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By Thom Rainer
We call it the death spiral.
I know. It’s not a pleasant term. I can understand if it causes you to cringe.
By the time I am contacted about a serious problem in a church, it is often too late. The problems are deeply rooted, but the remaining members have been blind to them, or they chose to ignore them.
There are eight clear signs evident in many churches on the precipice of closing. If a church has four or more of these signs present, it is likely in deep trouble. Indeed, it could be closing sooner than almost anyone in the church would anticipate.
- There has been a numerical decline for four or more years. Worship attendance is in a steady decline. Offerings may decline more slowly as the “remnant” gives more to keep the church going. There are few or no conversions. Decline is clear and pervasive.
- The church does not look like the community in which it is located. The community has changed its ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic makeup, but the church has not. Many members are driving from other places to come to the church. The community likely knows little or nothing about the church. And the church likely knows little or nothing about the community.
- The congregation is mostly comprised of senior adults. It is just a few years of funerals away from having no one left in the church.
- The focus is on the past, not the future. Most conversations are about “the good old days.” Those good old days may have been 25 or more years in the past. Often a hero pastor of the past is held as the model to emulate.
- The members are intensely preference-driven. They are more concerned about their music style, their programs, their schedules, and their facilities than reaching people with the gospel. Their definition of discipleship is “others taking care of my needs.”
- The budget is severely inwardly focused. Most of the funds are expended to keep the lights on and/or to meet the preferences of the members. There are few dollars for ministry and missions. And any dollars for missions rarely include the involvement of the members in actually sharing the gospel themselves.
- There are sacred cow facilities. It might be a parlor or a pulpit. It could be pews instead of chairs. It might be the entirety of the worship center or the sanctuary. Members insist on holding tightly to those things God wants us to hold loosely.
- Any type of change is met with fierce resistance. The members are confronted with the choice to change or die. And though few would articulate it, their choice by their actions or lack of actions is the choice to die.
Churches with four or more of these signs have three choices. They can embark on a process of change and revitalization. Or they can close the doors for a season and re-open with a new name, a new vision, and some new people.
Of course, the third choice is to do nothing. That is the choice to die.
Thousands of churches will unfortunately do just that the next twelve months.