Can a Dying Church Find Life?

How can a dying church be resuscitated?
How can a dying church be rescuscitated? (iStock photo)

I have written another article that presented the findings of my "autopsy" on a church that recently closed its doors and died. I knew the church well because I had been their leadership's consultant 10 years earlier. The only surprise I found was that the church kept its doors open five years longer than I had anticipated.

The story generated much interest. Many church leaders and laypersons saw early warning signs in the post that related to their own churches. Many are concerned. Many want to know if there is any hope. The headline of this article is a bit ironic. If a church is dying, it cannot then, by definition, find life.

I must say from a purely statistical perspective, most churches with the symptoms I noted will die within a few years. Though I don't have hard data, I would be comfortable suggesting that the percentage exceeds 99 percent.

But among the American churches on a death march, there is that rare exception, that one in 1,000, that extraordinary situation where a church defies all the man-made odds and moves from near death to health. Those churches are rare, but they do exist.

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In the midst of the gloomy news of terminal churches, I took a look at a few that had all the signs of impending death and then turned around to life. All of those of which I have knowledge were located in areas with dramatically shifting demographics.

They weren't merely churches that were unhealthy; they were dying. Even the most casual observer would have predicted the imminent demise of these congregations. They were truly sick unto death. So how did these churches turn things around?

Though each of the stories I examined has its own nuances, I did find some common themes. Please take careful note: This is not a quick-fix solution to dying churches. To the contrary, it's the story of six radical steps taken by key members in each of the churches.

1. A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs. That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.

2. A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be its sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.

3. That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with "our kind of people." They saw the church as a place where their personal needs were met.

4.The group must have an utter, desperate and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they've always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.

5. The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can't assuage its guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable and give sacrificially of time, money and heart.

6. The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church.

Most readers likely understand the low likelihood of such a transformation taking place. It is so rare that, when it happens, it is often given the name "miracle."

But we serve the God of miracles. Maybe we should expect more. Maybe we should do more. 


Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.

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