Why do Churches Die?


“Mommy, why did grandma die”? Tough question, isn’t it? As a child I remember asking my mother that question but I didn’t realize how sensitive the question was nor how ill-prepared my mother was to deal with it.

Death is a sensitive topic. It is not a topic you would bring up at a party unless you wanted to shut it down. It is not a topic you would talk about on your first date, unless you really wanted to get rid of your acquaintance. We don’t like talking about death, but unfortunately, it touches everything on planet earth, including churches.

Sadly, every day an average of ten churches die in the United States. For those of you calculating that’s precisely 3,650 churches a year. Conservative Baptists contribute twelve churches annually to that figure or an average of one church a month. This has been the pattern for us during the last ten years and the indicators are that it will increase during the coming years.

But, why do these churches die? Hollis Green, in his book Why Churches Die published in 1972, gives 35 causes of death. This is a pretty impressive analysis and if you can get your hands on a copy it is insightful reading. Leith Anderson in his recent and excellent book entitled Leadership That Works has a list of 15 ailments he believes contribute to the demise of a church.

Although I am not a church coroner, I have conducted some autopsies on churches and I have discovered that most churches die of a combination of causes and that there is seldom one single factor leading to death.

The bottom line is that churches die because the critical mass of believers dwindles to an inadequate level to effectively reach lot people for Christ and fulfill the mandate of Christ to make mature disciples.

When more people leave a church than there are people being won to Christ or people transferring from other churches, a church will die.

Ultimately then, the question we are really asking is what are the reasons for a once robust congregation to lose so many people that they can no longer provide effective and meaningful worship, fellowship, edification, outreach and service?

Conceivably, there are as many reasons for the death of a church as there are reasons why people leave.

William Hendricks provides insights into the reasons for people’s departure in his revealing book, Exit Interviews, published by Moody Press. He writes, “There is a dark side to recent reports of surging church attendance in North America. While countless “unchurched” people may be flocking in the front door of the church, a steady stream of the “churched” is flowing quietly out the back. It’s estimated that 53,000 people leave churches every week and never come back.”

Pretty scary stuff, huh? I’ll admit it takes a steady hand and an open mind to plod through this book. You will read stories that you wish were not true, but at the end of the book, you will realize someone needed to tell these stories.

One step a church consultant might consider taking is to recommend that churches compassionately conduct exit interviews with those who have left and those who are leaving your church. Simply ask them why they left and then listen. I mean really listen to what they have to say.

You will find clues in their concerns that will help you understand some of the reasons for your decline. This will not solve your problem totally, but it is a good first step.

Among some of the more common disorders I have found in the church corporately I have put in to three neat little baskets. Maybe someday I’ll write an extensive pathology of why churches die, but for now please accept this list understanding that within each of the ailments listed there is a wide range of cause and effect.

SPIRITUAL DISORDERS – Internal

> Revelation 2-3

> Loss of vision

> Loss of personal passion and love for God

> Loss of love for people

> Un-confronted, un-confessed, unresolved sin

> Believers who do not become disciples

> Church-centered VS God-centered

SOCIAL DISORDERS - External

> Dying community – rural towns dying out

> Changing community – population and shifts & ethnic migration

> Changing economy – depression and unemployment

> Growing community – rural becoming suburban

> Restrictive community – limited or no land available

> Resistant community – anti-Christ sentiment

> Churched community – burned over or disillusioned with Christianity

SYSTEMIC DISORDERS – Internal

> Inverted end means – form has become the function

> Inappropriate priorities – satisfying saints VS seeking the lost

> Incompetent leadership – a wide range of issues here

> Inadequate facilities – poor location, poor aesthetics, lack of space

> Inadequate leadership base – Acts 6 syndrome

> Neglected reproduction – generational issues

> Come and hear VS Go and tell – inside out thinking

> Making absolutes of non-absolutes – putting padlocks on creative change

> Irrelevant ministries – outdated or ineffective

Many of you reading this article will no doubt have your own list of reasons as to why churches die and I would be eager to hear your perspective. Why not email me at gbpenfold@msn.com

Right now I would like to shift gears and ask the question, do churches have to die? My answer to that is no! Although the second law of thermodynamics does say, “things left to themselves will deteriorate” but with appropriate intervention, a new lifecycle can effectively extend the life of a church. And your church may have that potential.

I truly believe that with appropriate assessment, insightful leadership and faith- planning a church can have a long, vital and vibrant life and that is why we have launched Fresh Start. Fresh Start is an intervention ministry designed for churches that are in decline.

Used by permission of Fresh Start Ministries, © Bob Humphrey

Copyright © 2003 Fresh Start Ministries
Last modified: 06/25/05