The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches

In Wednesday’s post, I focused on seven very practical habits of churches that have an outward focus. I am honored and humbled to be in a place where I get to hear from and study about thousands of churches. The leaders and congregants in those churches provide me with incredible information and data. I am grateful, because I’m not smart enough to understand these issues on my own.

As God has allowed me to study congregations for more than 25 years, I began to see a common pattern in churches that had become outwardly focused. You read some of the practical steps these churches have taken in the earlier post.

The Most Common Factor

Conversely, though, I also can see a simple but profound pattern among the declining churches.

Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.

The ministries are only for the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way. You get the picture.

Warning Symptoms

After studying and consulting with thousands of churches, I began to see clearly this pattern. Even more, I began to recognize symptoms of an inward focus. See if you recognize a few of these.

  • There are very few attempts to minister to those in the community.
  • Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires.
  • Numbers of members in the congregation are openly critical of the pastor, other church staff, and lay leaders in the church.
  • Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.
  • The past becomes the hero.
  • Culture is seen as the enemy instead of an opportunity for believers to become salt and light.
  • Pastors and other leaders in the church become discouraged and withdraw from effective leadership.
  • If the churches are a part of a denomination or similar affiliation, meetings of those denominations mirror the churches in lost focus and divisiveness.

There is Hope

For those of us in Christ, however, there is always hope—His hope.

I have written in recent years about the dire straits of most of our churches. I have felt it necessary to do so in order to face the facts. Indeed, I have written in my most recent book about the deaths of many churches.

In the weeks and months ahead, however, you will be hearing from me about churches that are defying the negative trends. You will hear more about church leaders who are dreaming again. You will hear about revitalized churches. This fall, I will deliver to your computers a multi-hour video conference about these exciting times.

I don’t have my head in the sand. I know times are tough in many churches. I know congregations are dying every day. I know many church leaders are discouraged.

But we serve the God of hope.

Decline in our churches does not have to be a reality.

I hope you will join me as I share what God is doing in so many congregations. And I always look forward to your comments and thoughts in these blog posts.


  1. Randy Churchwell says

    Our church is suffering from the same problems you posted. The inner life is the focus. I since a heart concern in a few members. I sense God is giving us a new opportunity to refocus on evangelical ministry. Personally, my heart breaks for this. There so many families suffering in our community. Thanks for listening.

    • CTMaloney says

      I think this is not the main reason. It is lack of BELIEF in doctrines and God. All such belief systems are declining and this will continue.

    • scott says

      Have you considered that the reason, or at least one of many reasons, that a church declines is that it is part of God’s plan? When churches thrive, we hear “God is leading this congregation to do great things”. But we have a different view when things are in decline. Why? Maybe churches aren’t listening to what God is saying. I’ve also heard that churches ask God to “bless what they’re doing”. How about we try harder to “do what God is already blessing”? If you’re a great church at music but not so great at high school youth, then maybe that congregation’s calling is to be great musically. churches cannot be all things to all people. This is the fallacy of the Rick Warren approach. The whole mega church idea sounds great, but often it doesn’t work.

  2. Randy Chestnut says

    There should be no mystery why 60% of SBC churches have baptized no one between ages 12-17 and 80% baptize one or less between 18-29 years old.
    The only “strategy” that can address this issue is brokenness and repentance.

  3. Mark Lindsay says

    Dr. Rainer,

    Great summary! I summarize your symptoms as status quo thinking. In a world of changing communities, cultures, and contexts status quo leads to lack of relevance, lack of authenticity, and lack of vitality. In other words, organizational death. All of your symptoms above are relational issues, yet relationships are the currency of our calling as ambassadors for Christ. It is truly a sad picture to see this in a body of believers called and designed to be light in a pitch black world. I can hear Christ lamenting, “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”

    Mark Lindsay

  4. Jon says

    On that subject.. Autopsy of a Deceased church was an incredible book. It echoes my passion and call that it can be done in rural America.

  5. Dave Armstrong says

    I agree with everything you say. I’ve seen it and lived it myself in ministry. However, aren’t the symptoms mentioned of an inward focus really pointing to more basic issue? We aren’t making disciples in our churches. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men.” Jesus was supremely outward focused and His true followers can’t be anything other than that as well.

  6. Brad Aldridge says

    Dr. Rainer

    I have read and enjoyed many of your books, as well as your blog articles. I recently read your book ‘The Autopsy of a Deceased Church’ and while I agree with your findings, do you not believe that the problems facing our declining churches are symptomatic of a larger problem? Namely the word of God not being honored or taught properly. We are all prideful sinners, but combine that with American exceptionalism and you put that sinful pride on steroids. We are all by nature inwardly focused. And many of our churches seek to appeal to this self-driven mentality through the word of God by making it “relevant” to us and our earthly needs. I believe that if more of our pastors and churches believed in the inerrancy and sufficancy of scripture, and not just give lip-service to these truths, that the American church would see a revival unlike anything it’s has seen since the first great awaking. I pray that we believe and say with the apostle Paul “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16,17)
    I would love to get your thoughts on this. Thank you for what you do, may God continue to richly bless you and your ministry.

    In Christ

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks Brad. I will be addressing the biblical and theological issues as foundational for church health in an upcoming video conference.

  7. Wes Brockway says

    While the church I attend is a church in decline, and has been in decline for 35 or more years, we seem to be in a slightly different state presently than listed in the article but it’s not one of outward focus. Presently we do not have the animosity in business meetings or animosity directed against anyone. Everyone seems to pretty much get along. I think the church had the animosity expressed some years ago and those people have left the church. I’m finding it difficult to put my finger on the mood. It’s not quite apathy it’s past that. Perhaps it is an acceptance of death and so we go through some motions but there is no real desire or attempt to get revitalized. The people listen quietly and patiently to the pleas and the urgings to reach people but the urgings find no fertile ground. It’s like we’re the living dead. We go through the motions of committees and business meetings and most have a good time at church fellowship events. We also do two or three events a year and invite the community to attend and they do. Our people come and work and warmly greet the people but there is no lasting effect or benefit. Perhaps it is the doldrums. When someone has some energy and wants to do something it is such a drain trying to have an effect that they eventually give up and give in. It’s like trying to pour molasses. Obviously the church needs a revival and I don’t mean merely a week long series of meetings but a Holy Spirit revival. My wife and I are trying to find God’s will as to whether we should stay and try to be change agents, we’re not on the ministerial staff, or if we need to move to somewhere that will restore our spirits and where our involvement will be effective. I am a retired minister and have been praying and looking for someplace to serve as Pastor. It’s a real conundrum for us. Thanks to those who slog though my post and we appreciate your prayers for God’s guidance.

    • Cathy Benson says

      My church sounds like yours, Wes. Call the ho hum disease, Malaise.
      We just had a blow up and are looking for a new pastor.
      Scary times. Namely.
      We do’t want what the new jingle calls “periphery” ministries. Huh?? WWJD!!

  8. echo says

    I was a part of 1 particular church for 34 years. The reason for this church’s decline was not an inward focus thing at all. In fact all they could do they did for the community. Yet when it came to focusing on those within it’s walls they fell flat. They had no problem with giving people who walked in off the streets money for gas, groceries, rent. Yet when my family of 4 (two of them children with special needs) needed enough funds to last us 6 days we were denied We were actually told “NO”. We are not the only members of that church that left. Many followed after, this one church who was thriving and had 1400 people attend or more is now down to 200 if they are lucky. The difference between then and now is their focus. They had huge events where the congregation got together had dinner and then called the first time visitors or the second time visitors or those who had been attending the church and were not around. Before cell phones! They were focused on those within it’s walls and they were thriving. In some situations your thought process may be right but it’s is not the reason for all Church’s. I know of another church who is declining simply because they are full of deceit and the congregation of that church are becoming brain washed. Again another thriving church who is focused on helping the community. But, to the congregation they are telling lies and glad to be doing it. Satan is prowling around and he is becoming more and more successful in his hunt.

  9. Mark says

    I want to touch on what you mentioned, self-preservation. This is survival by any method possible.

    Also present is a refusal to change anything, even the 1970s curtains. The order of worship can not be changed, even if the only change is one additional hymn. Some churches are like time capsules. Some have seats that remain empty after the previous occupier has passed away. An unwritten rule says no one sits in that seat ever again.

  10. Darlene Jackson says

    I noted that your comments are by men but I won’t let that intimidate me. I have been through two churches that split. One church split because the elders had their OWN agenda and the preacher was staying true to the Bible in what the Holy Father expects, not man. My family and I had been attending that church six years. This was a non-denominational church. The other church that my husband and I attended was a Church of Christ. We had been members there three years when our good minister decided along with the elders that the church as a body of believers, we needed to study what the Bible says about instruments in church. Because as you know, COC doesn’t believe in instruments! However, after our church participation in studying on this subject for a year, it went to a vote. The church wanted to reach out to our younger people so we voted unanimously for instruments. We still had the non-instrumental services for the staunch traditionalists, and then we had the instrumental service. It did cause a huge split of about 200 families but we survived! After a year of the instruments in the church, there had been those who intentionally stayed in the church to stir the pot! Next thing you know, our minister from THAT church was given the boot! Let me say that happened five years ago and NOW, that church has a for sale sign in front of it! It is sad how our churches are imploding on themselves because of being filled with the Holy Spirit, they are filled with themselves! My husband and I have been attending this one church right next door for the past five years. We love it but haven’t joined for fear of another split.

    I do believe the enemy is in full force attacking the church! We need to be brave and speak the truth about homosexuality, abortion and all the other social ills of our world without accommodating other’s feelings through being PC. We must be gentle as doves but we must also be truthful!

    • Mark says

      The only nastier fight in the church of Christ besides IM would be that over women in the pulpit. There are some churches of Christ that have both. I came from the church of Christ and would have preferred they just say we don’t use instruments because of tradition. The mistake they made was trying to use the Bible as an argument against with the regulative principle. This is Tragic but church troublemakers are not limited to only one denomination, that’s for sure.

  11. Brian says

    I agree with the reason for decline but I disagree with the explanation and definition of the reason. The church’s primary responsibility is to minister to its members, but that ministry should be to teach the members to teach the lost. I wrote a blog article a while back called “The Church Will Never Be Attractive to Lost People” in which I talk about the foolishness of tailoring our ministries and worship services to lost people. The church as a whole is for believers but if the church is doing its job, the individual members will be sharing the gospel with the lost and bringing new members into the church. An inward focus is when the church is teaching its members to only care about themselves.

  12. Brian P. says

    By stating “for those of us in Christ, however, there is always hope,” I hope you’re not suggesting for us non-believers it’s hopeless. I think the “inward focus” can be highly associative with the religion itself. I go to church (a growing one none-the-less) out of social obligation to family. I don’t get the impression it’s a place I could be honest with my beliefs and disbeliefs. Thus, I live in the closet. It all seems rather shameful I have to say. I think to have an outward focus a different stance toward outsiders would be necessary. Even better than that might be an us-and-them mentality. I offer for your consideration. As for me, I don’t want to live with such lack of generosity. In a pluralistic world–without ability to force harshly or softly through the peer pressure of societal norms–it may be churches need to be this way. Sorry, I frankly don’t see it that the actually believed-in God is one of all that much hope. There are indeed more hopeful ways to live. Would request an orientation of hope be considered in decisions of comment moderation. Thank you.

    • Gary Warinner says

      I would suggest that hope which comes from belief in, or worship of, a deity is not the same as a hope which results from experiencing the reality of the presence of the Living God. The person who encounters Jesus Christ is brought to recognize He does exist, does keep His promises and, being eternal, will outlast time itself. {And, being truly the Savior, He can offer–and provide–salvation.} I’m reminded of what a reporter said after interviewing Martin Niemoller, the German pastor: ” Six (?) years in a Nazi concentration camp and all he can talk about is Jesus Christ”. The life of the disciple that follows closely will be characterized by an authenticity (because of the certainty of the truth/relationship) marked by an ongoing and far-reaching hope. This hope, vibrant and well-founded, cannot be found in any other source, nor can it be promoted by any other means.

  13. Robert says

    I would say the number 1 factor is a lack of connectedness. Everyone wants to feel that they are a part of something greater than themselves and when they no longer feel like they belong then they are less likely to participate or invite others.

    • laura says

      You are right Robert, lack of connectedness with the fact that folk have not been taught that each one of us is created in the image and likeness of our Creator. People want what they already have (connected to something greater than themselves). We all are already “connected”. Heaven is at hand!!! We don’t believe this; have never really been taught how to consciously make that connection. God is “up there” or “out there”; all efforts of our lifetime will be rewarded in heaven? Really? Why wait when “heaven is at hand”? Teach us the meaning of this concept. What must we do to bring Heaven here to Earth?. There’s got to be more to it than showing up at church on Sunday and being nice to each other. There is SO much more…so why won’t someone who’s had an authentic ‘awakening” or “transformation” come teach the rest of us how to do the same? Then you will have your ‘disciples’.

  14. Ron Pate says

    In the last 20+ years there has been a general shift away from Christian Education (rational) to needs-based therapeutic / spiritual formation / support groups, etc…. This therapeutic trip begs a lot more commentary. The therapeutic direction must be seen as secondary to a more transformational trajectory. In some ways, we need to value both. But, what we can’t do is lose sight of the differences. Nor should we primarily shape an external focus with therapeutic angles — unless we have a clear and specific calling to do such. I’m also not saying we need a return to the classic Sunday School model of Christian Education — but, such a step would be better than where we now find ourselves. Sadly, a general therapeutic direction will drain church staff quicker than anything. This turn has been slow, and subtle — and, it has paralleled larger cultural patterns that dominated the 20th century. The larger question here has to do with what it really looks like to understand and then see (*vision) the Gospel of Christ that brings about transformation. Laypersons w/ *good vision will be the key fieldworkers — not the staff. JMO. Ron Pate

  15. says

    I wanted to look a second at your point regarding the times and worship styles being geared toward members. I do so because of something John MacArthur said last night on his GTY radio program. He asserts that nowhere in the New Testament did the church ever gear or structure their services for anyone other than believers. I imagine he is referencing the movement to accommodate those termed as seekers. He has basis for his assertion as we do not see church services geared for nonbelievers. Rather, Paul clears that notion in 1 Cor. 14 where he urges the proclamation of the Word as opposed to incoherent babbling which an unbeliever who attends may misinterpret. If this is correct, and I too assert that it is, why would a church not structure it’s times and worship towards it’s membership?

    • James says

      A church service should be FOR God, not is members, visitors, or the community. When a church is God-focused and interested in pleasing him and honoring him – selfishness dies, people lay down their ‘rights,’ and others are served – believers are edified AND the lost are evangelized. 1 Cor. 14 talks about GOD’s Word being the focus, and when it is -believers are edified and the lost are made aware of their need for God.
      – I’m a pastor and it’s somehow hard to get people to focus on God and not themselves. (Guess I oughta be gracious though, I’m too often the first one to focus on me and what I want instead of what God’s commissioned us all to do and LOVE ONE ANOTHER.)

  16. Jerry Wiltz says

    I believe the biggest reason why the church is in decline is the combined onslaughts of science (big bang, evolution, out of Africa for human origins calling into question a historical Adam, Eve, Noah) and of historical biblical scholarship (an errant old and new testament, inconsistency among the 3 synoptic gospels, historical accuracy of the old testament etc.) These two issues may or may not be on the minds of church goers. But they are on the minds of college students (who will question the underpinnings of evangelical Christianity) and seminary professors (who to various degrees are embracing the results of historical biblical scholarship, and who are sharing this with our future pastors). I think the church is in a rough patch for the next 10 years as it will have to adapt to these realities of the 21st century. Thank you.

    • Ken says

      Actually, much of the modern biblical “scholarship” has been effectively refuted. Responsible pastors should learn about these debates and learn how to answer the arguments of skeptics. It’s not really that difficult since the hard facts are on the side of Scripture.

  17. says

    Certainly, an inward focus is detrimental. But let’s be careful not to embrace the outward focus before we take an upward focus. God is holy, and the way that we reach out to the world should respect that holiness. Embracing worship styles with which the world will be comfortable is hardly what the world needs. If making the world comfortable in the church is the goal, that move in itself is an “inward focus.” It shows such a desperation for numerical growth as to be willing to abandon a “God-ward” focus all together.

  18. Steve Hultquist says

    While I think you have outlined part of the issue, this focus creates another more subtle dynamic: an insular unwillingness to grow those in the church. Instead of growing them, they work to make them comfortable and “happy.” This is what you outline as a focus within. But the reason is that the people in the church are not allowed to be all that they were created to be. When they are allowed–and encouraged–to shine, they focus outwardly, since there isn’t enough to do internally to keep them engaged.

    Set the people free!

  19. says

    Perhaps a couple of the problems in the contemporary Evangelical Church is a greater focus on leadership than the membership and growth at the expense of biblical truth.

  20. says

    An “inward-focus” and “outward-focus” must be kept in balance. The church should be where believers are being equipped, encouraged, and exhorted to walk with Christ and help fulfill the great commission. At the same time, if there is a focus on reaching out at the expense of solid, Biblical teaching, the result will be an event-driven social group. The goal should be to maintain a tension between inward & outward focus.

  21. Sandy says

    What if your church is suffering because of it’s minister? If you are outspoken or say anything against our minister you are run off or gotten rid of on committee. Our poor church can barely pay the light bill now. He continues his path of destruction and our church is falling into filth and disrepair. How do you invite people onto your church only to have them shunned back out? How do you focus on God when you are not receiving a Godly message?

  22. Mike says

    While I appreciate all the comments I have read under this blog post, I must say the key issue for me as a pastor with a declining church is what to do to move this congregation forward to being a kingdom focused church. I appreciate your blog posts please give us more practical application to help us make a difference where we serve.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Mike – Thanks. There are many posts on my blog that address the practical issues. Just peruse through them and see the applications I address. I will also be doing a video conference this fall.

  23. Paul Wilczek says

    As a pastor of change, I have been voted out of a church like this and shunned by my denomination because of it. When we started making progress in the community that’s when it got ugly.

    • Randy Ford says

      I have found that when a church and pastor turn their focus to outreach and fulfilling the mission of the church Satan always turns up the heat and begins to hit, hurt and hinder the church by internal issues. Satan desires to stop the church in in tracks. I always recall the promise of Christ, that the gates of hell will not prevail. The path is difficult, but the outcome is worth it. Our theme in our current outreach is, if we don’t go, they won’t come. We have determined to be relentless in pursuit of souls, because Satan is relentless for them also.

      • Donna says

        I think Randy has hit a big nail on the head here. I have been a member of my Southern Baptist church for 15+ years now. When we first got there, it was a bustling, thriving, busy place with lots of available activities for kids, ministries, outreach…etc. It was awesome. Probably about my 5th year, the pastor had an affair. He tried to resign but the Personnel committee told him no, he didn’t have to, so it was covered up and he remained. Since that time, our church has been in a steady state of decline in numbers, in finances, and in the physical structure. Today, 10 years later, the pastor has just resigned because we can’t afford to pay him. We cannot make budget, indeed barely even have a budget because the giving is down so much.

        It is important to point out that the chair of the Personnel committee who helped with the cover up manifests the Jezebel spirit. The affair was the perfect opportunity for her to have the pastor right in the palm of her hand, and there he’s been for 10 years, while SHE is the authority in the church, and he played the Ahab. We have, in a nutshell, become the church at Thyatira spoken of in Rev. 2:18 and are suffering the judgment of the Lord as a result. Added to that now, we have the presence of the Leviathan spirit as well.

        The bible tells us that in the end times, we will see the church come under the influence of the enemy via Jezebel/Ahab and Leviathan, who operate together. In the church environment, Jezebel seeks to control the weak Ahab (usually a pastor) and push her unholy agendas, and Leviathan seeks to stop the flow of the Holy Spirit, worship and ministries.

        Fortunately, the bible also tells us that in these times, we will see the Lord raising up an army of forerunner prophets to discern these spirits and expose them, and announce the imminent return of Jesus. The unfortunate reality, however, at least amongst southern Baptist churches, is that most of them do not recognize a prophet when they see one, nor will they listen to one, nor do they go along with deliverance ministry.

        So Randy is quite correct in that the heat HAS been turned up because the enemy knows his time is near. I believe we are about to enter into the greatest harvest time the world has ever known, ushering in the return of Christ.

    • Cathy B Ewen says

      “Me, me, me” sang the congregation.
      Who are these people you are bringing into “our” congregation.
      Pastors you want a litmus test on the heart of your congregation? Try the secret shopper guest visitor. Then invite him or her back the next week to preach about how they were received by your congregation. Ha!

  24. says

    American religion has always been about being conformed to the world while trying to dominate, which is why we seldom see much evidence of God’s working, and really never have. Whatever the world believes today, the churches will believe tomorrow.

    Thus Baptists in Virginia forbade slave owners to be members, until around 1660. But that was out of step with the world. Then when white supremacy became unfashionable, the churches presently renounced white supremacy, at least in form. When divorce became acceptable in the world, the evangelical churches took only a few years to agree. The same is now happening with homosexual “marriage.”

    It goes back 400 years in some ways, but in other ways to Constantine, and even to the post-apostolic rulers that became lords over the churches in ways that the apostles had warned against. There is hope in the rubble in the promise of God that everything that Jesus’s heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up, and that somehow or other the Church will be made without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.

    But American “Christianity” for good historical reasons is peculiarly corrupt due to the prevalence of a counterfeit ideology of American nationalism presenting itself as Christian, much like the religion of Jeroboam.

    Meanwhile, I find churches almost unendurable. I would like to see some reality among people calling themselves Christians before I die.

    • Keen Gravely says

      I respect your angst; however history, not only in the United States but also in all of the Scriptures, show that revival is real and given by God over and over, refreshing and replenishing the numbers of his people. Revival has very often come because his people have asked, urgently and persistently for it.

  25. MIchael Malloy says

    I am not sure how I was led to your website. It appears to be a Western, protestant site. I am Russian Orthodox. We may have many beliefs in common but I assure you we also have many conflicting points of view.

    Your work appears well intended and I wish you the best success with your efforts.

    In my opinion, based on a similar problem in my church, children need to be involved in worship at an early age. Parents need to be active participants as well. There needs to be theological nurturing at home and not only on Sunday mornings.

    I know from previous experience in the Episcopal church you cannot hope to “attract” members by becoming more like the world in which they live. The church has to be stable and the message unchanging. We may live in this world, but we are not “of” this world.

    Thank you.

    Michael Malloy, Cincinnati OH

  26. says

    We’ve turned the corner, and attendance has increased every year for the past five years. Young families are flooding into our church, and have reduced our debt in same five years by 60 percent. Even people in the community comment to me in a positive way how Grace has changed from what they knew the church used to be. The key is to skillfully change the culture of the church, and this usually includes the leadership in the church. But, as a pastor you have to be compassionately fearless!

  27. Wes Brockway says

    This may seem sacrilegious to some but here goes. I’ve been wondering lately if we shouldn’t just let some churches die if that’s the path they’re on. I understand the scriptures that teach God’s church will stand though the gates of hell prevail against it. However, that scripture isn’t referring to the local church. Certainly if the local church is a living organism then birth, growth, decline, and death are part of the normal life cycle. What’s not to say that God raised up a church to meet a specific need in a specific area for a specific time and when that need and time is up then the local church should cease to exist. God will raise another up as needed, where needed and when needed. I feel bad for senior citizens who have been faithful to their church in giving and their labor only to endure sermon after sermon pointing out how they’ve failed. We also often revile our dying churches all the while abandoning them and using their Cooperative Fund gifts to establish new churches in the same neighborhood ensuring their church’s death! If there are no young people to fill the vacancies left by older members who can no longer do the work, or if young people don’t give as well as they should then yes a failure has occurred. In defense, any parent knows that one can do their best to teach their children the way to go and some will not heed it. That failure, however, doesn’t negate the fact that the seniors faithfully did as they were led to do for their church and most still strive to be faithful as they are able for as long as they can. I’ve tried to share with young people who have great disdain and condemnation for the seniors in our church, because they won’t change or whatever, that these people they are condemning have served in the trenches when they were younger. The attitude parallels the condemnation of soldiers for their death mongering all the while enjoying the freedom purchased by those same “death mongers”. Sometimes, I think we should just help these senior saints be comfortable in their worship of God. They deserve a church that meets their needs in worship. Yes, eventually the church will close its doors but that doesn’t end the spread of the gospel as other doors are being newly opened.

  28. Lisa Galanis says

    I went to a little gift shop yesterday and realized that it was a very old church — It gives me a tight feeling in my throat to think about churches that are closing and so I told myself that the church just had to move to a bigger building. However this hide your head in the sand mentality is probably responsible for the loss of many churches. I have found weak leadership and ignoring problems — and they will occur, will kill the church . It is so sad.

  29. says

    Our legal name is First Baptist Church of Addis. We go by Church At Addis, like the church at Antioch. Though SBC, we do not promote denominational ism. We operate on what we call the first century church model. Focusing on the great commandment and the great commission. Do you love God… Do you love your neighbor? Over the last 4 years the church has gone from a dozen senior adults to 300 plus in a town of 7000 across the river from Baton Rouge, La. Last year 101 walked the aisle and we baptized 69 of those. 75% of those were adults of all ages. Every neighborhood and town has thousands of hurting people and families that want someone to love them with the simple truth of the gospel.

  30. Robin says

    I’m with you Thom: The one thing I don’t think has been mentioned in the replies is, Ministers need to realize they are there, not to take care of the aquarium, but to make believers. I just read an article that stated the CEO of Staples doesn’t want people to like the logo, or motto, he wants people to believe in what they are selling. Ministers who want the church to grow, and not die, need to get a similar attitude. We need to be winning the lost.
    To do this, I feel we need to listen to those who are doing it. And then, take what we have learned and apply it to our situation.


  31. Brian says

    I disagree a lack of Outreach is the problem. The problem is our churches are not being managed effectively, resulting in a climate where you wouldn’t even want to invite someone in. I believe an effective outreach program is the result of a well-run church that has its own house in order. Think of it this way…..when do you invite guests over for dinner or into your home? When you have your house in order. If all the beds were unmade, dishes filling the sink, dirty clothes everywhere, you wouldn’t invite a guest into your home. So, we must get our churches in order first and the natural byproduct will be outreach. One quick check of your church’s “order”, do your staff salaries and benefits exceed 50% of your budget? If so, your church is not in order!

  32. James Ellis says

    The main reason the church is in decline from my spective is that we have not made loving our neighbors as ourselves the priority of our focus and ministry. I have seen churches follow every ministry pattern used by churches that are labeled successfully but still stay in decline. It is not what we do as much as why we do it that will cause a congregations to have an effect in their communities. We can give someone all the help they need but if it is not purely out of a passionate love for someone God has breathed life into the ones we help will never know the source of that help (God). Our alterior motive of wanting them to go to our church over feeling truly loved by God taints the works we do for them.
    If our Goal is to get them to go to church then we are not loving them but loving what we want them to become.
    In East Texas where I live we had 10 churches whose were victims of church arsonist in 2010. Suddenly their were people arming themselves and sleeping in sanctuaries and parking lots willing to defend their buildings with their lives and take a life if need be to protect it. How does that not tell the world we care more for the buildings than we do the people?
    Jesus said “all would know we are His disciples by our love for one another” (John 13:35).
    The problem for churches in decline is a true love for their neigbors is something that can be faked or covered with the right ministry program or church model.

  33. James Ellis says

    I dont know what happened I checked it for spelling and grammar. I will blame my phone for making me look more illiterate than I am.
    The last sentence should have been “a lack of true Love for their neighbors cannot be faked or hidden with the right ministry program or church model.”

  34. Lance says

    First let me preface my comment with a statement that I believe that churches are inherently good entities, however as humanity moves forward the entire foundation of religion is eroding at a pace that can only lead to one end for organized religion as a whole. My opinion is that the demise of religion in modern society is based on the fact that science has overtaken, with factual evidence, what used to be great mysteries. For instance, 2000 years ago the world was flat, the earth was the center of the universe, and everyone “knew” that this was true. The basis for life was completely different, and Christianity along with the other major religions grew out of the need for explaining life, and our one last remaining mystery, what happens when you die. It has taken a long time for humanity to emerge from the fog of religion, but now that we are beginning to truly understand our universe, we are leaving the spiritual, mystical, awe inspiring voodoo behind and recognizing that life is explainable, that questions once thought so complex or simply too advanced for humanity can be revealed with research. We are learning and growing, but the churches are not, this is not a positive thing, but it is true. Being a good person, helping your fellow man, being honest with yourself and holding to a set of morals are all hugely important in how we exist in society. But more importantly it brings peace to my soul, how we live, how we treat each other, how My family lives their lives is all a part of spirituality. While I will not and cannot explain what happens when we die I am certain of this, if you live your life with morals and honesty that whatever happens at the time of your passing a truly just God will be basing your salvation not on which religion you believed but in the actions of your life, talk is cheap, what did you DO. Religions all tie themselves to ancient books, old theories and practices that resist or even condemn change, this attitude has only one predictable outcome, holding onto instead of learning from the past leads to the end of religion. It is time for a new outlook from churches that embrace and celebrate the discoveries of science while maintaining that the spirit of our soul, our conscience has a important role in the future mankind as well. If science remains the adversary of religion, religion will die, and our moral compass may pass as well. That is something that humanity cannot afford.

    • Cathy Benson says

      Scientific evidence has shown patients who are prayed for by believers do better than those who do not. I will quote my dear old Dad who said, “Men in the fox hole do not cry out for science!” I have seen a few miracles of healing and circumstance that defied scientific evidence during my lifetime. “Love one another,” comes from the heart not science and it is the Hardest thing we ever do besides having faith to love an unseen God. I would bet the farm my old time religion is true. Read Acts 5. In 2014 years Jesus Christ is as relevant today as he was then. Name something or someone else from that era who holds such a spot in modern times? I have every faith churches will get back on track when they get back to basics and people,lost and found, come back to the love of God. Jesus in our hearts! It is called Grace. And it is not scientific theory waiting to be proven. He is the Great I am!!

    • John Gerrish says

      Lance’s comment is one of the most practical explanations of the decline of religion I have ever seen voiced, especially for the growing majority who have never been churched. Perhaps I am still a church going person only because of my upbringing. I view historic biblical detail as unlikely in science’s light and unimportant to the Church’s value. But I am comfortable living in the church to preach the goodness of God more for goodness’ sake than for God’s.

      • jonathon says

        What Lance’s hypothesis ignores, is that not all religions are losing members. Some religions are gaining adherants at a rate that is more than triple the population growth rate.

  35. Harold Miller says

    Dr. Rainer:

    Let me say that I very much appreciate your posts and read them regularly. I also appreciate the fervency of purpose that you project in them. Please allow me to add a couple of thoughts concerning the reason for decline in our churches..

    You are absolutely on target that the most common factor in decline is an inward focus. However I would be a bit more blunt and describe it as simple disobedience. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, (enlarge the kingdom) and that cant be done from within. I believe that by and large the American church is in decline because it has been arrested by the sin of worldliness. Most believers aren’t interested in an outward focus unless someone else can do it. Yes, the overarching reason for failure to achieve the Great Commission is sin in the camp.

    No amount of urging people to get outside the four walls will be effective until a genuine Holy Ghost, God sent revival descends upon us. Meanwhile I firmly believe that pastors must consistently preach on the sin of disobedience and focus on the need for revival. Further I believe that every entity within the SBC should mobilize their resources to achieve a primary focus on the desperate need for revival

    Thanks for listening and know of my support for the work you are doing. Have a blessed day.

    Harold S. Miller
    Pastor, Center Point Baptist Church
    Springfield TN.

  36. Ed Franklin says

    Dr Rainer, thanks for making this point and stating it clearly. I have experienced one variant of the “inward focus” ailment which seems just as deadly: “long-jump focus” This is a large prosperous congregation which is gung-ho for foreign missions, supporting several men on the field. But…..but….locally? Nothing. No time for, no interest in nursing homes, jails, prisons, etc, etc, all those “right down the street” fields.

    I’m afraid this calls into question the heart-origin of the foreign outreach enthusiasm. Is it Spirit-born, or merely “what we’ve always done”?

  37. Jim Stovall says

    When we start off we often ask, ‘”Why isn’t the church growing?” or “”Why is the church declining?””
    Then we often add “God is allowing this and that.” Could it be that theology is at the base of our problem. We give God credit often then say, “”Whey isn’t the Church doing the right thing?”” We are caught up in a God of control. Carlye Marney was what he called “”A Christian Humanist.”‘ He then recognized that the people are in charge. Instead the people often used what Jesus complained about: The Law of Karbon. His example was in reference to care for the elderly which a lot of people neglected because it was so hard only God could take care of it. For Jesus that was a poor excuse for irresponsibility. The God of a lot of people should join Alanon because of control issues that enables corruption in this world to operate without interference. Some churches grow believing in a god of control. That leaves them with the cause for their eventual decline; you can only make excuses for so long.

  38. Jon Lenton says

    My experience would add a “lack of supernatural power”. If God is not showing up = healing and touching people’s hearts then decline occurs.

  39. Chris says

    Our churches are supposed to be hospitals. We are to come to the Great Physician for healing. Spiritual Healing, just like physical healing is sometimes painful. He does surgery on us to remove things that don’t glorify Him. We have instead turned our churches into hospices….we just want to be made comfortable while we die. And so we do…

  40. says

    I disagree. I believe the biggest problem is: we have a church on the move without the Spirit of GOD equipping/ empowering. Dead/ deadness, walking dead. When man gets down on his knees(submits) then we’ll see the power of GOD move, not dead man on the move. It funny how man always concentrates on his own efforts/ works. When do we recognize our Spiritual bankruptcy? I wish we would really consider the true issues at hand. Spiritual deadness. May the good LORD Help us!!!

  41. says

    Thank you for your comments on the subject of declining churches. Very interesting indeed your perspective. In our town we are seeing similar trends all over the town inculduing the critical nature and results of pastoral ineffectivness. People carrying the banner but can’t remember the reason for carrying it. We see devisive motives and a nature of pulling small items up for mentioning and making a cultural judgemnt of them before the church and causing dissention from within. Changes in worship protocol has a bearing to eliminate the older folks from worship in leiu of younger preferences in many cases. The changes of approval of some practices that some think no longer apply due to the changing of times is also a very bad thing in most of the churches.
    In my opinion the Bible is the whole plan and is clear in what when and why we do things in our way of worship. Never leave the reason of worship if you do u may destroy what you have so faithfully supported.
    Thanks Jim Varnell

  42. Olivia Robertson says

    Thank you for your work. It is thought provoking and helpful to us in the ministry field. Could you by chance point out some examples or churches who are doing the opposite of what you say. What churches can we be learning from?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks Olivia. That’s coming via video this fall. If you are not on my email list, sign up on my blog so you can get details later.

  43. Jo Marbran says

    It is a sensitive issue but I must speak it because it is truth. The Bible speaks about a sin in Romans 1, pertaining to homosexuality. The truth is written in His word that such people who practice such things will NOT be allowed into heaven. However, churches make a mockery of God and allow gay and lesbians participate in the church service. we now ordain lesbian and homosexual priests, worship leaders, ughhh!!! So contradictory to the word of God. But under the guise of “acceptance and equal rights for all” we allow such atrocities to be practiced in our churches. The Bible is very clear, yet we are not bold enough to stand against that and say no.
    We have compromised scripture! The Bible is truth – no compromise. His covenants and redemption are without compromise, else the cross would be made null and void. When churches decide they are going to stand up for ALL of the Bible rather than bend because of man made laws perhaps then we would be a stead increase of church attendance.
    Another is tithing. We don’t teach truth on this. Malachi is very clear on this one too.Churches wouldn’t be hurting so much financially if we all practiced this.
    And to the church who doesn’t believe in instruments in church? explain Psalm 150! Furthermore, the trumpet is going to sound and the dead in Christ shall be raised first… if you don’t believe in instruments in the church you might just miss the trumpet call of God.

    • Jeff says

      “However, churches make a mockery of God and allow gay and lesbians participate in the church service.”

      As opposed to all those other people, free from sin, who are normally the ones participating? This attitude just further serves the divisive nature of inward-thinking churching, in which only the ones who are good enough to attend (or the ones already there) are welcome.

  44. Mike says

    I read your article.

    There was a lot of crap about inner focus and not enough ministering to the people and putting more faith in God. Until you are ready to open your eyes to what’s really going on, the churches will continue to decline

    I’ll tell you exactly why I left the church. When I was in college, people portrayed Christianity as a beacon of love, acceptance, be good to each other, help people out and for the most part that’s what we did. I embraced it whole heartedly and I even started a candidacy into the United Methodist ministry.

    When I got out into the real world, I found the church to be something entirely different. It was a weapon of hate and bigotry. The former Pope referring to my niece and several of my friends as “evil” simply because they were attracted to members of the same sex. I saw the church as a political body whose only purpose was to gather money and power. Dictating how everybody, not just their church members but everybody is to live their life. Trying to dictate who people date and marry, what they should be allowed to watch on TV or in the theatres, what books are allowed to be in libraries or in book stores, what religious symbols should be allowed on govt property (the correct answer is none, by the way) and which religions shouldn’t be allowed at all. I see a church that is more outraged at gay marriage and birth control than it is about pedophile priests and guns.

    20 kids get blown away in a classroom and the Church response is pray for the victims for a moment, ok done with that let’s get back to hating gays. People homeless and starving and yet there’s always plenty of money available to build a multi-million dollar church complex. Millions of dollars spent in “lobbying” trying to keep people from getting comprehensive healthcare instead of using that money to help people who’ve gone bankrupt because of medical bills

    People see this. And they are disgusted by it. That’s the reason the church is in decline.

    They want to attract people? Focus on things Jesus really cared about like taking care of children and the poor and stop the rest of the crap. Stop insisting on influencing legislation around fairy tales and fables and actually do something that will help people.

  45. APWatchman says

    I take exception to the interpretation of this data. The issue is not inner focus versus outward focus. The issue is having a real opportunity for the “layperson” to minister to others. The “inner focus” does not consist of the Body exercising individual gifts – not necessarily the more charismatic ones, although those should be included – to one another. The “inner focus” churches are centered around the teaching ministry of one man – that is the death of the church, because the Lord is withdrawing His Spirit and His Presence from those churches. There is a new wind beginning to blow through His temple and it will turn the hearts of the His people toward real Christian life and fellowship and away from spectator Christianity. Those who are not so moved, who remain in the dying paradigm, will be turned to great error and deception.

  46. John Munson says

    An American friend posted this on his Facebook page, and reading it from a UK perspective, I found both the article and the comments very interesting and, mostly, relevant and insightful. It sounds as though some US churches are going the way many churches over here have been going for half a century or more, although I know from my visits to Texas that this isn’t true of all churches.

    I find the diagnosis that declining churches are inwardly focused is credible, though I agree that you can go too far the other way. I also agree that watering down the Gospel message to make it more palatable to contemporary secular culture is the wrong ‘solution’. The need for inspiration and renewal through the Holy Spirit cannot be doubted and would make us more biblical, not less, and more loving, not less – loving in the balanced way Scripture teaches – upward to God, inward to the church community and outward to the lost who need God’s salvation. I agree that we need to build one another up, not to become a ‘holy huddle’ but to support one another in taking the love of God outside the walls of the church to our families, friends and neighbours.

    I am sorry one or two of those who have commented have experienced a lack of love from the church, and we need to repent of that and show that when God forbids something it is not because he hates people but because he loves them and wants them to avoid harmful behaviours. We clearly need to be able to ‘give a reason for the hope that is in us’, as Peter says, and be taught how to counter the secular attempts to demolish Christian truth. I personally was brought to faith by being shown the evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was a real historical event at the same time as being shown real care and compassion at a sad time in my life following my mother’s early death from cancer.

  47. craig says

    Inward focus versus outward focus shouldn’t even be an issue in the church. While lost people should be invited to church meetings and the gospel message should be consistently taught and preached, the main focus for the meetings is for the body of Christ to build each other up primarily through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. There other certainly many other ways we serve and minister to each other, but the central focus should be on God’s Word. As the body is built up and believers grow then we can go into the world with the message of Jesus Christ. I sometimes think the church is doing this backwards. One of the ways Paul says we show ourselves approved unto God is by rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) which considering some of the comments here is going to be difficult as many don’t even believe the Bible is Word of God. The church should be marked by grace and truth. Grace will keep us from bashing the homosexual, while still expressing the truth of God’s Word that it is sin. Rightly dividing the word of truth will remind us that we are not Israel under the Law, but the church under grace. Tithing was for Israel under the Law. Paul taught grace giving for the church. What you give is between you and God and no one else’s business.

  48. Dean Monk says

    I am 84 years of age and was in business for 37 years, and when the business began to plateau or go downward, we were taught to “GO BACK TO BASICS) I see a lot of rebellion against the ways that made the church most effective & strong in our communities…….and if satan was kicked out of heaven over rebellion, we can only expect a similar response from God in our churches. We need those in authority to, “GET BACK TO BASICS”

  49. William says

    Your emphasis is worth considering for a church not growing, but for a church in decline, is not the first priority to find out why long term humble faithful members are leaving? When the sheep start to stray away because the shepherd does not minister to them with Truth and compassion, does the shepherd simply find new sheep to replace them rather than seek to find his lost sheep? Why would God bring more sheep into the fold only for them to leave from lack of care? (Ezekiel 34:2-10)

  50. says

    Reading through all of these comments, not one touched on prayer. Our churches should be houses of prayer. God builds His church, we don’t. God forgive us all of our prayerlessness and our lack of faith in You. Prayerless churches are void of God — His vision, His purpose. How can you serve God without prayer?

    • says

      I guess you miss the comment on Spiritual deadness/bankruptcy. Your absolutely Right!!! GOD Bless you sister.

      P.s. Prayer has to do with communion with GOD/ Being One with GOD. Enoch walked with GOD: He was in constant communion with GOD/ he walked with GOD

  51. mark says

    God will guide the direction of the church if they will preach His word faithfully. end of discussion.

  52. David says

    The decline of the church is in large part because it has disconnected from its power source. How many churches still have a regular weekly prayer meeting? Of those that do, what amount of that time do they actually spend praying? And of the time praying, how much of it is for the health and success of those present or their extended family or friends?
    God created humans so He would have someone to have relationship with. He loves us so very, very much. What does our actions say about how much we love Him, and the importance of spending time with Him.
    His rules serve two primary purposes. To protect us from harm. And to keep us away from things that would get in the way of fellowship with Him.
    There is nothing so attractive, so honorable, as the person who spends time with the creator of the universe. If you have ever experienced God’s love and acceptance (like at first repentance), you know exactly what I mean.

  53. says

    I think I would turn it around a bit and instead of saying “an inward focus”, say “a focus on anything but Christ’s mission”, because although a church isn’t acting as the church if it is inwardly focused, a church can be outward focused and still not be any better off. A church needs to determine what Christ has called their particular gathering of believers to do in the world and do it. It is tantamount to doing random acts of kindness instead of the intentional good works that Christ has prepared for us to do.

  54. Ken Coit says

    “I know many church leaders are discouraged.” Sure they are. I know church leaders who have taken vibrant congregations and created enough internal chaos, one parishioner at a time, to turn the effusive outward energy inward. The leaders are not blameless when it is leadership and coaching have been replaced with fear and hate. Toxic leaders force the energy to be focused inwardly in an attempt to rid the parish of the disease. It is natural to do that. Our physical bodies do the same, force rest and repair. What is not natural is to appoint leaders who can’t lead and let them remain while their toxicity grows..

  55. says

    Hard to argue with research. With my 50+ years of church experience I would have to agree as well. Looking at the discussion regarding this article, and articles like this one, I always get a little dismayed. We need to find a balance in our churches. Obviously, being outwardly focused is important for church growth and individual growth to occur, but we also need to grow inwardly and in our relationship with God and others. The healthiest churches I have been a part of have had both.

  56. Rick Brown says

    I am tremendously discouraged having ministered for 19 years in churches that are described with uncanny accuracy in this article. I have become so disenfranchised that I went back to school, obtained a teaching license and have decided no longer to give myself full-time to churches that do not care about their communities. I will move this summer for the first time in 14 years of full-time ministry to a secular job teaching English in high school. I am convinced that one must start a church if he is to be successful in moving people to reach their communities for Christ. To take an established church that is largely a social club and try to make it a Great Commission station where the core seeks to become more like Christ and seeks to fill the world with people who are becoming more like Christ is an exercise of futility and indescribable frustration.
    Thank you Thom for this article. A lot of guys are out there like myself who appreciate someone indicating that perhaps the problem is not with the pastor as much as it is with the people.

    • Mike says

      Well, I know this is an old post but actually the purpose of the organized church IS inward focus. That is why we are told not to forsake the assembling. When this was written Christians needed to gather to support and lift each other up, and study the fundamentals of the faith, and hear the apostles tell the story of Jesus and how we are to follow in His footsteps. We still need the same thing that was needed 2000 years ago. THEN the church is to share the gospel with the community. That is the outward focus portion. Most of the issue with declining churches is they are more interested in appealing to the world than preaching the Gospel an rightly dividing the Word. We don’t don’t want to call sin – “sin.” We want to make everyone feel good. Feeling good doesn’t lead people to Jesus and He is the only answer to the declining church issue.

  57. says

    My first pastor regularly said the key to a healthy church was “genuine Christlike love and sound doctrine.”

    The comments are interesting. With so many different churches and communities, there is unlikely to be any one cause for all declining churches. So we have many different answers. Some might even be right, in a particular context! But there is One who knows “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” if we have the courage to ask in humility.

    We are passing through a time of extremely rapid cultural change. Cultural Christianity–Christendom–appears to be dying in America, as it died in Europe 50-100 years ago. The time is coming, and already is, in the Northeast and along the Pacific Coast, where the only people who bother to attend church meetings are believers–people who actually believe that the tomb was empty on the Sunday after Passover. This may be true in the South as well, before long.

    We will be left with numerically much smaller churches but, hopefully, a remnant of the Spirit-filled, love-even-your-enemies faithful, living as a body, some serving evangelists, some serving within the body, but all with an outward focus–outward relative to themselves as individuals, grateful sinners given a new life by grace through faith, with no room left for pride. As I understand it, that’s outward focus–dying to self and putting on Christ.

    Of the remnant, I say *hopefully*, because we are also going through a period where we are trying to keep Christendom alive in the wider culture by allying ourselves with powerful political forces and trying to get the right laws passed and the right people elected. Never mind that there was once a nation with a perfect law for the time, given by God Himself, and that law could not save that nation. It’s becoming apparent that this “alliance with Egypt to save us from Assyria” has changed the churches a lot more than it’s changed the culture. When it comes to wealth, poverty, and care of God’s creation, we tend to think a lot more like our so-called allies than we think according to our God and His Word.

    Church history (of which most Americans are largely ignorant, at our peril), shows that there were large periods of time where the vast majority of the churches got it very, very wrong. We may be in one of those periods. In one hundred years, if Christ has not returned, the survivors may be wondering, “What on earth were they thinking?”

    If there is any hope, it is that God is faithful, and that He always preserves His remnant. I doubt my own ability to discern whether I’m part of it, but by His Grace, may I be found to be.

  58. says

    I’m an extremely outward focused pastor in an outward focused church though we are in decline. Could it be that because there are 89 churches in my community of 19,000 representing 13 different denominations that this could be the reason. The money and people have gravitated toward two large predominate churches that are primarily inward focused. Do you see the picture. Very sad.

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