Churches are dying. Today, at least ten churches will die. Today, fifty pastors will resign or retire. As a whole, the church appears to be on the decline. Fifty years ago, so the aged saints intone, churches were exploding with growth. People were heading down the aisles in droves to get saved; crowds would stand outside the open windows just to hear the preaching; the church was sending new missionaries overseas nearly every week. But as the decades rolled on, the church quieted down. And now, in a cavernous auditorium with a capacity of 600+, there are 34 people in attendance on any given Sunday morning. The church, it would seem, is dying.
There’s no question about it. A lot of churches are ebbing away into oblivion. When we use the word “dying,” it can be easy to get emotional, defensive, or morose. Death is nearly always perceived as a negative thing. And churches? Why, they should never die! While it is true that the Church universal will never die and can never die, local manifestations of the church (i.e.,the church visible, local churches) may come and go. Death is a normal part of organizational life cycle. Now, don’t lose me here, but I’m going to use a graph below. Don’t worry, it won’t be too technical. Here’s what a church life cycle often looks like.
The bell curve is a helpful tool for understanding church life cycles. There are many variations on the church-life-cycle bell curve. For example, some churches may have an extended plateau period at some point in the bell curve, often at the peak. Other times, a church may get close to the bottom of the curve, then suddenly experience an unusual upsurge of growth and activity. As a whole, however, the standard bell curve serves as a helpful picture for the typical church life cycle.
Your church is somewhere on the path of the bell curve, along with whatever various emendations your curve may portray. Where are you? Are you enjoying the nascent church plant on an upward surge? Are you at the pinnacle of growth and success? Is your church at the nadir—the end of a death march toward elimination?
It would be worth asking a few questions about this life cycle trend. First, why do churches die? Second, a qualitative question: is it a good thing or a bad thing? Finally, should we save dying churches or just let them bite the dust?
Why Churches Die
If you were to answer the question, “Why does a church die?” your answer would probably have something to do with the people in that church. People drift. People stray. People rebel. People move away. People age. Etc., etc. These things are true, and often regrettable for their church. However, neither the individuals nor their actions are always to blame for the demise of a church. Church decline is usually not a demographic phenomenon, such as an aging congregation. Often there are deeper events taking place—currents, trends, and shifts—that lead a church toward death. The following list focuses on the negative reasons why churches die. (I am indebted to Thom and Sam Rainer and their book Essential Church, for the concepts behind the following points.)
- No commitment to sound doctrine. This is a perennial danger to the church, and it has been ever since the day the church began. In fact, all throughout the New Testament, we read warnings, corrections, and advice to defend the church from false doctrine. The problem today is that churches jettison doctrine in lieu of relevance. Relevance, whatever it is, may be good (provided that we properly define “relevance.”). But too often, doctrine is sacrificed on the alter of relevance, and that is not good. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:15, “the church of the living God [is] a pillar and buttress of the truth.” The church exist because of doctrine. When a church departs from doctrine, it loses its identity. It will die.
- Lack of great commission obedience. Most churches pay their token obeisance to the importance of evangelism, but when it comes right down to it, they aren’t doing a thing. These churches are short-circuiting their own growth. True church growth doesn’t result from an influx of disaffected parishioners transferring from the church down the street because of a change in worship styles. Missions or evangelism is the mission of the church. Without it, the church is done for.
- Inward focus. Sometimes, the church morphs into a sanctified social club–a place where people can come to connect on an emotional level, hide from the culture, and to get their so-called “batteries charged” for the week. In inward-focused churches, programs sprout up like dandelions in a weed-infested yard. They take up resources, time, commitment, attention, and personnel. But these programs are more designed to keep the people happy than to fulfill the mission of the church, which is to make disciples. What happens? The church begins to decline.
- Resistance to change. Change is not all bad. However, some churches remain firmly entrenched in the traditions of a bygone era. They cling to such practices, thinking that the old traditions are nearly as important as the gospel itself. Obviously, any church that is tenacious about its doctrine is to be commended for staunch orthodoxy. However, a church that fails to understand and apply the Bible to today’s generation is to be confronted for its lack of careful application. Biblical change is necessary, and it is the only way to prevent a church, surrounded by the cultural accoutrements of last century, from dying.
- A love of comfort. We love comfort and safety. If you were to take a sampling of all the prayers in any given day, you would probably hear the phrases “keep him safe,” “traveling mercies,” and “hedge of protection” quite a few times. Our fixation on comfort and safety spills over into our church life. People are loathe to move from their pew and make forays beyond their comfort zone. We neglect to reach out to ‘dirty’ people, because we love our squeaky-clean comfort more than we love lost souls. Churches whose congregants idolize comfort are churches that will surely decline.
- Abuse of leadership. When a man tastes power, it can corrupt him, even if that “power” comes in the package of pastoral position. Many times, the pastor exercises a form of control that takes him way out of the bounds of Scriptural authority. Such abusive leadership is an affront to the purity of the church. Churches with power-mongering pastors are dangerous churches. Such a church is not healthy, even if it exhibits signs of growth and success. Eventually, such a church will die.
- Failure to follow. Pastors are not the only ones who bear the blame. Often, church members themselves refuse to listen, heed, and follow their God-ordained leadership. The omnipotent Deacon Board controls many churches with the same level of abusive power that is sometimes vested in one man. A coterie of special-interest members or even a large family network in the church can defy God’s plan for the church to be a congregation of growing Christians, each mutually submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21) and pursuing unity (Eph. 4:13).
When it comes right down to it, churches don’t die because all the young people have moved away or because it ran out of money. Those secondary reasons fall short of the core reasons why churches die. Often, the cause of death can be attributed to some level of shortcoming in the church itself.
So, it is a good thing or bad thing?
Now, for the qualitative question. When a church begins to die, is it a good thing or bad thing? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on why the church is dying. When a church exhibits the sins listed above, it may need to die. Such a church may be more of a canker in the body of Christ than it is a contributor to the cause of the Kingdom. Let it die! However, a more strategic approach would be to rescue such churches from decline. To do so is not easy. Such a rescue operation can rarely be performed by an outside party who is determined to “come in and clean this place up.” God-given revival is needed. Revivals are not best accomplished by the professional ‘revivalist’ who comes in, blows up, and leaves. Although God can use such ministries, he has appointed pastor-teachers with the role of equipping the saints (Eph 4:11-13). For a bad church to die is a good thing. But for a bad church to become good is an even better thing.
Does Your Church Need to Die?
So, what about your church? Where is it? Should it die? Consider the issue from a strategic standpoint, not an emotional one. Accept the fact that death is part of an organization’s life cycle. Realize that the death of a church can free up trapped resources, such as money or a building facility. Realize that the death of a church may prevent further damage to people who are suffering under abusive leadership or diminished doctrine. Realize, however, that there is an alternative to simply letting a church wither away and die. Change is possible. Although this article is not intended to deal with the how-to of rescuing declining churches, there are a few basic pointers that you must keep in mind:
- Fervently carry out the great commission.
- Faithfully teach the Bible.
- Carefully contextualize the message.
- Diligently defend your flock.
But now that the worm can has been pried open, there are more questions than answers. When is a church worth saving, and when should it die? What are the advantages to leaving a ministry to die versus starting anew? Should we join struggling or even apostate churches in order to resuscitate them? Should denominations take on the role of saving their member churches? These are tough questions, leaving us with tough decisions, and emphasizing our need for God-given wisdom, biblically-defined strategies, and Spirit-dependent strength.
Thanks to Marshall Shannon of Ministry Design Concepts, and Andrew Warde of Kingdom Conquests for the scintillating conversations over lunch and/or coffee, leading to some of the concepts and/or questions in this article. They are not responsible for anything that you disagree with.