12 Signs Your Church Is on a Downslope

Do you know of any churches going downhill? (Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash)

Church growth writers talk about the bell-shaped curve that characterizes the growth of many churches. The left side of the bell curve is exciting (vision, outreach, growth and so on), but the right side is challenging (nostalgia, decline, division and so on).

Based on my years of church consulting, here are some markers of churches on the downslope. Every church should be aware of these markers, just in case they're unknowingly moving in the wrong direction.

  1. A visionless leader: Often, the primary leader in the church—the pastor—has lost vision for the future.
  2. Unspoken conflict: The conflict may not have yet risen to a raging fire, but the embers of division are beginning to flame quietly.
  3. A "back door" problem: People are leaving the church more rapidly than they're joining. Sometimes, the difference between the two is stark.
  4. Few converts: Congregations in this state seldom do much evangelism.
  5. Non-returning guests: It's not that first-time guests aren't coming to the church; it's that they never come back after the first time.
  6. Stagnant, if not declining, finances: Long-term members may be keeping the financial ship afloat, but nothing suggests coming growth in giving.
  7. Fractured leadership: Ongoing conflict among staff or lay leaders is not uncommon in churches going in the wrong direction.
  8. Decreasing funds for ministry: This problem is often the result of maintaining a larger-church staff as the church itself gets smaller. Salaries dominate the expenses as the church struggles.
  9. "Yesterday" conversations more than "today or tomorrow" hopes: "I remember when" statements become much more common than "I'm so excited about what God's doing."
  10. Longer-term leaders just "hanging on": Even the strongest, most faithful members begin to think about leaving when a church is on the wrong side of the curve.
  11. Increasingly a one-generation congregation: Typically, younger families leave rather than wait out any needed changes.
  12. Entrenched hopelessness: Those who remain begin to lose hope, but they remain unwilling to change.

What other characteristics have you seen?

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, he served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife, Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art and Jess; and 10 grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer.

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