The Dead and the Dying

I’ve been putting a lot of research lately into the life cycle of local churches. In America, the average church is seventy-eight years old, and more churches close than open every year. But why? As our population continues to grow, we should be adding churches, yes, but we shouldn’t need to shutter existing ones. Add people, add congregations — not add people, subtract congregations and then add fewer than you closed. So why is this the trend?

Two reasons seem to dominate the discussion. First, fewer Americans attend services regularly, as the number of people claiming a Christian affiliation is at an all-time low, percentage-wise. They call this “the rise of the nones” — those individuals who, when presented with a list of possible religions, check the box marked “none.” These are people who do not claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, or anything else. It could be they’ve always been atheistic, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or something else entirely. It could even be they grew up in a religious household and just lost their faith at some point in life. Regardless, the nones are one of the (if not¬†the) fastest growing “religious” groups in America. As more and more people choose to opt out of a religious affiliation, fewer and fewer walk through the doors of the local church. Without people to donate to keep those doors open, they close forever.

The second major reason we close more churches than we open is that people choose to let their churches die. I’m not suggesting a group of malcontent Machiavellis get together in the church basement and strategically plot the demise of the congregation. I’m saying the members and leaders of the congregation are unwilling to either see the need for change or to enact the changes which are necessary for the survival of the church. These churches will only allow things to be done according to the preferences of existing members, saying in effect they’d rather die than allow¬†x to happen — and so they do. After years of denials and refusals to adapt to the communities around them, they close their doors forever. And the saddest part? They have only themselves to blame.

Churches like that rarely come out and admit that’s what’s happening, though. Most instead will loudly aver time and time again just how open they are to change — yet they never allow change to happen. They will vow to do whatever it takes, anything at all, to keep the doors open — then politely refuse to lift a finger because, well, change means change, and change requires action.

With those attitudes — with the “us first” mentality — these churches quickly slide downhill. Members become older, and as they (inevitably) die, no younger people rise to replace them. Youth groups dwindle and perish as teens age out of the group or as youth volunteers simply quit. (Most of those newly-minted young adults, I’d wager, will leave the church, either their home congregation or the capital-C Church Universal.) Without new members coming in or the natural advancement of younger members, the congregation literally dies. Without enough donors to provide support, the church first loses staff and then closes the doors completely and permanently. Life support measures fail, and the patient dies.

All because members want it their way. They don’t want to give up what they have in order to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead, they carefully remodel their church buildings into stained-glass tombs, mausoleums of The Good Ol’ Days.

Aside from the selfishness and arrogance it takes to do that, it’s just plain sad.

Church consultants say only two things can happen to a church on life support, one just doing what it’s always done and refusing to change. On the one hand, it can simply die over time, with the remaining members joining other congregations. Alternatively, it can preemptively sell (or give) its properties and other assets to a new church or ministry. The members will still go their separate ways, but the edifice will live on to provide a home for a new, vibrant body of believers. Sadly, those two options are generally agreed upon as the only ways forward for those on life support. Once a church hits a life expectancy of 5-10 years remaining, the experts say it’s nigh impossible to save.

There are exceptions, of course. The people may finally commit to change and turn things around. Those changes will have to be sweeping and dramatic, and they will probably cost many members who leave as the church they know dies to become something else. They may prove financially expensive as well. For those reasons, exceptions to the 5-10 rule seem few and far between.

Before we lay all blame for dying churches at the feet of culture, then, let’s look at ourselves. Are we truly committed to doing whatever it takes to reach lost souls (short of sacrificing the integrity of the gospel)? Do we truly believe the desires of others come before our own preferences? Has your church placed itself on life support?

Only you can answer those questions.

Answer them honestly.