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It’s not a pleasant topic.

But if we don’t talk about dying churches, we will act like there are no problems. As I wrote in Breakout Churches, the first stage for any church to reverse negative trends is awareness or, stated another way, confronting the brutal realities.

Somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 churches in America will close their doors in the next year. And many of them die because they refuse to recognize problems before they became irreversible.

So, it is with both sorrow and great love for local churches that I share a pattern that is increasingly common. I call it “the six stages of a dying church.”

  1. Denial. The church is declining numerically, but no one seems concerned. Fewer people are reached with the gospel, but no alarm sounds. The church’s impact on the community is negligible, but life continues in the church like nothing has happened.
  2. Recalibration. There is a sense that something’s wrong in the church, so the church responds in one of two ways. Do more of what we are doing that has proven ineffective. Or, secondly, seek a “magic bullet” program, emphasis, or new pastor. The church does not really want to change; it just thinks it needs an adjustment.
  3. Anger. Church leaders and members begin to recognize that the magic bullet did not reverse the negative trends, so they deflect the blame. It’s the denomination’s fault. It’s those young people who don’t respect the way we’ve always done it. It’s the messed-up culture. It’s the people in our community who stopped attending churches. The anger in these churches is palpable.
  4. Exodus. The church had been losing members gradually to this point, but now the outflow increases. And even those who don’t officially leave attend less frequently. The worship center is desolate on Sunday mornings. The anger in the church moves to demoralization.
  5. Desperation. For the first time since the dying process began, the remaining members say they are more open to new ideas and change. But their words are more words of desperation than conviction. They now see the handwriting on the wall. Their church will soon die.
  6. Death. The church becomes another sad and tragic statistic. At best, the church deeds its property to a healthy church. The process from denial to death in the recent past would take as many as thirty years. Today, the process is much shorter, ten years or less.

Churches have broken free from the death stages, but they are rare. And the longer the church waits to make substantive changes, the more difficult it becomes to reverse the path. It’s significantly easier to make changes at stage one than stage four.

Also, keep in mind that nearly nine out of ten of the churches that die are in communities that are growing.

The problem is not a shortage of people. The problem is a shortage of courage, commitment, and sacrifice.

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Gregory Williams

commented on Aug 18, 2017

I do not necessarily agree, people left Jesus, so people leaving the church does not stop the call of God on your life, you may not pastor a mega church, but the real church is in you Jesus change the world with 12 disciples, a successful church is not a church that's has hundreds or thousand of people, a successful church understands the importance of obedience to Gods word and understanding sowing seeds and the word of God is the seed.

Fred Becker

commented on Aug 19, 2017

it is one thing to have a small church. it is another to have a church that can't pay the electric bill. After watching a small church go down to 2-3 people a week, no pastor pay for 3 years, and pastor paying for upkeep on the building, it was time to go. The church was dying and the few members blamed the people of the town. They refused to change anything about themselves or the church. A church doesn't need to be big but it must be viable.

Clarence Lawson

commented on Aug 20, 2017

Gregory, Not every church is like the church he mentions above... but there are some of those.. Somewhere between 7000 and 10000 churches will close next year... Very many new churches will be planted. The problem is, today not many denominations are keeping up with all the closings. I pastor a church that has been slowly turning around. Churches that operate using a 1940's model just will not keep up. It's not a matter of changing the message. The message remains the same. I do believe however, if we do not minister to our culture many churches will continue dying. The way of growth is all around us in churches that are spiritually and culturally relevant. They are still winning souls and adding them to the their Church. Churches that do not change tend to still win some souls, but after they come to Christ, they sometimes find a more relevant church to their needs and move to other churches. A church in trouble might also find that their youth are attending other youth groups and activities and their young parents are moving to churches who have prioritized Children's ministry and have a church where the Children really want to attend. A 1940s auto is beautiful... but its an antique and not really as relevant as it once was. It's not the message bro. Jesus is lifted up in the dying church. He is worshiped and the work of God is preached. These things are also true in the growing church. The difference is that the growing church has found a way to close the back door and they have found ways to minister to todays needs. It's not a matter of desire. All churches want to grow. Some study the difference in growth and life of a church and others just wait for the church to die.

Willie Sweat Jr

commented on Aug 21, 2017


Tom Furer

commented on Aug 19, 2017

Now that you've shown the signs of a dying church......we need to see how to reverse the process. My wife and I go to a small church, 25-30, but we've seen a small bump up in kids coming recently, but overall, it's been somewhat stagnant over the last few years. I can relate to those signs, though, but need the info to reverse hem.

Jim Ressegieu

commented on Aug 23, 2017

When I came to my church fresh out of seminary at 61 years of age we had about 60 attending on a usual Sunday. I didn't realize it then but we only had about 5-7 children who attended Sunday school somewhat regularly, but we had mature adults who were committed to the church and we had a good presence in the town. Well, last Sunday we had 12 in the pews. Over the years of my tenure I've had about 40 committal services at the cemetery just a mile down the road. The kids went to Confirmation and it was like they had an agreement with their parents--we'll go to Confirmation and then we are done with church. Of about 13 confirmands in two classes there are zero who are a part of any church now to my knowledge. I'm retiring at the end of September, and the few remaining are thrashing around trying to find someone to come to preach to them on Sundays. I left a very successful corporate training position when I felt called in my late 50's to ministry and the seminary...I preached the gospel, I visited the sick, I listened to their issues but I'm afraid it is all for naught and I'm sad.

Mandy Harris

commented on Aug 30, 2017

I would be glad of anyone's comment on the following. "Churches" have maybe become self-focused, self-absorbed, maybe self-indulgent. I know that when Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to His followers, that wonderful power from on high, He said they would become witnesses unto Him! At Pentecost, that is what happened, With that great coming of the Holy Spirit, believers glorified God and it was understood by those present and hearing. It was also explained to them from scriptures, ( so no unexplained "experientialism" there.) The church was wonderfully added to. Later in scripture we discover that the gifts of the Holy Spirit and ministries given to the church were not just for people to get blessed. Everything "given" was to be building them up. Its clear that God intended to equip not just one or two, perhaps in leadership positions, but wanted to build up the "members" to bring glory to God , to be powerful witnesses and for the church to thus be added to. Its difficult to generalize and I know people are sincere, some struggling. But God has had the "bigger more wonderful picture". Have we in our churches lost that ? Not easy to put into words but I hope you get my meaning.

Jonathan Spurlock

commented on Aug 22, 2022

The author didn't mention a few other possibilities. Some churches that closed are in rural areas where people don''t live any more. Overall the Christian community has listened to the world in saying "you should only have two or fewer children" when families used to be larger--and please don't give me that Malthusian claptrap about population versus food supply. Second, and I've found this to be true in my own church community, people are willing to drive upwards of an hour to attend an almost professional quality presentation (choir, quartet, instruments beyond piano and/or organ) rather than attend a local (as in five minute or so drive) in town. The bigger churches don't seem to stop wanting to grow bigger and we working in small churches, in small communities, keep praying, plowing, and sharing hoping a crop comes in. Bottom line: if people don't want to attend church, they'll find a reason. Or an excuse.

Pieter Rousseau

commented on Aug 22, 2022

It is evident from the article and most of the comments that, we have left the Biblical understanding of what the Church is! What is being described here is more some sort of club membership competing for the support and loyalty of patrons. Obviously if you lack the money and leadership this endeavour will fail to keep them from the rich worldly pleasures and wealthy charismatic church-clubs who can stimulate people better. This is not Church! His Church is a glorious victorious, adored and adorned, blood bought, Holy Ghost Gifted, God Governed, Devil despised, kingdom conquering… BODY of faith filled, self-sacrificing, cross carrying, daily dying, brother-loving, Christ in-dwelt saints! She is the building project of Christ himself and the Prevailer against the gates of hell (Mat 16:18-19)… She is the body of Christ, the fullness of him that fills all in all. (Eph 1:23), she is the glorious church, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but holy and without blemish (Eph 5:27): She is the pillar and ground of Truth (1 Tim 3:15)... Our failure to be that is in no ways her true state or identity, it OUR failure to be what we ought to be… But it is absolutely clear from the article and comments, that we see Church primarily as an event that happens once a week, at a specific place at a specific time, where the five-fold ministry of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher is equipping people to be a better Christians so that you can get a better spot in heaven. That false vision of church is nothing more than club membership with operations funded by patrons' monthly contribution called a tithe. In recent time of prayer interceding for my "absent friends" who left "church" altogether because of hurt or worldly pursuits, I had a picture of the current state of God's people, as that of the Levite's Concubine (Num 19-21): ravaged, butchered and dismembered. I asked God in prayer what is the biggest problem with the Church: the answer came like a slap in the face: I am... Lord, have mercy!

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