denial

The word “declining” can have different connotations as it relates to churches. Most of the time we think of numerical decline, but the meaning is much broader. It can mean declining influence in the community, or decline in effective preaching, or decline in evangelistic impact. The list could continue. Most of the time, though not all of the time, one of the symptoms of this decline is a numerical decline.

According to our best estimates, nearly nine out of ten churches are either declining, or they are growing less rapidly than the community in which they are located. In other words the church is not keeping up with the community. Many of our congregations, plain and simple, are not in good health.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my obesity, and my determination to do something about it. Do you know what one of my key problems was? Denial. I did not want to admit I was obese. I did not want to look in the mirror. I did not want to see photos or videos of me. I wanted to avoid thinking about my unhealthy state through denial. And that denial led me to continue down the path of doing nothing about it.

Many church leaders and members are in denial. They refuse to see the diminishing influence of their churches for the good of the Kingdom. So they do like I did with my perpetual problem of bad health and obesity. They do nothing about it.

Denial is deadly. Denial means the problems are not addressed. Denial means more and more churches will be closing their doors. Though the manifestations are many, look at these ten key dangers of denial.

  1. The problems will only worsen. We can’t wish away the challenges in our churches. We must be biblically obedient. We must take action or the situation will worsen.
  2. Future generations are forsaken. Churches in denial are not thinking about their children or grandchildren or any future generations for that matter. They are only concerned about their present perceived needs.
  3. Leaders will have regrets. True leaders, both staff and laity, desire to make a difference in this world. They desire for their churches to make a difference. These leaders will regret their failures to admit that problems exist.
  4. Churches will miss opportunities for solutions. It is amazing to see what the body of Christ can do when it works biblically together. But the first step is admitting there is a need.
  5. There is no urgency for change. The gospel and biblical truths are unchanging. But the world is changing rapidly. Churches in denial have no urgency to change in this fast-changing culture. They quickly become irrelevant.
  6. Maintenance ministries engender frustration and conflict. Churches in denial try very few things new and challenging. They tend to be focused on keeping things the same. Such a posture is frustrating. Such a posture, because it is not looking forward, causes members to fuss and fight over their particular preferences.
  7. Churches in denial are usually disobedient. They can be disobedient to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. They can refuse to obey some of the challenging commands of Scripture because it will get them out of their comfort zones.
  8. Many of these churches will tolerate open and flagrant sin. Churches in denial tolerate mediocrity. The members don’t like to “rock the boat.” This attitude can lead to a tolerance of some of the most flagrant sins. I spoke with one church leader where it was commonly known in the church that three of the elders were involved in adulterous affairs. No one ever spoke up, and three families were torn apart.
  9. The church will lose its best members. They will leave to go to a congregation where they can make a difference. They will refuse to accept the mediocrity that comes with denial of problems.
  10. Comfort becomes an idol. Eventually churches in denial will become congregations of members who are focused on their comforts and needs. The denial will become entrenched, and hopes of biblical and healthy change will fade rapidly.

The need is great. The time is urgent. Denial and decline are a reality. But, in God’s power, there is always hope.

What do you think of my assessment? How do you respond to these ten dangers?

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Comments

  1. Lonnie says

    This is so painfully true. I see it on a weekly basis as members just come and go when they feel like they “need some church”. And the Great Commission is known only as part of the mission statement, not a function of the church.

  2. Mark says

    “Future generations are forsaken.”
    They are also blamed for leaving and causing the church to shrink. Some of the younger people do not want to continue to fight old battles began by others. There are fewer things worse than having to fight a battle you didn’t start and don’t care about. Also, when they did come, a lot of times their ideas were shot down or were stopped by invisible people. There was always the person who could override or stop a vote to do something but who was not at any meeting nor ever mentioned. It was like a head on collision with an invisible brick wall.

  3. Donna says

    We are living this right now. My husband is doing everything he can to prevent the church we serve from dying. Trying to be true to the gospel, etc., but has met so much resistance. Tithes, and numbers are down and just last night a called meeting to cut an already bleeding budget, once again. The leadership admits that there are problems, but refuse to take action. We can’t do it alone, and are begging the Lord for scales to fall from members eyes and the Lord to send revival. Thank you for this article, it was very timely for us, even though we are struggling and have no clue what our very near future holds, articles like this and others you have written remind us of the need for continuing to stick to our convictions for a healthy church. Thank you again, and please pray for us.
    Donna Irvin

    • Mark Dance says

      Donna, I want to commend you and your husband for “continuing to stick to our convictions for a healthy church.” If the pastor loses this vision/conviction, there is no real reason to expect the church to become healthy again.

  4. Jeff Jackson says

    On target again Dr. Rainer! I know our church is in a state of decline; though not as rapid as I know other pastors are struggling with. With our aging congregation they are unable to do the work of ministry, therefore the small contingency of 40-60 year olds bear the burden. We find it hard to attract and keep young families since we can’t “compete” with the large church down the street. I had a family approach me last week to inform me that they will begin attending elsewhere on Sunday nights and Wednesdays because they want bigger and better for their kids. I don’t blame them. In roads into the community have been attempted, but with little result.

    I know we’re in decline, I just don’t know how to correct this. Your point of comfort being an idol is more true than most are willing to admit. At the end of the day, I think most people prefer to be sponges who soak up the sermon and endless bible studies, but few are willing to allow themselves to be squeezed out for ministry.

    Thanks for your faithfulness and transparency!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thank you for your comments. I know you are in a difficult situation Jeff, but I an praying to the God of miracles to intervene in your church.

  5. says

    My first response was to notice you missed a perfect opportunity to include a link for ordering “Comeback Churches.” :)

    Number 10 on your list is far reaching in its scope. We worship comfort, and the church is comfortable with routine. I see that it goes beyond the environmental comfort of the building and extends to people’s personal preferences on activities or decisions in the life of a church. We begin viewing church through the lens of our American culture, and not via Scripture. I am currently sitting in a room with cushy chairs, heat, and dimmable lighting, while brothers and sisters in Christ are meeting in secret around the world to stay alive and free. It is a sobering thought.

    I think we tolerate mediocre growth and decline, because the people (leadership included) who attend churches aren’t willing to break a comfortable routine.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Actually my ego is such that I would have put my own book, Breakout Churches. But the reference to Dr. Stetzer’s book is appropriate as well : )

  6. Mark Dance says

    As a pastor who has led the church I’m serving in today through growth, decline, then growth again, I can say from experience that the pastor must be the first person in the church to look into the mirror. Dr. Rainer’s 2005 book, “Breakout Churches” was a ray of hope for me when our church was in decline. That book was based on his extensive study of churches that had experienced decline and growth under the same pastor. Dr Rainer reminded us that “the process of breakout included more than the transformation of a church; it included the transformation of a leader.” The path to change was not simple, easy or quick for those breakout churches – nor will it be for yours – but it is worth the effort to try. Hang in there!

  7. kim farlow says

    Denial, refusal to prioritize, and the lack of determination to work towards excellence to the biblical mandate to disciple has lead to a generation that is ignorant of the bible, a church who does not live according to scripture, a church who has added and/or deleted from Gods word, and a church who limits the role of the church. Discipleship MUST BE PRIORITIZED!!!! I wrote the below a few days ago and I post it here for consideration.
    “The church’s biblical role is NOT limited to just proclaiming the gospel and is NOT limited to serving just the individual.
    The church’s role is also to disciple or to teach those inside the church how to live out our faith in full obedience once the gospel has been heard, believed and received. The church leadership is to ensure their members have been taught, have understood and are living out in full obedience all truth for all levels of life. Church leadership is to seek to understand whether the discipling has transformed their members to die to self and to live as Christ as an individual; family member; member of a congregation; neighbor; citizen of a city, county, state and nation; and a member of the human race.
    The church leader is to ensure that group discipling is being done. The church leader is to disciple what it means to be a family; a congregation of God; a Godly neighborhood; a city, a county, a state governed by God’s truth; and most importantly, what it means to be a nation under God, governed by His truth.
    The church leader has also been mandated to disciple those in public leadership by being ambassadors on behalf of God by influencing public leaders to make decisions based on God’s truth to transform our neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, and nation.
    The church leader is to ensure that prayers individually and corporately are being said for all levels from our neighborhoods to our nation.
    Heavenly Father, bring revival to our churches throughout our nation. Grant us eyes to see her as you see her. Grant us ears that we may hear her as you hear her. Grant us wisdom to see her true condition, her true need. Grant us hearts to yield to the healing balm that is required to bring revival. May we see discipleship that does not add nor delete from your truth. May we see revival that will result in a nation that hungers and thirst for righteousness. Lord you are faithful to save your obedient ones …for we are in tears for our beloved church. May she shine once again with your glory and may truth be her foothold.”
    Matthew 28:19-20

  8. Stephen says

    The problems with declining churches are mere symptoms of the declining health of Western Christianity overall. We have all become too puffed up with pride believing our own personal interpretations of Scripture and our purely individualistic lens through which we view Scripture and the world, and the thousands of church types that capitulate to these are putting Christians on islands always making tasks too large to handle and disheartening when not accomplished. We are focused on happiness instead of joy, friendliness instead of love, comfort instead of hope, and knowledge instead of faith. Churches that grow tend to do so at the expense of other churches as opposed to new converts. The points you bring up are definitely spot on, too. God is unchanging and one way He is unchanging is that He is always fresh and always relevant. His Church needs to be, too. Dying churches myst understand that. However, all churches must nail their pride and selfishness to the cross and put on humility, grace, and selflessness for the cause of Christ. If we consider those of different doctrines still saved and Christians, then can’t we treat them as brothers and sisters and work together in s Christian Federation to spread the Good News, release the spiritual prisoners, and lift up the sick, the heavy-laden, the poor, and defend the widow and the orphan. Let us be dogmatic about what Christ is dogmatic about – loving God and loving our neighbor (and our enemy).

  9. Bob Lowman says

    Thanks, Thom, for this timely and wise message to the churches. We must open our eyes to not only see the needs of the churches we are part of, but also the harvest the is plentiful, in need of more workers. We are going to share this with our leaders in Metrolina Association – thanks much for your leadership with us!

  10. Mark Dance says

    So if you are a pastor who is willing to “confront the brutal facts” (Collins) about the decline in your church, instead of denying them, what are some practical next steps toward health and growth?

  11. says

    Ouch! Been there, done that & could write a book. As I made changed & actually led us in reaching our changing community I got pushback. I shared with our leadership that if we didn’t make changes we would die. I hate to say I told you so but…,,

  12. Jane M. Blankenship says

    I am #9 , the member who left her church of 30 years because the church is everything you have stated. The members are only concerned with comfort, not rocking the boat. They do fuss over things that don’t focus on worship. It is a maintenance congregation.

  13. Tim says

    Thom,
    Your blog has been an encouragement and helpful resource for me. I have learned a great deal from your experience. I do believe this may be one of your best articles yet. Keep pressing on! Great job!

    Tim

  14. MARK HUDSON says

    I tend to think we know and aren’t denying the problem, but may lack wisdom on where to begin. The turnaround research/books fit anyone who has come out of denial and looking for strategies, hopefully prayerfully, to do better.

  15. Veronica says

    This article really speaks to my heart, because I am currently in a church that is dying spiritually because of inadequate leadership. I am at the place of considering moving my membership because my spirit needs milk, I haven’t been a milk Christian in years. Leadership is focused on everything else except what the members need. God help us.

  16. john says

    many good comments here so far. I am in a declining church (as a member but am a retired sbc pastor) and the people seem to have a ” defeated already” attitude. the truth is its going to take us all working together and lots of hard work to help right the listing ship.

    keep to the faith pastors

  17. says

    Sadly you could not be more right. I have been preaching this message through my blog, social media and speaking engagements. In the last month I have been personally contacted by 2 pastors, one told me to tune in and called me Satan, an accuser of the brethren. He said there was nothing wrong with the church in America and I was clueless. The other pastor told me if I keep speaking like this I would alienate my fellow pastors and have no friends to support me. I do not plan to stop. I feel called to open the eyes of the church.

  18. Katey says

    I guess I would take issue with the implication that numbers are always or even usually an indicator of good health. The Lord can work in mighty ways that aren’t apparent in statistics. Also, isn’t it possible for a faithful church to fail to grow because the community in which they are a part is looking for the wrong things?

  19. Justin says

    I currently work at the church I grew up at. I have been here for about 8 months and in that time have realized that this is our church. I have noticed that nothing has changed since I grew up, we have no vision, and our people have not been made aware of our issues even though we have asked for a church family meeting to seek revival and discuss where things are. Our numbers alone show that we are in decline but those are only exacerbated by the facts about our lack of visitors, lack of new members for at least a year and the lack of new disciples being made. My question is when working at a church with a senior pastor who denies that the church is dying and has agreed to changes multiple times yet nothing has come from it, what do you do? How should I respond in this situation as a staff member? Other long time staff members have fought this battle for years and are now seeking other ministry opportunities without the pastor seeming to mind at all. Some wisdom on how I should respond would be so helpful.

  20. Randall Sidwell says

    My name is Randall Sidwell while in Bible College at Johnson University (Johnson Bible College) I worked with a small church in East TN. My family and I quickly fell in love with the people and the area. A little about the church’s condition when we first got there back in 2002: the first Sunday school we attended there was 8 people there and that included my wife and I and our two kids, there was no youth at all. The reason they gave for their condition was always centered on the last Minister or the last few ministers and what they did or did not do. Even though this was the condition God really blessed the ministry while we were there. Attendance grew to the low 60’s and we began a youth group that quickly grew to 12 to 15 kids. In 2004 we decided to devote our full attention to finishing College so I stepped down as minister. Over the next few years I returned to preform funerals for several members of the congregation. I always told them that if they ever got in a spot that they needed me and I was where I could I would come back.

    In October 2013 I received a call from the Chairman of the Board telling me that the church had really gotten in a bad spot and that if something wasn’t done soon it would die. At the time I was interviewing with another church who was ready to vote on me as their next Senior Minister but I really felt sorry for the little church I had worked with before and didn’t want to see them die. I spoke to the leadership a couple times and each one told me the same thing, That they were ready to do what ever it took to save the church. I shared my vision for Church Growth and expressed the drastic need to prepare the Church for the Next Generation. So my family and I moved to East TN and once more began work with the church.

    Morning attendance was once again very low. Sunday school had gotten down to no more than 6 and Sunday morning Worship was only averaging 15 to 19 people. Since getting here in late November God has been very good. The morning attendance has almost tripled and a Youth service we started 8 weeks ago has grown to average in attendance between of 15 to 17 kids with over all attendance of 25 to 35 counting parents and volunteers. Volunteers being those that have come from the growth of the church.

    But a church saying they want to grow is different that a church doing something about growth as you well know. The church building had been let go over the last 10 years or more and faces a great make over to be usable. The board had gotten into a habit of not meeting at all or for only 10 or 15 mins right after church every 3 to 6 months.

    My wife and I have been doing a lot of research and reading everything we can get our hands on pertaining to church development and church growth. Yesterday we bought a copy of your book: Autopsy of a Dying Church. We devoured it so fast like someone who hadn’t eaten in days and all of a sudden was given a great big steak to chew. What we found through reading your book was what our concerns where already telling us. We had come back to find a dying church. Every attitude you mention in your book concerning the leadership and congregation members are spot on to what we are facing here. Even though God has been blessing we have already come to a line of Ministry that if not crossed will keep the church from moving forward. Every comment is inner focused.

    My heart goes out to them and we have really tried to be open and honest about the condition and even tried to provide information that will show them the condition they are in but it feels like we are speaking a foreign language.

    We know what you say in the book. When the 3rd stage is reached, when a church goes from being very sick to dying that it is almost impossible to turn them around. But how do we let go? How do we let a church go that we love so much?

    Thanks for listening

  21. Me. Y says

    Tom
    I am a very simple man, not very much of education. But I want challenge you as a wise man of God to think bigger than this.

    I think, we have become a generation of putting our fingers on the problems constantly. (In a football game, us coaches call it pointers, they sit in locker rooms, stadiums and even in family living rooms; they really do not have or will offer a foundational solution to help us or the team) God only knows there are enough of them in our faith organizations. Look at the list of pastors in our 400,000 churches in USA, listen to them closely, please do not overlook their needs. Their very bottom line is “I do not know what to do.”
    Paul had only one gaol in his life on earth. He did not have a “to do list”. He had a “I have to do” one thing for Him today. Most (%98) of my brothers do not know, what Paul did!
    Tom be real with yourself, and this generation of believers, examin your heart did you fact to face tell a none believer about Christ today.
    I know time has changed, but God’s practice to make men for His team has not changed……….

    God bless you
    Acts 20:24
    “Love you man”
    Mr. Y

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