With all the talk of dying churches, it’s reasonable to wonder what the fate of your own church might be. After all, thousands of American churches are closing every year, evidenced in a recent article headlined: “Will your church be alive in 10 years?”
Clergy and lay leaders alike might assume that dying churches pass quickly and that the tale will be told in a decade’s time. My observation is that churches die much more slowly than that. Yes, some churches that are open today will be closed in 10 years, but many churches that are dying today will not be closed in 10 years; they’ll just be closer to death.
One of the problems is that church members and church leaders are notoriously bad at reading the signs of illness and impending death in a congregation. All of us inside a church are biased, unobjective diagnosticians. We bring our own prejudices of hope or dismay to the question.
“Church members and church leaders are notoriously bad at reading the signs of illness and impending death in a congregation.”
For example, longtime members who oppose the pastor or the current ideology of their church often will warn that the congregation is headed toward certain doom because of the things they don’t like. To be fair, from their worldview, decline is inevitable because they assume everyone else will be turned away by what bothers them.
On the other hand, the very nature of church leadership more often demands unrealistic optimism. Every church believes it is bound to turn the corner: “If we can just reach young families again.” “If we can call a dynamic pastor.” “If we change our worship style.” “If we renovate the aging building.”
Both of these biases — the doom-and-gloom and the if-only optimism — usually are rooted in comparison to other “successful” congregations or in one’s own past church experiences. Neither perspective allows objective analysis.
Trying to emulate successful megachurches is no sure fix. Barna research shows that as of 2016, “almost half of American churchgoers (46 percent) attend a church of 100 or fewer members. More than one-third (37 percent) attend a midsize church of over 100, but not larger than 499. One in 11 (9 percent) attends a church with between 500 and 999 attenders, and slightly fewer (8 percent) attend a very large church of 1,000 or more attendees.”
Make sure you caught that last line: Only 8 percent of American churchgoers attend congregations of more than 1,000 in weekly attendance. Eight percent. Yet the churches attended by 8 percent of Christians are held up as the models for every other church to emulate in order not to die.
“Being small is not a prescription for death; being in decline is a prescription for death.”
The evangelical researcher Thom Rainer says 61 percent of American churches have fewer than 100 members. Many of these small churches are in a death spiral, but it is not the size of the congregation that creates the trajectory toward death. Statistically, it is a shorter path for a small church to reach zero than for a large church. America always has been a nation of small and mid-size churches. Being small is not a prescription for death; being in decline is a prescription for death.
Which brings us back to the original question: How can you know if your church will be alive in 10 years? The answer is rooted not in what your church will do 10 years hence but in the decisions you make today and tomorrow and next year. Most churches that die make a series of ill-fated decisions that pile up one after another. Seldom is one bad decision the death knell.
Gauging your own church’s life expectancy requires at least three things:
- Objectivity. Set aside your pet peeves and gripes as well as your adoration of the past, and take the perspective of an outsider. Get expert help from a consultant, if needed.
- Honesty. Consider the last five or so major decisions your congregation has made and honestly ask whether they led to net growth or decline, to health or dysfunction. For example, if the last five pastors you’ve hired didn’t work out, it’s likely the problem is not with all five pastors. And if the last three new programs you started didn’t work out, why didn’t they? (By the way, if you can’t think of the last five major decisions your congregation has made, that could be a sign of the root problem itself.)
- Creativity. Churches die because their purpose dies. Simply trying to copy some other church’s purpose will not resurrect your church. But finding out what unique place your congregation might play in the current economy of God’s kingdom could. Ask yourself this question: “What is one thing our church has to offer that no other church in our community offers?” Find your place, find your passion, and pursue it. That is the way to life.
It is possible for large churches to die just as surely as small churches die. It just takes longer for large churches to die. But the path to the church graveyard is the same: one bad decision after another.