    One more thought. The denominational workers who are asked to mediate problems in church situations where 90% ARE sick and dying is disappointing if not unhelpful in my experience. They say they come in as an impartial mediator when that is not what their approach should be. They should address both sides in the conflict saying something like…

    “Regardless of who is at fault the validity of the Gospel is at stake. If you want to be blessed by God and have credibility in the congregation and community the Biblical command regarding repentance, forgiveness, and restoration needs to begin today. THIS is the process I am here to help you to facilitate. If you are not willing to pursue this path then your heart is not right before God.”

    This applies to ALL in the situation… ministers and congregants. It may very well be that the reason many churches are sick and dying is due to their unwillingness and inability to honor God regarding conflict in the church. From my observation, experienced, and research… sick churches have at some time in their past experienced conflict and refused to take the Gospel antibiotic in Scripture that would most certainly bring healing. Again… this applies to ministers, church leaders, and the congregation as a whole.

  21. says

    The churches I observe and work with who are on death spirals possess to varying degrees some or all of the following characteristics:
    1. “Prayerlessness” in the prayer life of its leaders and their connection to the Father.
    2. An inward focus usually characterized by:
    a) Lack of vision or vision drift. Lack of a compelling, God honoring vision causes a congregation to turn inward. Vision drift occurs when the main thing, becomes the second, third or fourth thing.
    b) The membership moving away from the neighborhood where the church resides and therefore the church loses a passion for and an understanding of the neighborhood where God has planted them.
    c) A country club membership mentality emerges; I pay my dues so my needs should be met first; a loss of Kingdom focus and priority
    3. Failure to reproduce. Healthy churches start churches. Healthy churches send missionaries (locally, nationally and internationally – Acts 1:8).
    4. A dramatic increase in the average age of the church due to a lack of willingness to embrace or lack of understanding of the methodologies required to reach and disciple families and emerging generations. Doing the old thing with an old mind or doing a new thing with an old mind rather than a new thing with a new mind.
    5. Outdated governance structures that places power in too few or too many or has ill-defined or poorly designed decision making, implementation and accountability processes.
    6. Poor hiring practices and little or no performance management systems that results in a series of bad hires and sub-standard performers who become entrenched and whose constituencies are mobilized against each other.

    • Matt Rouse says

      I recommend Jim’s comments to all – I’ve seen his work up close on a staff he led and attest to his incredible leadership abilities. And notice he begins with “prayerlessness”. What he left out he would not want to say about himself but is one of his greatest strengths as a leader: “humility of church leadership”.

  22. F Swanepoel says

    I just want to say that I have been following these posts and that these are symptoms found in many South African churches as well. It has really become a matter of great concern. The people that attend do so diligently, but that is as far as it goes. As soon as you expect something more, they withdraw and go to the next church (I call them grasshoppers, jumping from one church to another). They eat and eat, don’t contribute in any way and expect to receive or else they leave. How can we change this pattern of thought?

  23. Jason says

    Thom, I would gladly contribute to your discussion, but would prefer to do so individually if you are so inclined… please feel free to e-mail me at the provided address…

  24. Richard says

    I have pastored several of these types of churches and one is completely closed and the other is just limping along waiting for someone with enough nerve to say enough is enough. The last church has has a number of opportunities and pastors to bring them back to life and the congregation just won’t jump on board a 100%. They have had so many ups and downs that they couldn’t even be recorded. It’s really unfortunate that all these things mentioned are true of this church. Although the denomination is working hard to revitalize it’s dying churches without those in the local church putting aside their personal agendas for the church there is nothing else to do but close and chain the door shut.

  25. says

    We manifested all six signs five years ago. We are in a position of increasing health now, including improvement of all those symptoms, including FINANCES.
    Ironically, our 107-year-old building was declared structurally unsafe last Wednesday and we are in a state of crisis. However, on Sunday we worshiped at the local Catholic church, have office space offered to us in the local Assembly of God church, the borough has made their community building available for some of our ministries, and we feel like all will be well in general.
    Four or five years ago, this would have been the end of the church. Today, I believe we will survive and even thrive.
    If you’re interested in discussing the period of turn-around, I’d love to have that discussion. It has been an exciting ride! And now we’re on to our next chapter of opportunity for ministry.

  26. Randy Davenport says

    I have been concerned over the health of churches for a long time. I would like to get involved in church consulting, and church health. do you have any suggestions on training and how to get started?

  27. says

    Hello, I just published “Lies of the Shepherds”. It is not yet on Amazon, but will be soon, I expect. It covers 11 doctrines taught in many churches that contradict God’s word, and ends with a chapter titled Doing God’s Will, and another titled All About God. A little arrogant sounding, I know. If we lie to God’s children, and fail to do his will, how can we expect churches to thrive? Blessings. Keep up the good work.

  28. says

    The church I started pastoring two years ago had all of the symptoms you list – except the decline in numbers had not been not as dramatic, because the numbers were never very good to begin with. There is another factor – maybe it belongs in the “dying” or “dead” phase – “extreme anger expressed by members when these symptoms are named”. One lady literally slammed a door in my face and left the congregation because she had heard that I thought we needed to work on conflict management, because “we don’t have conflict here.” I found some board minutes from 15 years ago, for a meeting at which she was present, in which the then-pastor said, “we need to work on conflict management” (citing the exact same behavior).

    My work is now divided between maintaining the clubhouse, building relationships in the community, and trying to foster actual discipleship and obedience to Jesus in the congregation. Obviously, the less time I spend on the first item, the better. The second, I’m having to make up as I go along, but it is enjoyable. The third is a very difficult uphill battle against strong resistance, which I have learned to see as the rearguard action of the ancient enemy. I rely heavily on a seasoned prayer team outside the congregation, a well-directed small clergy group, a coach from another denomination, and the books of Bob Farr and Paul Borden.

    I wish there were some kind of community of practice for turnaround pastors – especially in congregations that don’t think they need turnaround, in denominations who don’t even really know what that is (that it isn’t just “finally growing the church” – not even close). I look forward to your book.

  29. says

    I wonder if you consider a church that has stagnated for decades to be terminal or deceased? It is certainly beyond very sick if the only thing still holding it together is the family and the surviving core that originally built it. Most of it’s support comes from these people, while new members who would have been productive, contributing members for life are driven out by one or more of those family members. A church that has become known more for its secrets, petty jealousies, fits of pique, and an absolute refusal to support any “new ideas,” like a street ministry, or Sunday Evening Services, or anything that might be an inconvenience to members of the Leadership, can’t really be alive, can it?
    Moreover, they still get support from the mainline denomination of which they are a part. There appears to be no accountability.

  30. Jon says

    I would like to hear how your “phases” relate to the Sigmoid Curve (S-Curve) presented by Malphurs in Advanced Strategic Planning. It seems like you have labeled spots on the S-curve which help churches understand their position on the said curve.

  31. Joel L says

    Thom, great stuff as usual. We are in an interesting position. I see some signs of being a very sick church but not many. How much do you look at denial? I think we have leaders in our church that don’t think we are sick when we really are. I don’t know how to change that. I always look forward to your books and articles and I am glad you wrote this book. Thanks for the work you do for the kingdom.

  32. Poking The Fire says

    Like others, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. The first three churches I served fired the pastor prior to me. Twice after I chose to leave because of severe dysfunction in the congregation that was moving toward asking me to leave (Both of those churches fired multiple pastors prior to me, one also fired the minister after me). If possible I too would like to converse privately if it could be of any help. The church I served as interim fired the pastor, music minister, and youth minister 18 months prior to me serving. All of this is over the course of 24 years so I have a few thoughts about seriously sick churches AND ministers. Now I have a ministry to wounded and hurting ministers. Blessings…

  33. DG says

    Great post. Our pastor just retired after two decades of amazing service. He is well-loved and well-respected and we all miss him greatly. We have an interim pastor that will be serving for 10 months. He’s a month and a half in and is making enough changes that are making more than a few people quite uncomfortable. We all realize that he isn’t anything like our retired pastor, but our church has a certain character that I feel is being stifled and, in the long run, will be destroyed. I don’t think our interim pastor has the personality to realize the effects of what he’s doing, even though at least a few people have told him gently to his face. It’s going to be a long 10 months.

  34. says

    Thank you for your blog post. It is spot on.
    I asked a church just a couple weeks ago, that fits this description, to allow me to be their pastor. The church is 81 years old, located in the urban core of Kansas City. Attendance is now 25 and average age is over 60. They know the state of the church and the fact that it is up hill but they are willing to do what is needed to be a turn around church for the glory of God.
    Almost 20 years ago when I was a NAMB Church Planter the feeling was” let them die and plant a new church across the street.” I feel that we have to beat the odds and work with these churches that are at least willing to change and desire to be used of God again. From my experience of working with other churches, it is both difficult and rewarding. However hopeless it might seem our Lord is all about bringing death to life. What a glorious day it is when one of these churches starts to thrive again.

  35. Steve Miller says

    I am in the process of taking on a very sick church, most people tell me it can’t be turned around, but I serve a God who still works miracles. I am so thankful for your blog and its advice. I have read many of your books and devour your blog posts. Keep writing, it is like a supply chain helping us who serve in the trenches to hold the line and not lose ground.

  36. Bill says

    My experience has been that very sick and dying churches are often dominated by family clans or cliques who say they want growth but are totally opposed to the changes needed for any kind of growth. Such people may not hold official positions of leadership in the church, but they are the main influencers of the congregation. In such cases the pastor’s biggest challenge will be to raise up a new generation of leaders while at the same time dealing with “the powers that be.”. That takes time and reliance on God’s grace.

    • Earl Harmon says

      I love church when I was growing up, I would hear about the hell holes that was sending us young people to hell, I would go to the altar and would get up in the same conditions, Then something happen in my family, I would go to church and I would cry all through the services

  37. says

    Dr. Rainer,

    My first pastorate while still in seminary was a church that met all of these markers you mentioned of a sick church. For example, the average stay of the pastor was 3.5 years. I was only there 15 months before I was forced out after the church went 3 years without a pastor. The “good ole days” were over 50 years ago during the 1960s per the historical account of their church. As the conflicts occurred many people left a church that could hold 400-500 people to a membership of 20. On one Sunday there were only 7 people in attendance and this included the pastor and his wife. One of the saddest examples of conflict was when a pastor resigned in 1991 he then went to work for the WMU national headquarters in 1999. Eight years after he resigned one member wrote him a letter asking how he obtained his position because he was “not called into the ministry.”

    Personally, during my tenure I had deacons who did not value the Word of God and said “they would resign as deacons if they had to carry a Bible to church.” There were personal attacks on my wife and I routinely. It was an experience that for better or for worse has shaped the flavor of God’s ministry for my life. One such area has been a great emphasis on church health over church growth. In other words, cancer can grow, but it does not make it healthy. We must have healthy churches that are kingdom outposts for the glory of God. Than the construction of bigger man-made structures. So thank-you for this focus. Thank-you for your blog and its focus on church health and leadership. I believe from knowledge and experience it is much needed.

    In closing, I pray that by you and others drawling attention to this area it will help other young ministers like myself to avoid going through what I went through. I’m grateful for a state convention that has paid my wife and I to receive some biblical counseling to process our grief. I pray in the future the Lord will redeem our experiences to minister to those effected by churches that are sick.

  38. Kevin says

    When I arrived at my current church 12 years ago, it was 2 years removed from a split. Half the congregation went 5 miles up the road and built a new church. There were only about 20 in the Sunday worship and the average age of our congregation was 65+. There was no money, the church had not had any work done on the building in over 30 years. There was no outreach, no young people and I was the youngest person and the pastor at the ripe old age of 30. Today we run on average 100+ for worship. We have had over 150 salvation decisions and baptized almost 100 of those. We went from taking in $300 a week to between $1500-$2000 a week. We went from no children’s ministry to now running 2 vans. Our Wednesday night bible studies have about 75 young people in it, we feed them before class. Next Sunday we will deliver around 40 food baskets for Thanksgiving and most likely that many for Christmas. We give away backpacks each year before school starts along with gently used clothes. The largest event in the history of the church was just a couple months ago. We held an outdoor horse event where over 500 attended. We served 40 Gallons of soup beans and corn bread. Gave out horse shoes with scripture on it. God has blessed us from a church that was terminal to a church that is having an impact on our community.

    • says

      That’s great news, Kevin. I am put in mind of the fact that God does an amazing amount of good with the little He has given to each of us. God multiplies like we wouldn’t believe!
      You keep faithful, and He will accomplish so much it’ll make our heads spin!

  39. Willie Bradford says

    The problem is that some churches (40%) are not aware that they’re ill. Because to them, the Church is just a building. Somewhere to go to pretend to be something that they’re not. They don’t understand nor do they care to understand the TRUE MISSION of the Church ..

    Matthew 21:12 says, “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “`My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a `den of robbers.'”

    Sadly and unfortunately some Churches (40%) have been hijacked by a non Christian-like culture, and has become a DEN for a lot more then just ROBBERS!!!

  40. Boyd says

    Thom, I attend a very small church in Texas and am disturbed about little to no attendance in Sunday morning Bible Study (Sunday School). It seems as though people feel like they get their weekly dose of Bible study by only listening to the pastor’s weekly sermon. I have tried to emphasize the benefits of being in a small group, studying, discussing and talking about the Holy Scriptures. I’ve noted that you normally don’t stand up and ask the pastor questions during the sermon, but Sunday School is a great opportunity to ask and learn. But, it seems to be to no avail. Would you say this is a symptom of a sick church/people? Any suggestions? Thanks in advance for your comments.

  41. M.B. says

    I have read this page several times over the past months, and agree with your diagnosis techniques. I would add that another feature may be undying support of an incompetent or unscrupulous pastor, as well as a wealthy family or individual running the church. This bizarre form of patriarchy is alive and well in churches in the southern United States, and some denominations seem to fuel it by insisting churches take on pastors without checking with former churches before hiring.

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