“Where did everyone go?”
A business executive asked that question when she returned to her church after some extended international travels. In the four weeks she was out, the attendance at the church had declined from nearly 600 to under 400. The attendance had plummeted in that short time by 35 percent!
To be clear, such rapid declines are aberrations. Most declining churches go through incremental, not dramatic, reductions.
We consider a church to be in dramatic decline when the average worship attendance drops by 20 percent or more in three months or less. What causes such unusual declines? Here are seven common reasons:
- A scandal in the church. The two most common are sexual and financial scandals. Either of those can cause immediate erosion of trust and send members out the door.
- Sudden departure of a pastor or staff person. I am familiar with a church where the average attendance dropped from 1,250 to 850 in just a few weeks when a malevolent power group in the church forced the pastor out. The congregation never heard a reasonable reason for the departure because there was none. The church has not recovered.
- Closure or decline of a major employer. Some communities are highly dependent on one or a few employers. When any one of those employers close, people who are members of churches in the community will often depart rather quickly. I saw this reality transpire many times during the great recession and when several military bases closed.
- The church changes its position on a major biblical/moral issue. When a church makes a major doctrinal shift, many members often exit quickly. That exit is often exacerbated if the doctrinal change is related to a moral issue.
- A power group continues to wreak havoc in a church. The story is not uncommon. The same power group opposes any change again and again. Pastoral tenure declines due to the leaders’ frustration with this group. At some point a large group in the church declares, “enough,” and departs en masse.
- Another church moves close by. The new church or newly located church offers ministries and programs the affected church does not have. Often these ministries are particularly appealing to families who still have children at home. Those families move to the new church to try to keep their children interested and excited about church life.
- A highly contentious business meeting. These churches have typically experienced conflict for some time. The conflict comes to a boiling point in a business meeting. Large numbers leave due to anger, weariness, or both.
Admittedly, this level of decline is not common, but I am seeing it more frequently. It is my prayer that these seven reasons can also serve as seven warning signs.
It is incredibly difficult for any church to recover fully from such a massive exodus.