See no evil

3 Reactions to Church Decline

The American church is in trouble. (But don’t tell anybody.)

That’s one way to “manage” the compounding news that the church as we know it is shrinking and losing its impact. Since releasing our book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore I’ve noticed three general reactions to the current state of the church.

1. DENIAL. Some people refuse to believe or accept the trends. Or they attempt to deceive their people. For example, the pastor of a small, struggling, traditional church wrote this in his church’s newsletter this month: “Traditional churches have not suffered major declines in attendance.” That statement is breathtaking in its untruthfulness, especially knowing that this pastor wrote that line inside a church that has seen its attendance drop by 90 percent over the years. The facts of church decline have been well reported in research, articles and books–not to mention the observable evidence all around us.

2. PARALYSIS. Many church leaders and members recognize the problem. They often realize numerous things they could try to improve their situations. But they choose to do nothing. Some wallow in grief and sadness, unable or unwilling to deal with their losses and disappointments. Some are bewildered by their choices. Some hope against hope that circumstances will magically turn around on their own. Some fear change of any kind. Some fret that any change will cause someone to get upset and leave, or trim their tithe. Some just sit still, praying that they can ride out the deterioration until they retire.

3. CHANGE. Some actually see the problem, own it, and step forward to fix it. They embrace change, even though it often makes them uncomfortable. Rather than desperately trying to defend the past, they tend to look forward. The successful change agents are not changing God’s message, but they’re exploring different methods to spread the message, to be more effective stewards with the gifts God has given.

Fortunately, fewer people lurk in the DENIAL camp these days. But you can still find them everywhere–in dying churches as well as growing ones. Some fear that acknowledging overall church decline might implicate them, that they or their cherished methods may be responsible for some of the decline. And that’s too unsettling to accept. So, they often use their bully pulpits in an attempt to anesthetize their people into ignoring the obvious. They seem to think that if they can convince their people that no problem exists, or that someone else is to blame, maybe the folks in the pews won’t give up. The trouble is, the trends are so obvious and well-documented, that leaders who preach “everything is fine” tend to lose all credibility. And credibility is something any effective leader cannot afford to lose.

Nowadays, I find most church leaders and members sitting in the PARALYSIS camp. They’re plagued with fear, indecisiveness and lethargy. Even if they find a way to bring new vitality to their ministry, they typically study it to death, brood over it, sink it into a committee coma, and delay it until sometime next year, or the year after that.

As much as those first two groups drain my hopes for the future of the church, I find great hope in the CHANGE people. They are ordinary people who believe that God will do extraordinary things through them. They pray fervently, and they rely on the One who makes all things new. They’re open to God’s leading. They listen to God’s command to “fear not.” Even though they realize they don’t have all the answers, they’re willing to step out–one step at a time into a future that isn’t perfectly clear. They’re willing to experiment. And they’re wise enough to explain their sense of faithful adventure to their people, in order to bring them along on the journey. They embrace the prospect of failure, knowing that some ideas will inevitably fall short. But they know they’ll learn from their failures, which will help advance them toward their next ministry success.

Overall, I’m actually encouraged by these challenging times. Yes, we’re living through the end of an era. But I know God will not abandon his church. And I believe he’s up to something new–that we can be a vital part of–if we don’t deny reality or sink into paralysis. It’s time to welcome some needed change, and walk boldly into a new day.


30 Responses to “3 Reactions to Church Decline”

  1. This is timely for me. I have been working hard on what the assembly looks like. One of the cancers I think I have identified in my own life is this, “Do I trust God to do what he is going to do?” Often I find myself planning for some new direction instead of relying on the Holy Spirit to show me the new direction. In some cases I have heard and received direction but have not followed through with action, always making excuses. Thom you stated, “one step at a time”, this is difficult for me. I am a visionary and planner and I want the big picture — then just live it out, but that wouldn’t be faith would it.

  2. Amen and amen.

    • I think the problem is much more complex. I recommend a review of sociological behavior Lyle E. Schaller makes about that churches do not grow. The suggestion about being the change (for the church) is a “double-edged sword”, on the one hand we are talking about dogmas, theology and tradition (history) that are based on the nature of the church. On the other hand, the world is shifting toward greater inequality and individualism of neo-capitalism fruit. I do not think the church should accommodate such secular stream this prodiciendo much damage to the foundation of society, the family. Rereading Richard Niebuhr, Christ and culture would do no harm. Blessings!

  3. Thanks Thom! Everybody has their opinion and here is mine. Less time trying to become seeker friendly – attractional. More time making disciples that are incarnational. Others should be attracted to us as Jesus followers first rather then our methods and fancy buildings. Then we bring them to church!

  4. My church is in the “change” mode – so at least that is good!
    One of the interesting dilemmas we face is a sort of a paralyzing fog around the “why” people aren’t coming to our church anymore, as that often affects the approach we use to work on the problem. One camp (the stronger voices) think it’s because our theology (PCUSA) isn’t conservative enough and that we are “giving in to the culture”. The other camp (the quiet voices) think that the problem is more complex and that we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot by not allowing people to voice their doubts (unless we can “correct” their “bad theology”). I’m pretty sure that my church needs more Fearless Conversation!

  5. I see my present church in the Paralysis camp, personally I am learning to listen to the still voice that directs me to look outside the church walls for encounters that lead to effective discipleship that brings hope and and the reality of Christ’s love and compassion. I fail miserably but I am making an effort. This is just a simple statement from a nobody ….but the amazing fact is … I believe this is the way to fill our walls of the church once again. We aren’t asked to do the impossible …. just do our share.

  6. I feel that as people look for the definition of “church” in scripture and let go of the idea that we are to bring people to church, change will begin. Jesus told us to “Love God” – Mark 12:29-30 and to “Love your neighbor”-Mark 12:31. He also said “Therefore go”-Matthew 28:18-20. When we do these three things the body of Christ “the church” will grow again. We have spent so long trying to bring instead of go that the going has become scary.

  7. Phil posted on Facebook: “Being in a growing mainline denominational church requires us to be agents of change. As you wrote – we have prayed, we have experimented, we have failed and we keep moving forward trusting where God is taking us. Sometimes we are playing catchup and other times we see where God is taking us next. I feel that as church workers if we are not growing then we are missing something. The Acts 2 church was added to daily the number of people being saved. Why don’t we look like that anymore? I think one thing is that as church leaders we turn the lack of growth into a form of persecution and then we stay in the places of denial and paralysis. My fear is though with all the talk of growth we become numbers focused – we celebrate how God has added to us but we continue to know that God is not done with us yet! Just some thoughts… thanks Thom for making me think!”

  8. Reblogged this on Church Outloud and commented:
    We’re fortunate at Epiphany, to be bucking the downward trends. Paralysis is still a major issue to be aware of for all of us. The Bible tells us over and over, “Fear not!” Every revelation of God, about to do something new begins that way. Fear and paralysis may be the biggest obstacles to accomplishing God’s purpose in our churches, and in our lives.

  9. Laura posted on Facebook: “Religious organizations may be in trouble but the church was always Christ’s people. Where they are, the church is.”

  10. So why is change the answer, and not change back? It was working, because if not, there would be no height to decline from. So maybe the decline was actually caused by change. And I really think the change that caused the decline was the softening of God. If I’m a man looking for something to do on Sunday, I’m looking for a challenge. What does a man do in life that isn’t about taking on a challenge? But we go sit and hear a preacher telling us that there is no longer a moral standard that we should strive for, because that would be judgmental. And we can’t call sin what it is, because we might offend someone who might have walked in off the street (perhaps looking for a challenge?). And we don’t challenge people to help out with stuff. The church, it’s said, is run by a very few very tired people. But we risk inflicting guilt on the lazy sloths who show up in Christmas and Easter, and maybe Mother’s Day, and they might not come back. Well, they might not come back and add their weight to forces causing the decline that we seem to be saying here that we don’t like. I want a “man” church. I want to hear a pastor in the pulpit say that it’s wrong to sign your kids up for sports that will keep them out of church on Sunday, for example. I want to hear my pastor remind me that if I don’t divert my eyes when the Victoria Secret commercial comes on, then I need to destroy my TV. Instead, we have churches that would actually give a moment to ponder whether or not they should host gay weddings. What is that? For centuries men have been driving nails with hammers. Tell them to start driving them with a chicken bone, and then wonder why the nails aren’t being driven. Maybe, change back.

  11. I personally think Carl has hit the nail on the head. We need to be more Savior sensitive than seeker sensitive. We need to bring the truth in love but not back down in the Bible’s stance against sin. We have grown complacent, and permitted sin to permeate our churches to the point that the world cannot tell the difference between us and a show club. For a time I pastored a small church in town while trying to include the latest trendy church ideas. Fortunately, I had the sense to leave and now that same church has begun to grow once again. It may always be a small church, but that’s okay for that congregation. They can’t ALL be mega churches.

    Since leaving, I joined a local church that is not mega by any means. But cares for people, confronts sin, and is more concerned about what God thinks (than what man thinks).

  12. If folks could wrap their mind around the fact that the Body of Christ is the Church, all thoughts of a building would fade from the conversation. But it’s oh so hard to let go of tradition.
    When Christ was crucified the curtain was split in half. God left the building and took up residence in the hearts of the believers. Where Christians go, there goes the church. As Qdmac William pointed out, scripture commands us to go.
    In the words of those great theologians the Doobie Brothers, it’s about takin’ to the streets.
    Those folks in Acts Chapter 2 were living Christ, being as Christ, and as a result – being contagious. They never once considered Attendance, Buildings, or Cash. Man added those concerns hundreds of years later when they developed the business of church. If you are a church leader, what drives you?

  13. Acts 2: 42-47
    “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”

  14. I preached on John 14 last Sunday, focusing especially upon Jesus saying that disciples will do the things He had done and even greater things. I shared about viewing the screening of “When God Left the Building,” and the comparison of the shrinking church to Kodak. Kodak had what they needed for the future but did not develop it.
    God will equip the leaders of churches; He will give them what is needed for the future. But if do not pick it up, develop it for specific congregation, and use it glorify the kingdom of God, then get ready to put a “for sale” sign in front of the church.

  15. My parish has three churches and each church is sitting in each of the camps. It isn’t the leadership who is the problem but the members of the three congregations who are the issue. However, the one church where the most change is happening, is the one who has lost most church goers. This is purely because they didn’t want any change at all. While it is discouraging for the leadership, it is also encouraging because I truly believe God would rather have a small group of people who really worship him, than a church half full of pew warmers.

  16. Part of the problem is that the solution will disrupt those who do attend… meaning more may leave before attendance stops shrinking. As someone who’s been looking for a church for a year after a move and searched for one before moving for ten months, here’s what I crave:
    Authenticity. Not corniness or showiness or sugary sweet ‘i’m being good to the visitor! LOOK!’-ness.
    Humility. I don’t want to be looked down on or have the church or leadership bragged up in my visit. I sure don’t want to be called out, much less mocked. Yes, it’s happened.
    Love. If no one will tell me where the bathroom is when I ask, I may get over it. But I will notice if the atmosphere is exclusive-and when the sermon is about the recent men’s fishing trip or the ladies’ outing, when I’m told I don’t belong in a class because of my age or marital status, or when the announcements are clearly ‘members only’ I will look elsewhere.
    A hunger for Jesus. No adult classes? No small groups? Is Jesus even mentioned in the sermon? Are questions met with ‘um… ok, now as I was saying…’? It’s hard to change when we don’t even know what things like ‘worship’, ‘study’, and ‘church’ truly mean.

  17. As for myself and several friends and family….we miss the old church music that we all sang from a hymnal.

  18. My mantra is “change is here to stay” for the simple reason we are being changed from glory to glory according to scripture. If that is the truth and it is, then we should not be doing tomorrow what we are doing to day as we cannot change and maintain the status quo as change and the status quo are an oxymoron.

    There is only one reason why a church does not want to change and that is due to the fact that they spend all their time in the darkroom developing their negatives. Negatives are the stuff of the status quo. Glory is the stuff of change. You pays your money, literally and you makes your choice. One is safe and boring the other is dangerous and exciting.

    • I totally agree! If we are totally honest with ourselves, a lot of our churches that are in decline have become little more than social groups. A small group gather to sing a few favourite songs and recite the same words each week and afterwards they sit around drinking bad coffee and reminisce of the good old days when the church was full of worshipers.

      Here’s a couple of thoughts…maybe one of the reasons the church is declining is because people no longer find God in our churches. If we, the church, truly search for God, if we are willing to go where he leads, if we are willing to risk our hearts and our lives chasing him, then surely he will let us catch him. I believe that when we have God in our churches, the world will beat a path to our door.

  19. You and your friends can meet together and sing the old hymns.

    • Church is not about the building. It’s about the people. Don’t wait for someone to gather you in a building and lead you in hymns or prayer or whatever. Gather as Jesus said “where two or three are gathered”. The walls are coming down.

  20. Wow! I guess my church (traditional PCA) is an exception to a bunch of what I am reading here. We are located in a suburban area adjacent to a medium sized east coast capital city. Ten years ago we had grown to the point where we were seriously considering a new building and educational campus, but for some reason the plans for the expansion would not gel.

    Our leadership (session and deaconate) called the congregation to pray about the situation, and instead of trying to sell our plans to God, we sought him instead. The result, our vision was changed. Instead of creating an impressive suburban edifice, we realized that there were nearby areas in our county and adjacent counties that had no PCA presence. What’s more, is that many of our congregants commuted from those areas. Thus the vision to grow the church, in what I like to call “the Biblical Way” was born anew in us.

    What I mean about “the Biblical Way”, is that the manner that God chose to grow the church in the early days was to send them out. Many times this growth followed times of trial and persecution, but often it came from simple migration from one area to another.

    Our vision was to branch out into these adjacent areas. We set a threshold for our congregational attendance, and once we neared that threshold we would look for opportunities to plant a church. In the last seven years we have planted two daughter churches, both of which are now fully particularized and are as big as if not bigger than our church. But that has not stopped our growth. Our attendance continues to grow. Our giving has tracked with our growth, and we are nearing the growth threshold once again. We haven’t had a down month in almost 7 years, since we took a hit planting our first church. Our bank account (after budget outlays) is large enough to allow us to operate for almost a year, even if giving dropped to zero.

    This vision has allowed us to reach our community, grow the church, and maintain our budget at moderate levels, and still meet the physical and spiritual needs of our members, and many outside our membership.

    Our demographics are really nothing special. We have a fairly even mix of older and younger people, and we have programs for all of them. We have had the same pastor since 1982. We teach the word, have a mix of contemporary and traditional worship, and enforce church discipline. Men (appropriately) take the dominant role in church leadership. We are active in our community, and 20% of our budget goes to missions. We are seen in our community as some place that you can go to for help.

    Overall, I guess one thing that has remained constant over the life of our church is our message. We are staunchly 5 point Calvinist, and have resisted the temptation to water that down even when conventional church “wisdom” says to.

  21. Great article and on the othed hand a great challenge to the church. I hope that all may be challenged in this way.
    many thanks

  22. I had belonged to only 1 church my whole life. I started going in 1983 as an adult. I grew in it. Was taught by it. Served on leadership teams in it. I did every kind of job possible over the years. And finally I was licensed and ordained by it. One church. I stayed when it grew to 600 and I stayed when it shrunk to about 50. They could not relate to the youth I was bringing in the front door and these youth could not relate to the church. Eventually they began to leave as they became adults. I developed a plan to recapture these now adult kids in a relevant way, but my church would not hear of it. After a few years of getting NO, I decided to plant a church.

    I am happy to say that I am getting most of these kids that dropped out to come back! We meet and worship and study the bible at unusual times during the week, but that is the only way I could reach them! We meet house to house. We meet in coffee shops. We meet in parks. They range from 10 years of age to about 24 years on the average. I do have a couple of 50+ year olds coming, but mostly these are college and young marrieds.

    What is the secret? First, they love Christ. Second, they do not like church. Why? It felt like school to them. They did not like a performance from a polished band followed by a lecture from a polished speaker. When they had questions over the content, they wanted to be able to discuss it NOW and get it satisfied. Our time together always allows for anyone to give input. We get deep and time goes by. They have no trouble staying in the word for a couple of hours if they are contributing and getting their questions answered. I prefer not to go hours, but they ask me not to go!

    We eat together, then we pray together, then we study scripture interactively, then we go back to prayer. The musician plays softly when he is inspired to do so. Some lay on the floor and pet the dog as we study. Once in a while a little carpet crawler squeals to be picked up and about 20 hand reach down to get her. We have church!

    One group on Sundays. One group on Wednesdays. One group of Thursdays. And soon we’ll have a 2nd group on Wednesdays at the local community college and we’ll have another group begin at the park on another day of the week during the summer as an introductory study called “Jesus in the Park.”

    If everyone came at once, we could have about 35 or 40 people. It’s an easy way for friends to bring a friend. It is a friendly atmosphere and all feel welcomed and all gets to freely get to know everyone else because everyone shares!

  23. I think its pretty sad when the younger generation don’t even know Amazing Graceor how Gret thou art”.I’m not against using some contempoary if they know how to play itbut have a mixture of the old hymns also,the songs dont’t necessarily have to go along with the theme of the sermon god always works that out just let the spirit have its way .

  24. I’m one of those who left the Church after 50 years of multiple times per week. I volunteered for everything. My wake-up call was that it was all talk and zero action. Who cares that we have a good loving Christ-like attitude if we don’t get out of our church circle? Maybe someday, with God’s help I’ll find or create a better way to worship and serve and build and teach. I pushed hard for change while inside. Everyone wants to talk about their feelings. Forget it.


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