There is a difference between your church:

  • Being small and dying.
  • Plateauing and dying.
  • Declining and dying.
  • Merging and dying.
  • Being large and healthy.
  • Being large and reaching the lost.
  • Being large and having a lengthy future.

The truth is, for a church, only dying is dying. Nevertheless, it’s also true to say there are symptoms your church may be on the path to death. Misdiagnosing the actual state of the union and what the real issues are is a slippery business. However, speaking generally, here are five signs your church is beginning to die:

  1. Leadership is hopelessly gridlock or fractured, and there is no real plan to fix the issue. No one has agreed to step down. Leadership is unable or unwilling self-correct by removing someone from the ranks or agreeing to disagree but proceeding united anyway. This one thing is most dangerous to a church’s life.
  2. Your church hasn’t had a year of real growth for at least five years. What I mean by “real” is a year where attendance went up at least 10%. Unless you are in a rural context, this means you are no longer reaching people with the Gospel, or you’re losing more people than you’re reaching–and you’ve done it for five years. This is a good time to recognize there may be a problem and find real solutions.
  3. Your vision is primarily in the rear-view mirror not the windshield. I call it, “Rear-view” vision. Whenever vision comes up, you think about a return to the past rather than a new future. This tends to happen because the pain caused and received by moving forward is substantial and leadership would, subconsciously, prefer to go back to the past–which they think everyone can agree on. It’s also a result of thinking if it worked then it will work now. Another symptom of “rear-view vision” is constant consideration of what the congregation will think as supreme to what might best reach new people with the Gospel. A church needs to do that now and then, but if it’s a way of life, you’ve got “rear-view” vision.
  4. You’ve lost the ability to attract quality staff. Generally, smaller, non-growing churches value staff the least. This couples with the less attractive parts of the church to prevent churches from bringing in quality people who God has gifted for ministry. One of the best coaches I know was asked by a man coaching a bad team what his team needed to turn things around. He said, “Great players.” Everyone laughed. Then he said, or, a well coached team of good players will do. Undervaluing and mistreating staff is common among dying churches. Churches that have quality staff who are released to serve the Lord rarely find themselves in this spot if the leadership team is healthy.
  5. God shows up looking for your church’s lampstand. We often think God wants our church to go on forever, and in cases where little openness to God’s agenda for your church has atrophied for lack of action–he may send you notice your days are numbered. In my experience, this happens when churches have not heeded His will for years. It isn’t something that happens after one mistake–it usually takes at least a decade. Before your church literally has to close its doors with no real agenda, God will usually offer at least one opportunity to rebirth through merger, dissolution and joining another church, or replanting. Make sure it’s of God, but don’t pass on these because of pride. Think Kingdom. I’ve seen churches whose best days are past them change their city for good through wisdom at the death stage. One last thing: don’t be afraid to initiate conversations with churches you think might be interested in partnership. Look for flexible churches with similar theological DNA–who also are growing, have healthy leadership and quality staff.

Do you have some other marks?