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CNLP 036: Why Churches Die—An Interview With Thom Rainer

What are the signs your church might die?

Why are so many churches dying?

In this episode, blogger, podcaster and Lifeway CEO Thom Rainer outlines why so many churches fail to thrive.

Welcome to Episode 36 of the Podcast.RAINER 01

Guest Links: Thom Rainer

Rainer on Leadership

Thom Rainer on Twitter

Thom Rainer on Facebook


I Will – Releases July 15, 2015

Autopsy of a Deceased Church 

Links Mentioned in this Episode

Reggie Joiner

Andy Stanley

Perry Noble

Jeff Henderson

Jenni Catron

Josh Gagnon

Terry Scalzitti

Rick Warren

Steven Furtick

Bill Hybels

John Piper

Mike Glenn at Brentwood Church

John Lee Dumas

Rich Birch

Ron Edmondson; Episode 10

Dom Ruso; Episode 15

Vanderbloemen Search Group


3 Things You Can Do Right Away

Thom says that only 10 percent of churches are growing faster than the community growth rate, and to keep up with cultural changes, churches should revisit their strategy every 2-3 years. You don’t have to compromise Biblical truths to accommodate culture shifts, but we do need to understand that the times in which we live and the pace of culture changes fast.

  1. Have outside eyes. Not every church can hire a third-party company to perform an audit of their organization. But you could ask another pastor of the community, an outside family member or anyone who can see the church from a vantage point other than daily or weekly. Erosion is slow. You’re not going to notice it in the first couple of years, but over time, the effects will become evident.
  2. Keep honest metrics. Facts are our friends if they’re used well. Use numbers to find out where you’re going and where you want to be. Thom used the analogy of stepping on a scale. We avoid scales because we don’t want to see the numbers, but you’re not going to make the changes you need to make if you don’t have that test of reality. Don’t deny the reality of the metrics.
  3. Examine your budget. Look at your budget from five years ago, and look at it today. Then, ask these questions: How much of our budget is growing externally, and how much of it is used for our membership? You want your budget to take care of the members, but dying churches have a monetary shift away from external uses and then to internal uses. Are you using funds to draw people to your church, or are you only taking care of your own? In many cases, Thom says churches have become religious country clubs. The members pay their dues, and they get their perks for that instead of serving God through the church. What happens is that more of a church budget is focused on them, and fewer resources go toward growth. What is your church doing beyond itself, and how is that measured in dollars?

Quotes from Thom


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Next Episode: Chris Rivers

How do you make sure your team stays aligned with your mission and vision? Chris Rivers’s job at New Spring Church in South Carolina was to teach new staff New Spring’s culture.

The challenge was they were adding up to ten new staff per WEEK. Chris explains how they did it, and what you need to do to keep your team aligned.

Subscribe for free now, and you won’t miss Episode 37.

In the meantime, got a question?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

CNLP 036: Why Churches Die—An Interview With Thom Rainer


  1. Jay on June 2, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    Awesome episode, Carey. I spent 16 years in three different church plants that didn’t make it. All three with VERY different reasons (most of which were covered in the podcast). Both you and Thom provided some incredible insight into why many churches are diseased and dying. While it’s not something we like discussing, it is a topic that MUST be talked about openly. Love the podcast. Keep on keepin’ on, bro!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 3, 2015 at 5:54 am

      Wow Jay…so glad it was helpful. Sometimes just knowing what happened can bring peace. Thanks for your courage for the Kingdom.

      • Jay on June 3, 2015 at 8:25 am

        Don’t misunderstand. While each of them was incredibly difficult at the time, I wouldn’t trade what Jesus did in and through these seasons for anything. I read somewhere about how all things work for good to those who love Him. No doubt on this end!

  2. Justin Dela Cruz on May 28, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    @cnieuwhof:disqus Thanks for asking my question about location pastors to @ThomRainer. It’s an area of ministry where not a lot of people are clear about what it could and should look like. A lot has shifted over the last 5 years from the location pastor being simply a relational “face for the place” to the “leader of leaders” and “the pastor of their (location) church.” Our location pastors lead the team who leads the church.

    There’s not much taught or written about it either. As it continues to grow in popularity, demand will drive people to specifically engage that audience, and I’m all ears. 🙂 Though I have found that simply reaching out to other leaders in similar positions is a great way to learn best practices, insights, and common struggles. (And OF COURSE reading your blog and listening to your podcast 😉 – keep up the good work!)

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 29, 2015 at 6:51 am

      Thanks Justin! Great question…and thanks for your leadership!

  3. Zachary Verbracken on May 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

    I love the reminder to have outside eyes and honest metrics. It’s painful to be that transparent, but so necessary. I also appreciated his thoughts on the “Traditional Church” mindset.. and how even some 2 year old churches have traditional values that they don’t want to diverge from.

    Carey, I enjoyed listening to the Q and A portion where you allowed listeners to ask questions. Great touch!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 28, 2015 at 6:29 am

      Thanks Zachary. I’ll do more of the lightning round in summer interviews. 🙂

  4. […] Why Churches Die — Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Marshae on May 22, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I always wondered how a lot of churches stay open, I’ve been to some churches and the Word was so dry. I often say I’m not going to a restraurant to eat bad food, so I’m not going to a church to get a Word that wont help me in my life, but so many people do it, its crazy to me.

  6. Brent Dumler on May 21, 2015 at 8:57 am

    I appreciated the point about having ‘outside eyes.’ At a former church, we even used this practice once as a form of outreach. We would honestly ask people in the community if they would mind visiting our church, almost as a secrete shopper. We used a special feedback form created just for them and offered them a $10 Starbucks card for giving us their honest input. Occasionally, they would return the following weekend.
    This was a really helpful interview for me. And I appreciate you taking my question, Carey 🙂

  7. Derek Gillette on May 19, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Hi Carey, noticed a small typo in your first paragraph under 3 Things you Can Do Right Away. “Thom says that only 10 percent of churches are growing father than the community growth rate” Father should be faster I think? I’ll delete this too once you’ve got it fixed…

  8. Chris Shumate on May 19, 2015 at 7:18 am

    Excellent podcast on church growth (or lack there of) trends. Regarding numbers, I love what my senior pastor, Chris Stephens of Faith Promise Church says, “Every number has a name, every name has a story, and every story matters to God.”

    I view it as a sort of confession that we are focused on numbers because God desires for all people to come to faith in Him. We may not get everything right as a church, but we are trying with intentionality and fervent prayer to make the name of Jesus known in the East Tennessee area.

    I’m not sure I agree with the comment about people not being multi-ethnic. My reasoning is that bi-racial folks may be able to identify with both (or several) communities because of the biological makeup. I’m not saying I disagree, but I would be interested in hearing from people who are bi-racial (or multi-racial) as to whether they consider themselves multi-ethnic.

    Keep up God’s work. I love the valuable information you and your guests share.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 19, 2015 at 7:37 am

      Chris…thanks for the feedback and the encouragement. Some great points!

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