Please forgive me for the morbid and depressing title and content. I don’t think posts such as these encourage many of you.
I guess the impetus for writing such an article is the work I am doing to finish my next book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I have dealt a lot with the death of churches in my research and writing for that book.
Before I go further, let me define a dying church. A dying church is a congregation that will close its doors within 20 years if it continues its current trajectory. “Trajectory” includes many variables such as attendance, financial giving, demographic trends, and age of members.
Why would I include such a long period of 20 years in the definition? Simply put, churches hang on to life tenaciously. The members, despite how few remain, are highly reticent to close the doors of the church.
According to my estimates, about one in four American churches, or around 100,000 churches, fit the definition of a dying church. My estimates seem to have been confirmed with a recent study by LifeWay Research. The research team conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors.* One of the response statements the team asked the pastors was: “I am concerned that the church where I am serving is dying.” Here are the responses:
- Strongly agree: 7%
- Somewhat agree: 15%
- Somewhat disagree: 19%
- Strongly disagree: 58%
So 22 percent of the pastors either strongly or somewhat agree that their churches are dying. That number is close to my own estimates of 25 percent. I would further postulate that another 25 percent of churches are struggling, and could move to the “dying” category easily.
If one-fourth of churches are dying, and if another one-fourth of the churches are struggling, how can we discern signs of these problems before it’s too late? May I suggest five questions you can ask?
- Has worship attendance declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
- Has budget giving declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
- Does my church look more like the community or less like the community than ten years ago?
- Are church conflicts significantly more frequent today than past years?
- Is your church’s budget decreasing its focus on reaching and ministering to others beyond the church?
Of course, these questions are not infallible indicators. They should, however, give a good indication if your church is directionally headed toward dying or not.
The good news is that a number of churches, tens of thousand, are moving from death or decline to growth and life. I would love to hear from people in those churches.
What will it take to reverse the trends in dying churches? What has your church done to reverse that trend, or is your church firmly set to close its doors within the next several years?
*LifeWay Research conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors from September 4, 2013 to September 9, 2013. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor or minister. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational groups of Protestant churches. The completed sample provides a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.1%.
Thom S. Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.