How do you know if your church is dying?
It’s a question that all leaders should ask – even leaders of growing churches.
As with almost everything in life, there are subtle signs your peak may be near, or you may be cresting past it.
Other times, the signs of a dying church are evident to everyone but the leaders.
If you recognize the signs your church is in trouble early enough, you can reverse the trend, regain your energy and momentum and run with enthusiasm into a new season.
Let the signs go unattended long enough, and things could be very different.
So, how do you know your church is in trouble?
Here are 13 signs of a dying church every church leader should look out for – in their churches and in their hearts.
Note: This article was updated and republished on April 7, 2023.
1. Your Leaders Are Losing Their Passion
Passion is a rare and beautiful thing.
It’s often easy to come by in your first years of leadership but hard to sustain for a lifetime.
Yet passion is vital to leadership because the passion of a church will rarely exceed the passion of its leaders.
How hot is your passion? Here are five signs your minisitry passion is white hot.
2. Your Church Is Afraid of Innovation and Change
In the early days, most churches innovate.
You have to.
But as churches grow larger and more effective, it’s easy to let innovation wane.
Do this, and the innovators will eventually leave your church, having grown bored. They’ll throw their energy behind a charismatic church willing to experiment.
Down the road, that will leave you in a place where – even when you want to innovate – you can’t because all the idea people have abandoned ship.
When was the last time you did something truly new? If you can’t answer that question, beware.
3. Church Management Is Replacing Church Leadership
The start-up phase of any church is leadership intensive, and frankly, there’s not much to manage.
As your church grows, that will change. You’ll need to manage what you’ve built.
Great management became a major need at Connexus Church, where I used to serve as lead pastor, when we were between the 800-1000 attendance mark. Without great systems, church structure, and organization, you’ll never be able to sustain something that size, let alone steward it well.
The trap here is that once you start managing, you may stop building anything of value. Instead, you simply manage what you’ve already built.
If all you do is manage what you’ve already built, it’s likely that your church is dying, and you won’t have much left to manage in the future.
The key is to manage well but to keep leading – keep innovating, keep changing, keep experimenting, and keep figuring out new ways to accomplish your mission.
4. Maintenance Is Overtaking Church Mission
When I meet leaders of dying churches, they’re almost always in what I call ‘maintenance mode’ – maintaining the organization they’ve built has become more important than the mission that got them started.
In fact, when you drill down, very few can articulate or agree on what the mission is. They just agree they need to maintain what they’ve got.
As long as the mission is central (especially in the church), you’ll have a bright future.
When maintenance begins to trump mission, the end is near.
5. Your Church Is Fixated on Singular Personality or Talent
Effective churches get noticed – especially these days when they’re rarer than before.
How you respond when you receive attention is critical.
We’ve all seen celebrities who become obsessed with being famous. Whether it’s Kanye or the Kardashians, these days, you can make an industry out of simply being you.
If your church is getting a reputation (even in your small denomination or community), don’t let it distract you.
Help other leaders.
But stay on mission. Be more obsessed with the mission than anything else.
What got you there (the mission) will keep you there long term AND force you to reinvent.
6. You Criticize Younger, Upstart Leaders
Every leader is a young leader at some point.
Young leaders bring innovation, ideas and strategies to the table. In fact, they likely got your church to where it is today, which is amazing.
But no one stays young forever.
After a decade in leadership, you’ll find yourself surrounded by younger leaders with different ideas.
Rather than deciding to learn from them, leaders of dying churches resist them, dismiss them, and sometimes ridicule them.
That’s a critical mistake if you want to stay relevant.
When you find yourself sitting around a table criticizing the ideas of young leaders, get nervous.
Someone used to dismiss you and look at what happened to them.
7. Your Personal Relationship With God Is on the Backburner
Every leader has ups and downs in their relationship with God.
I do. You do.
Over a prolonged period, you cannot let your personal relationship with God go flat. Yet it does for so many leaders.
When your relationship with Christ goes flat, sound the alarm:
- Get on your knees
- Go see a counselor
- Tell a friend
- Take a vacation
- Buy a new Bible
- Get whatever help you need
Behind every vibrant church, you find leaders with a vibrant faith.
When recruiting new leaders to your team, find leaders whose passion for Jesus and the mission burns white hot.
If passionate people surround you, you’ll almost automatically become more passionate.
8. Your Staff and Volunteers Are Burning Out Faster Than You Can Replace Them
A clear sign that your church is dying is that you’re burning through new staff and volunteers at an alarming rate.
Like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” regular staff departures and short tenures indicate that your church’s work culture is approaching toxic levels. It’s also a sign of bad leadership. Too many staff and volunteer vacancies could also be a sign that departing workers are warning other people to stay away.
Churches should be healthy places to work, but, as many of us know, that’s not often the case. And churches with a high staff turnover rate, overextended volunteers, or a reputation for having a toxic work environment are churches that can’t carry out their mission with any sort of integrity or effectiveness.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help you and your church overcome this barrier.
In The Art of Team Leadership, I’ll show you how to foster a healthy workplace environment, and in At Your Best, I’ll teach you my burnout-avoidance strategy to help you get your time, energy, and priorities aligned and working in your favor.
9. Everyone in Your Church Looks and Thinks Just Like You
The next time you’re addressing your congregation, really look at the people staring back at you.
Do they truly represent a cross-section of your community? Or do they all fit neatly within the same racial, economic, age, cultural, and political boxes?
Churches that lack diversity in terms of age, race, and socio-economic status often struggle to connect with their communities and reach new people.
It’s true that your church’s diversity might be limited by its geographic location, but there’s more to diversity than race and economics. Another form of diversity has to do with what happens between someone’s ears.
A lack of theological diversity and respectful conflict is often seen as a positive to church leaders. After all, it means everyone on your staff and in your congregation is aligned, right?
If everyone in your church looks, thinks, and acts the same, one of two things is probably happening:
- Members of your staff and congregation are self-censoring their personal beliefs and concerns out of fear of being ridiculed or ostracized.
- Those same people feel unwelcome and are silently leaving out of the church’s “back door.”
Make no mistake, a church should absolutely draw a line in the sand on certain theological issues (like the resurrection of Jesus), but there are plenty of other areas where some diversity of thought should be tolerated and encouraged.
Remember, church unity is not the same as conformity. An unintended consequence of conformity is that engagement tends to stall out – small group conversations become stale, people get comfortable within their bubble, and “outsiders” feel increasingly unwelcome.
If members of your congregation don’t feel comfortable expressing doubts, asking questions, voicing concerns, or engaging in respectful dialogue on sensitive issues and topics, then your church is probably attractive to one type of person: People just like you.
And that’s a well that’ll run dry fast.
10. Your Church’s Finances Are Always in the Red
I get it.
No one likes it when the words “church” and “money” are close together in a sentence. But churches require money to function – and that’s not a secret.
Poor fiscal management can hurt churches just as much as it can hurt an individual’s livelihood and well-being. If your church is constantly running over budget, you’ll have to initiate some serious conversations with your staff and congregation.
You may have inherited a bad financial situation from your predecessor, but a church with out-of-whack finances will not be a church for long.
If your church finances are a mess, then you should hire or contract a bookkeeper to get everything in order and set up new, easy-to-maintain systems.
Like personal credit card debt, this situation can sneak up on you and get worse the longer you ignore it – so you need to make a game plan and stick to it.
11. Your Church Has Zero Presence in the Community
Let me ask you a question: If your church closed its doors tomorrow – like permanently closed – would anyone in your community who’s not a member of your church even notice?
The church is the only organization that exists for the sake of its non-members, meaning a church should be actively engaged in the greater community. Whether hosting food drives and “parents’ night out” babysitting services or organizing service projects and disaster relief responses, a church’s involvement in the local community should be unmissable and tangible.
Even if it means partnering with other churches and nonprofit organizations in your area, a church should strive to be a blessing where God has placed it. But if all of your church’s resources and energy are expended internally, it could be a sign that your church is irrelevant to your community and on the cusp of a death spiral.
12. You’re Focused More on Keeping Church Members Than Reaching New People
A subtle sign of a dying church is that it has completely given up on evangelism and is directing all of its resources to keep its members from leaving.
This is a sad place for a church to be, but it happens more often than you think. In these situations, the goal simply becomes making the congregation as happy and comfortable as possible to prevent any more exits.
The problem with this approach (of which there are many) is that instead of being a pastor, you’re letting the congregation dictate how you lead and preach. In other words, the “tail wags the dog.”
In the short run, this strategy kind of makes sense. But the long-term consequences – like not investing in young families or community outreach – will inevitably signal a death blow down the road.
13. You View Every Change in Culture as a “Threat” to Your Church
Railing and ranting against secular culture or the latest outrageous headline is an easy way to gain an audience (and maybe even earn a few hearty “Amens” from your congregation) in today’s polarized environment.
But this approach to “relevance” will eventually backfire. As I said in Point 12 above, short-term gains aren’t the best indicator of long-term health. And churches that stoke political and cultural resentment are slowly dying from the inside out.
The biggest problem with churches that focus on “culture war” grievances is that they’re fostering an antagonistic and defensive church culture. So, instead of focusing on reaching the culture, the emphasis is on judging the culture.
Think of it this way: Would you join an organization that did nothing but ridicule and judge how you and people like you live? Of course not. And if you wouldn’t, why would anyone else?
The world has enough cynicism and resentment, and the church should be an alternative to the ways of the world – not a contributor. A dying church focuses on judging the world; a thriving church focuses on building a refreshing alternative to the world.