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7 Subtle Signs Your Church Is Dying

How do you know whether your church’s best days are behind it?

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 death are evident to everyone but the leaders.

If you recognize the signs 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.

A few weeks ago I talked to a good friend who had just finished dozens of meetings with leaders of small, struggling churches. Like me, his most recent context has been a larger church. I asked him what he discovered.

He told me of meeting after meeting of well-intentioned, Christ-loving people who were now in their 70s leading churches with just a few dozen remaining attenders. Time and again, my friend said, these leaders would tell him they never intended to take their church down this road.

It just happened.

So how do you know your church is dying?

What are the earliest warning signs?

Here are 7 I’ve seen and watch for constantly in our church.

church is dying

1. The passion of key leaders is waning

Passion is a rare and beautiful thing.

It’s often so easy to come by in your first years of leadership, but so hard to sustain for a lifetime.

Yet passion is so vital to leadership because the passion of a church will rarely exceed the passion of its leaders.

How hot is your passion? Here are 5 signs it’s white hot.

2. Innovation is rare

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 church that will experiment.

Down the road, that will leave you in a place where—even when you want to innovate—you can’t innovate, because all the ideas people have abandoned ship.

When was the last time you did something truly new? If you can’t answer that question, beware.

3. Management is beginning to replace 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 will need to manage what you’ve built.

I found great management became a major need for us at Connexus Church, where I serve, when we were between the 800-1000 attendance mark. Without great systems and organization, you will 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, you won’t have much left to manage in the future.

The key is to manage well but keep leading—keep innovating, keep changing, keep experimenting and keep figuring out new ways to accomplish your mission.

4. Maintenance is beginning to trump mission

When I meet leaders of dying churches, they are 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 will have a bright future.

When maintenance begins to trumps mission, the end is near.

5. Your church has become fixated on being…your church

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, you can make an industry these days 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 for sure.

But stay on mission. Be more obsessed with the mission than you are with 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.

When you find yourself sitting around a table criticizing the ideas of young leaders, get nervous.

Someone used to dismiss you, and look what happened to them.

7. Your relationship with God has gone flat

Every leader has ups and downs in their relationship with God.

I do. You do.

Over a prolonged period of time, 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 counsellor

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 you’re recruiting new leaders to your team, find leaders whose passion for Jesus and the mission burns white hot.

If you’re surrounded by passionate people, you will almost automatically become more passionate.

What Have You Noticed?

I outline other issues facing the church in my latest course, Church Growth Masterclass.

It’s everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • The latest church trends and how to respond to them

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

Other signs? 

I’d love to hear from you.

What are some subtle signs of a dying church you’ve seen?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

39 Comments

  1. Leigh on January 28, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Carey,
    I appreciate your work, but I don’t understand why you put a price tag on helping churches. I believe you are a full time preacher? Maybe you don’t earn a living from that and this is how you earn a living? If so, my apologies. Maybe I’m used to Craig Groeschel not charging anything for their resources. A decision he made early on in his ministry.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 29, 2020 at 12:24 pm

      Hey Leigh,

      I completely understand.

      I do get paid as Founding and Teaching Pastor at my church, but my team (I employ 6 core staff members and many outside contractors) all get paid directly off the income from our courses. That is reason #1.

      Reason #2 is that 95% of my content is free. The podcast, blog, email newsletter, and many free video and PDF downloadable pieces of training are all free to the readers, but cost money to produce. The 5% of my content that is paid ends up paying for the other 95%. This model allows me to help the most readers that I can for free, while still paying the bills.

      And reason #3 is that for anyone who can’t afford the course, we offer a scholarship program. If you email support@careynieuwhof.com and ask about it, we would be happy to get you an application!

      I hope that helps you understand why we charge for our courses. Have a great rest of your week!

      Carey

      • Leigh on January 29, 2020 at 7:27 pm

        Thank you for your response and for sharing. I sincerely apologize for the careless and judgmental thoughts that I shamelessly put into words. Please keep up the “good works”.

        • Cindy on March 14, 2020 at 9:51 am

          I think my church may be still mourning the way things use to be. I am wondering how I can help. Oh how I wish all churches would have revivals. We are here not for ourselves but to do Christ’s work. I will have to pray because I am a sinner who does not want to have a judgmental spirit. Please know I want to be a help to the church I attend.

  2. Robert F on December 11, 2019 at 11:27 pm

    None of the New Testament churches had church buildings, just home churches. The qualifications for becoming a pastor (bishop) or elder was being a repented baptised HS in dwelt mature married male husband of one wife (no divorces) with orderly children in subjection, of good reputation in and outside of the church community, not given to much wine, etc. Church services were intended for church members only (except for the occasional non-member who happened in) and anyone who had a revelation, a psalm, a spiritual song or knowledge was to share what God allowed them to have. preaching the gospel was conducted on the streets or in the community. There was no such sinners prayer to presto-change someone to “saved”. The sinner’s chief motivation was…oh wait a minute. You should know what that is. Everything I wrote above this line is in the Bible!
    No church boards, no church mortgages. No unconfronted prodigal unrepentant defiant idolatrous sinners allowed to remain in the fellowship.No innovations, just the Bible as a map, instead of as a guide..

  3. Ann on October 26, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Our church is in the midst of a battle right now. The pastor chose specific men in the church to serve on the leadership team. The leadership team asked the pastor to delegate some of his responsibilities so that he can be freed up to spend time in worship to receive God’s word for the church. The pastor refused to do that. Things have gotten so bad until the pastor and his wife are not on speaking terms with specific congregants. I feel this is a wrong attitude from the shepherd who is supposed to love and care for the sheep. Our attendance has dwindled down to a core few. There is a parent church board that has gotten involved but has made decisions based on just the pastor’s complaints. All the leadership team was asking is for the pastor to allow them to take on some of his responsibilities to free him up to do some other needed things. What is wrong with that. I don’t see how this church can survive with the head not willing to work things out and blaming the problem on the leadership.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2019 at 5:06 pm

      Hey Ann,

      I am so sorry that you have to go through this. This is a situation I wouldn’t wish any church to go through.

      I hope things get better soon!

      Carey

  4. John Yeo on October 9, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    God called me to a church in a mid-sized midwestern town a little over 10 years ago. The church had gone through a larger split, and prior to me being called, they had gone through 3 other pastors who either did not stay or were dismissed. In the seven plus years I began serving the church, my number one emphasis was to put the church back on an evangelism track and God blessed the church’s efforts by moving our attendance from 20-25 people on Sunday morning to around 75 people on Sunday morning. Best of all, the growth was through salvations and baptisms! However, the “old guard” of the church did not like the “new” and “younger” people coming in because they brought “new” and “younger” ideas with them. As the pastor, the “power group” began to dictate what, how, and when I could or could not make decisions – and even began a S.S. class entitled “What A Real Pastor Should Be!” After seven plus years and with much aggravation, I resigned and now, three years later, the church has dwindled back down to the 20-25 people on Sundays and don’t seem to even care that the church is dying. My heart breaks for that church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 9, 2019 at 4:06 pm

      John,

      That is so hard. I’m so sorry you went through that.

      I hope I can do a bit to help you push on with your life!

      Carey

    • John on December 8, 2019 at 9:00 pm

      Its odd isn’t that some should consider evangelism ‘new’, after all, evangelism is in the Bible and the Bible is not new. Without evangelism, where do the new Christians come from? After all, Romans tells us that for a person to be saved from judgement they need to hear the gospel and for that to happen someone needs to tell them the gospel and someone telling someone else about the gospel is evangelism. If a church does not do evangelism then isn’t a natural consequence of that inaction this: church shrinking because the old members die off over time and few/no new Christians come into that church. It’s hardly rocket science to realise that evangelism is necessary for the Church to not shrink but instead grow, for this reason alone, churches are basically stupid if they do not evangelise. Not only stupid but disobeying God as well, and not only stupid and disobeying God but also hating their neighbours by keeping from them the gospel of Jesus than can save them. So then, to summarise, churches that do not evangelise are stupid, disobedient of God and hate their neighbours.

      So why do churches prefer to die rather than share the gospel? That is another topic but I will offer some brief answers to consider:

      Firstly I suggest that leaders of such churches do not really understand the reason for the gospel and therefore cannot explain to the unsaved why they need to be saved or what they need saved from. And if the unsaved cannot see a good reason to be saved because church leaders do not think it important enough to tell them about it then, quite logically, the unsaved will not be interested in gospel. In my experience, often such leaders believe in heaven but not hell, believe in forgiveness and not repentance, believe in a God who is loving but not his law and judgement, and believe in the natural but not supernatural so thereby deny the power and person of God and the power and person of Satan.

      Secondly, some Christians do understand the reason for the gospel and its live or death importance but cannot explain it. If you ask three different Christian to briefly explain the gospel then they are likely to give three different versions they vary significantly in at least one of three key respects (who Jesus is, the cross, and the resurrection).

      Thirdly, some church leaders do understand the reason for the gospel and what it is but are too fearful of man to share it with others. Their fear is greater than their love for the unsaved so they do nothing and just smile meekly while the unsaved they meet head off to hell – imagine what those unsaved will say when they get there ‘why didn’t those so called friends warn me about this place? – or words to that effect.’ In the west, this fear is unfounded because it is vary rare indeed to get a negative reaction when sharing the gospel.

      Finally, those who overcome all three of the above barriers can lack the ability to present the gospel in a way that is effective. The biggest mistake is lecturing which some dress up as ‘proclaiming’ which sounds holy. Explaining the gospel mainly involves respectful listening, then filling the person’s knowledge gaps with information and with more questions that lead to reveling the gospel – For example: ‘do you think heaven is perfect?’ (most say yes) and ‘what about you, are you perfect?” (most say no). Then that enables you to ask one more question ‘If heaven is perfect and you are not, then doesn’t that mean you can’t go there because if you did then heaven would no longer be perfect because it would have you in it?’ And of course”if you cannot go to heaven then where do you go?’Those questions can get the persons attention (the problem that an imperfect person cannot go to perfect heaven and the alternative is hell). Then the Christian can explain the solution for this seemingly impossible problem. Surprisingly, many who proclaim to be Christians cannot explain how its possible for an imperfect person to go to perfect heaven, which means of course they cannot explain the gospel – such people first need to understand the gospel so they can explain it. What they don’t know they can find out, but only if they care enough.

  5. Phoebe Wickliffe on October 4, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    You missed one big sign I think. I’ve seen quite a few churches fall apart or begin to fall apart in my life, and the number one thing that every single one of them had in common was what I think of as the “favored child syndrome.”Every time, right before they fell apart, the church was at a place where they felt that they were more special and more important to God than any other church. There was no other church that did as well as they did at whatever their “thing” was. It’s now the biggest red flag to me. If I’m at a church and I hear someone say that their church has a “special place in God’s heart” my heart immediately sinks. I’ve never seen a church that allows that attitude to go unchecked last more than ten years after that attitude takes root.

    Another key indication that a church will almost definitely fail is the “God Pastor Complex.” When the pastor or elder board, not God, is attributed with the success and growth of a church, and allows that attitude to go unchecked, the church will almost inevitably fall apart. The church will not last that does not attribute its life and growth to the Holy Spirit.

  6. JohnM on September 2, 2019 at 8:26 am

    I don’t know what to do. I’m not in leadership, but 6 out of 7 of your points are dead on. I suspect 7 is too from things our campus pastor has shared. We are a satellite being micromanaged by the parent church. Our campus pastor has no authority, he is overruled on everything from the parent church. Our volunteer leaders are burnt out. We go through the service setup/tear down mechanics each week and repeat the DNA mantra from the planting church, but we aren’t growing, there are no salvations, no baptisms, no mission to the community, just 5 point video sermons from the planting campus. This has been going on for about 2 1/2 years. It feels like Laodicea. We try to encouraged and build up on a personal level and serve in different ways, but it’s just dead. The service checks all the right boxes, but there is no evidence of God. We are powerless to change things from a leadership capability so not sure the masterclass would help. We could only tell our campus pastor ideas and then he’d tell the planting church pastor and then they’d be rejected. How long do we hold out in prayer? Is there anything non leaders can do to help revive the campus?

  7. KassiJo on August 15, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Are church is dead and u have no idea were to begin to grow it back…we have lost so many members in a span of 3yrs that it is devastating😣Ur tips and ideas are dead on to the things I’m seeing in my church! I just don’t know how I can play a role of rebuilding it!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 16, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      Hey KassiJo,

      My course “The Church Growth Masterclass” will be a huge help to you and your church.

      Check it out here: https://churchgrowthmasterclass.com/special

      Please email my team if you have any issues or questions!

      Carey

  8. Corinne on June 11, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Our church is literally slowly dying because our average age is probably well over 60. There are only a handful of families with children and when those children grow up they rarely stay here. There is no enthusiasm for much. No one invests much time in the kids that are here. Our attendance drops every year and is now hovering around 75-80 every Sunday. Just 10 years ago average attendance was about 160. We used to be active in the community now most people that do come just come on Sunday and leave. Pastor doesn’t seem to care either. He takes off more than anyone I know. (I’m the secretary so I know!)

  9. yangmi shimray on June 6, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    Hi! Carey, I really enjoy reading your article, teaching on the sign of a dying church. It really reminds me of my church and the neighboring church around us. Thank you so much.

  10. Prophet Emmanuel Kwame Yeboah. on June 6, 2019 at 12:59 am

    Thank you for the insight…. Teachings like this has really helped me a lot to boasts my passion and strategies in ministry and my results is eminent.
    God is good.

  11. Prophet Emmanuel Kwame Yeboah on June 6, 2019 at 12:58 am

    Hey great men of God I believe and trust that God placed you there in that situation at times to teach you patience and total reliance on him alone after thou has done all your part….. Burn out is part of every great activity but not quench.
    God will come through to you

  12. Robbie Jones on June 5, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Carey:
    I always enjoy your articles, but this one hit so close to home that I felt the need to respond. I guess it is because with a blink of an eye I could find myself at this very crossroad.

    Just a little background – I have the opportunity to lead a medium multi-site, multi-ethnic congregation in Virginia. From the very beginning 16 years ago, I stated that I refused to let our church “grow old with me”. I just turned 60 and I’m now in the process of turning both campuses and our new house church over to the next generation of leaders that will be leading each campus. (By the way…one of these lead/campus pastors is a woman). Raising up these leaders has been the greatest thrill of my ministry, and it is now allowing me to go and do other things that I believe that God has put in my heart. Most of these battles that cause church death is over “control”. True leadership will always make room for the next person to cast vision and excel.

  13. Bishop Ransom Stephen on June 5, 2019 at 9:43 am

    Great word. Thank you for these great insights.

    • Prophet Emmanuel Kwame Yeboah. on June 6, 2019 at 12:42 am

      Thank you for the insight…. Teachings like this has really helped me a lot to boasts my passion and strategies in ministry and my results is eminent.
      God is good.

  14. Simon Chang on May 31, 2019 at 11:28 am

    I read with interest this article. You mention the sign that young leaders may be too easily dismissed in a dying church. I have two questions on this front: (1) Do you believe that everything coming from a young (and inexperienced) leader is worth following up on, implemented, or listened to? (2) What is your belief in the role of leadership training in a dying church?

  15. Eldrin on February 14, 2019 at 2:22 am

    Pastor,
    You missed out one fundamental point and that is evangelism. Church which is full of activities and even with gifts ( like church of Corinth)., but lacks burden for evangelism, or burden for lost souls is indeed a dead church.

    • Mark on July 26, 2019 at 7:29 pm

      I think that was what he was referring to when saying “mission”. But I agree with you on this – evangelism should be the ultimate basis of it all as it is mandate after all.

  16. Nehemiah on September 28, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    In the meeting place where i attending there is symptoms of a few things you listed. I hope and pray things get better but theres been much hurt and devastation only God i believe can fix it at this point. The small and big issues. For all the comments i read on here to whom all are truly born again my heart feels and goes out for you all. Be strong in the Lord never give up on the Father and the Son no matter what. Let us pray one for another. Jesus is Lord!

  17. Malembwe Hibweengwa on July 30, 2018 at 2:20 am

    I’m fixated with point 6.I have been a leader in a church but my influence is not what it ought to be. The biggest problem with my situation is that the structure of our church leadership is centered around a person, ‘Personality worship’ and it’s difficult to get much done. Church attendance rarely breaks the 100 members barrier each Sunday but the church register has more than 300 members.Functioning in one’s position becomes frustrating as I sometimes feel like a mere rubber stamp and when one ventures to actually break out and function in their role, it is seen as a challenge to the ‘Man of God.’ Many well meaning believers have simply stopped attending the church because they feel stifled.

    • KP on March 31, 2019 at 7:46 am

      Hi Malembwe,
      I know how you feel. I’m having this same issue right now. It’s like when you know God has placed you in a position to move forward in Him, people of God get jealous or something and try to keep you at the same level as they are. It’s so frustrating.

    • Prophet Emmanuel Kwame Yeboah on June 6, 2019 at 12:51 am

      Hey great men of God I believe and trust that God placed you there in that situation at times to teach you patience and total reliance on him alone after thou has done all your part….. Burn out is part of every great activity but not quench.
      God will come through to you

  18. Holly on July 27, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    I’m kind of expanding on point #1. The leadership is lacking vision (need passion for a vision) in fulfilling the church’s purpose. Good article!

  19. teodoro matira on July 25, 2018 at 11:58 pm

    Dying passion of leaders is killing me right now. It seems like nothing works. My only hope is the sustaining grace of the good shepherds in the valleys of death. One of this day, He will get us out of the valley and surely goodness and mercy will come. Thanks for this reminder and other posts. It really helps a lot.

  20. Jon Wright on July 25, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    Great stuff Carey, thank you! This is also helpful in reviewing ministry/department leaders inside of a larger church. Often there are areas which are experiencing health and growth while others are not. Applying this list to each leader in each area may help reveal the need for individual coaching, training and/or transition.

  21. “Hannah” on May 11, 2018 at 1:42 am

    So I just read a blog post by Thomas Rainer, “Why Dying Churches Die,” and it was spot on. Then I find this post with a podcast featuring Rainer and I’m more convinced that God is calling me to help start a revolution for my church. My church recently celebrated 70 years and used to be full of families of all different shapes, ages, and sizes. Now, I feel obligated to go because I’ve been going for 16 years but if I didn’t have strong ties in the church (both of my parents are prominent leaders), I would have left years ago. I’m part of the young adult demographic that feels ignored and we don’t know how to approach this topic with our leaders because the issue has historically been met with hostility from said leaders. Does anyone have any ideas on how to go about promoting change in a Godly loving manner that doesn’t provoke outrage? Help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Nea H. on November 21, 2019 at 1:18 pm

      Hey, it’s been over a year now. Did you ever get an answer? I would like to know this as well.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on November 22, 2019 at 11:35 am

        Hey Hannah and Nae,

        Sorry for the delayed response. Sometimes my team and I miss comments.

        So this is a tough one. I love that you are so passionate about helping your church, but it is really hard to change the leadership’s mind. I might reccomend that you go to just one of the key leaders (Maybe the lead pastor or head elder) and ask about what you could do to help the church better reach individuals your age. If you wanted to bring the posts you mention to the meeting, you could bring them and ask what they think of them.

        I can’t guarantee that this approach will work, but going in with questions will be a lot more effective than going in with answers.

        Cheering you on!

        Carey

  22. Ellie on October 29, 2017 at 10:57 am

    I’m in current situation where I am praying for a church. Every Sunday I leave service heartbroken. I’m in ministry and though I love this Pastor, and have correctly spoken with him, I see a terrible controlling power that has crept onto the worship team. No new songs, hardly anyone is moving in their gifts. It feels cliquish and shut down to change. Though new people come they quickly leave.

    Less than 30 people attended today. I feel like I’m on a sinking ship. I do want to be faithful and see this turn around. I’m concerned it’s already very late.

  23. CNLP Bonus 013: #AskCarey Part 12 on October 9, 2017 at 8:39 am

    […] 32:00: I just read your blog post, 7 Subtle Signs Your Church is Dying, and my heart breaks as I think that I might be watching that happen to my church right before my […]

  24. […] 7 Subtle Signs Your Church Is Dying […]

  25. Ed_Cyzewski on March 31, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Great list. Just a heads up that you’re missing point #4. 😉

    • Barbara McDavid on December 24, 2019 at 9:20 am

      It is sad to hear these testimonies of dying churches. The church foundation is Christ so to hear that a church is dying is sad and in my opinion indicates a disconnection from the Savior who established His church. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades” shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

      Maybe dying churches need to go to the founding Fathers in prayer and fasting petitioning. for God to break the yokes or strongholds that prevents the church from fulfilling the mission it was established for.

      God is great and nothing is impossible (Jer. 32:17),

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