Ten Signs Your Church is Dying

Attending church no longer is normative. As a result, almost all denominations are experiencing decline. But that decline is spread unevenly, with some churches in a death spiral, others holding steady, and others doing well despite these trends.

So how do you know if your church is in trouble? Based on my experiences, here are ten warning signs:

  1. People are reluctant to invite others. A healthy church naturally and easily engages with the community around it. But if special events, like church anniversary celebrations, parish picnics and other events don’t include an invitation to the surrounding community, chances are your church has lost touch with the outside world.
  2. There’s empty triumphalism. Pledging and other measurable criteria are dropping like a rock, yet folks talk about what a special, welcoming place the church is. But if it’s really so special, why are your church’s numbers declining?
  3. There’s no plan for the future. What will your church look like in 5 years? In 10 years? In 50 years? No one can know for sure, but if there’s no plan or vision for the future, chances are that’s exactly where you are headed.
  4. Everyone knows there’s an elephant in the living room, but no one wants to discuss the situation. If your church is seeing multiple years with back-to-back declines in pledging or attendance, something’s up. But if no one talks openly about it, or if the conversation focuses on inconsequentia like which pledge cards work best, the church is in real trouble.
  5. Fighting has become normative. Conflict is normal. Fighting, and its evil siblings shunning and exclusion, are not. If you see the latter, or you see conflicts that drag on for months and years, your church has lost the love and care for each other that mark a healthy church.
  6. Only the political survive. If every time you paint a hallway, change a lock, or replace carpet it takes 3 meetings, 5 approvals and you still feel like you are walking on eggshells, things are in sorry shape.
  7. Unacceptable behavior is okay. When bullying and other behaviors that normally would be considered violations of Christian values become okay, your church has lost its way. And when people are afraid to speak up in those situations, things are doubly bad.
  8. Gossip and triangulation are the norm. A certain amount of gossip is normal in any organization. But when the rumor mill is part of day-to-day life, it’s a sign that the fabric of the church is coming unraveled.
  9. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms, but the back door is wide open. Churches in trouble often will proclaim loudly that newcomers will be warmly welcomed, yet no one says a thing about leaders who have left. That’s because real leaders typically gravitate towards places where they can make a difference. Be particularly alert to former leaders who leave without transferring their records, or who leave on bad terms. These are signs of fractured relationships and a church that does not know how to resolve conflict.
  10. The focus is on keeping up appearances, versus taking care of priorities. One church I know, faced with major capital expenses and sharply declining revenue, withdrew $8,000 from its rapidly dwindling cash reserves to pay for a staff retirement party, versus taking care of a leaking roof and failing HVAC systems. Such decisions not only show that a church is unhealthy, but they also accelerate the downward spiral, for they demonstrate poor stewardship, thus disincentivizing member giving.

Keep in mind that none of these warning signs guarantee that a church will close its doors. Many a church has gone through periods of extended decline, only to emerge better and stronger from the experience. But survival inevitably requires a willingness to take a tough look at serious questions, to embrace change, to let go of the past, and to focus on healing and rebirth. Only when these happen can any church become truly healthy and vibrant.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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