In all the conversation among church leaders about the future of the church and declining attendance, the question remains, how’s your church doing?
Sometimes that can be difficult to discern.
Unless you’re in a free fall right now, it can be hard to know whether your congregation will thrive, survive or take a dive in the next decade.
But like most things in life, there are signs right now that will point to the direction in which you’re headed.
And if you can know now, why wait?
I am a firm believer that The Church (capital C Church) will survive and even thrive, but it will look different than it does now.
But in the meantime, amidst a rapidly changing culture, many individual congregations are endangered species. They could easily become extinct.
Change always brings dislocation, death and renewal. Personally, I want as many churches as possible to be on the side of renewal.
And that starts with an honest assessment of where you are as a church today.
I believe there are signs you can observe today that will tell you whether your church is going extinct.
These signs are quick gut checks that you can assess easily that will hopefully lead to deeper conversation and change.
11 Signs Your Church Is Going Extinct
If your church is showing one or two of these signs, some change is in order to optimally position your congregation for the future.
If it’s showing more than half of the signs, then in my view there’s some serious work to be done. If it’s showing most or all of the signs, it’s time for some prayerful and radical repentance and reinvention before it’s too late.
1. No sense of urgency
Growing churches have an exceptional sense of urgency. Stagnant and declining churches don’t.
If every Sunday is just another Sunday—and you don’t have a burning sense that lives and eternity hang in the balance—then you’ve lost the edge that all great churches, preachers and movements share.
2. Urgency about the wrong things
It’s not that dying churches don’t have any sense of urgency. In fact, they will often feel urgency about two things: the budget and survival.
If your motive for growth is financial, you should probably close your doors or open your heart. Unchurched people can smell it a mile away when you see them as simply a means to an end.
Resources and people follow vision. If your only vision is to stay afloat, the end is near.
3. Decline has made you cautious
Growing churches take risks. Stagnant or declining churches don’t.
Churches that aren’t growing often end up in preservation mode—they try to converse what little they already have rather than risk it to grow again.
This is a critical mistake.
Ask yourself, when was the last time we took a real risk? If you can’t answer that, you’re far too cautious.
4. Success has made you cautious
It’s not just stagnation or decline that makes leaders cautious, success does it too.
Sometimes you become so successful you become afraid to break the formula. So you become cautious. You stop innovating. You risk little.
The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success.
5. Your affection for the past is greater than your excitement for the future
Stuck or declining churches are nostalgic churches. They remember when everything was amazing, which clearly isn’t today.
To figure this out, listen to the way people talk. Is there an excitement for what’s next, or mostly a longing for what was?
When your affection for the past is greater than your excitement for the future, you’re in trouble.
6. You don’t understand the changing culture
Stagnant and declining churches often see a gap develop between them and the culture.
Because nothing has changed in a decade—or several decades—the world is seen at best as something they don’t understand, or at worst, as an enemy.
Outsiders who come in see a church like that as, at best, quaint, and more likely as irrelevant and misguided.
Jesus loved the world enough to die for it. The church should love the world enough to reach it.
7. You haven’t got new leaders around the table
Look around you. Are most of the people on your team the same people who were there five years ago?
I’m not advocating for high turnover in staff, but in far too many churches there is no plan to renew leadership.
Churches who position themselves for future impact intentionally integrate new voices and new leaders around the table. I try to keep a balance of established, trusted voices and new voices around our table.
If all the people around your table are the same as 5 years ago, you might just all be 5 years older, not 5 years better.
8. You mostly listen to the voices of current members
When you make decisions, who are you listening to?
Hopefully, (naturally) to the voice of God and to scripture.
But when it comes to human voices…whose wins the day?
Too often, the voice of current church members drowns out the voice of the unchurched people you’re trying to reach.
In fact, smart church leaders will intentionally hang out with unchurched people and bring their voice to the table. How you do that is up to you. That you do it is critical.
9. Your conflict is about all the wrong things
There will always be some level of conflict whenever human beings gather, so what’s your conflict about?
Dying churches spend their energy fighting each other and fighting change.
Growing churches spend their energy fighting for new opportunities to reach unchurched people and speaking up for the change that will impact their lives.
10. Any growth you have is transfer growth
But wait, some will say, we’re growing. We had some new members last year!
That’s awesome. But who are you reaching?
If your growth is mostly transfer growth, you’re pulling from an ever-smaller pool of people.
If you’re reaching unchurched people with little or no church background, the future is much brighter.
11. The core team is not fundamentally healthy
How does your leadership get along?
Do you like hanging out with each other? Do you resolve conflict directly, quickly and effectively?
Are you growing in your faith and in your skill set?
Are you living in a way today-physically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally—that will help you thrive tomorrow?
Are you aligned around a common mission, vision and strategy? (Here are five things North Point has taught me about team alignment.)
If you can answer yes to most of those questions, you’re healthy.
If not, there’s some work to do.
But here’s the truth: health at the top is health at the bottom. Dysfunction at the top is dysfunction at the bottom.
If you want a healthy church, grow a healthy leadership team.
Those are 11 signs I see that a congregation might be going extinct.
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