Preaching Articles

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.

church is going extinct

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.

If you want to go deeper, listen in on my conversation with Thom Rainer who outlines some other characteristics he sees in dying churches. You can listen on iTunes here .

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.

Other Signs?

Those are 11 signs I see that a congregation might be going extinct.

* If your church is ready for new ideas and new team members, post a ministry job at!

In addition to serving as Lead Pastor at Connexus Community Church north of Toronto Canada, Carey Nieuwhof speaks at conferences and churches throughout North America on leadership, family, parenting and personal renewal.

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Talk about it...

Tony Bland

commented on Sep 12, 2015

very good job

Dan O'' Donnell

commented on Sep 13, 2015

Thanks for the insight, Carey. BTW, I enjoy your podcast. It always provides me with new ideas in ministry.

Rev. Mike Allred

commented on Sep 13, 2015

Based on this list, and many more like it that I have read, the church I pastor should have closed its doors 10 years ago, ministers like myself have wasted my time, and the membership doesn't deserve to continue. The Pragmatic Modern American Church: Move up, or move out.

John Gullick

commented on Sep 13, 2015

Excellent article - very helpful. One thing I hav e noticed about transfer growth here in our own church. People come from other places and God changes them here. Some get converted. I believe that transfer growth if seen as a mission field not padding your numbers can actually be a mission. Shouldn't be your only one though!

Jim Ressegieu

commented on Apr 12, 2016

I'm serving a church that will probably be extinct within 2-3 years. They have withdrawn inward...the board members have an average of less than 50 attendance at worship services and they are the "leadership." There are no children and no young adults--a "young" member is late 50's something. My church has all eleven issues on the list--there are three churches in this small town and all of them together couldn't bring 150 people to a worship service on most Sundays. It's as if the town is "allergic" to churches--nice people but not interested in church.

Jim Ressegieu

commented on Apr 12, 2016

I t should read 50 percent attendance...

Vicky Postelmans

commented on Apr 17, 2016

Hello, I grew up a PK and so I have been in church most of my life. What I have seen is the church becoming "luke warm" and it's not from a lack of money, programs,etc. It's because we have replaced the important things like really loving one another, sharing one anothers burdens, pastors getting to know their people individually and "a form of godliness but denying the power thereof". The church used to pray a lot more, rely on and wait on the spirit. They used to have "the gifts of the spirit" and move in them. God hasn't changed, the Bible hasn't changed. People have changed. I no longer see or feel these things. I had a Pastor call me after two or three years to wish me a happy birthday and he had no clue that I had quit coming 2 or 3 years earlier. People don't need a church that patterns itself and it's business and program practices like the world. They need the same things they have always needed through out the centuries.

David Jennys

commented on Apr 17, 2016

Here's another reason: getting rid of your pastor when the pastor speaks of seeking God's vision to revitalize the church. I was canned recently by my parish board because I "wasn't a good fit for the parish." They apparently preferred continued decline over renewal, death over life.

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