No pastor enjoys standing in front of a church of 150 or 500 or 2500 (or whatever size) and humbly admitting their church is guilty of these “13 Deadly Sins of a Dying Church.” I recently worked with a pastor who saw the proverbial “writing on the wall” after reviewing the results of our church ministry analysis. His leadership had spoken clearly. The fruit of any church consultation usually includes both positives to celebrate and growth areas as well. Many times we encounter a slight resistance to change but this time things were different.
The pastor readily admitted where he needed to grow and his need for ongoing awareness of his own growth areas. He addressed the needed growth areas head on (not in a haphazard, overly zealous, or critical way). He stopped to admit some of the deadly sins of a dying church that directly stemmed from mistakes he made. Talk about brave! But what happened may surprise you. The church responded with equal levels of humility and motivation to change because they saw it modeled in their leadership.
The statistics consistently show a massive need for a renewed focus on church health among church revitalizations, church planting, and church mergers/adoptions. We know we need to be healthier but we struggle to take the steps necessary like this pastor did to get there. We accept our past or current rhythms in lieu of making the necessary changes to our weekly activities and plans to realize different results.
In my research of this pastor and many others sampled from over 30 states, 10 denominations, and churches varying in size from under 50 to above 5000, I developed this list of 13 deadly sins of a dying church. My goal isn’t to critique or put down pastors and other Christian leaders but to motivate you to action. I believe we could see a dramatic shift in churches willing to humbly admit weakness, serve their communities, and make the necessary changes to transform their ministries. I’ve never met a pastor that would prefer to do an autopsy of a deceased church instead of a celebration of the church health indicators and characteristics that created a vibrant and fruitful ministry context. May there be a day when we do less church autopsies and more celebrations of church health. If this is to occur, we have to plant healthy churches, keep improving the ministry health of healthy churches, and identify the deadly sins of dying churches in need of asking the right questions to move towards revitalization.
13 Deadly Sins of a Dying Church
1) Few guests return.
Guests don’t return for a reason. Something happened before, during, or after their visit with your church that caused them to decide not to stay. Whatever that reason is, do you know what it is? What are you doing about it?
It makes me cringe when I hear someone say “Guests aren’t my responsibility. I’m supposed to preach the word and lead the sheep, not make every guest happy.” I’m not saying that a pastor doesn’t have a responsibility to communicate God’s word to people and to lead them, but if we don’t own the ways our behaviors (or lack of actions) cause people to leave, I doubt your church’s metaphorical back door will ever shift from revolving to closed and sticky.
I’ve found that if we treat guests like outside visitors who aren’t important to our ministry, they tend to leave and never return. If we attempt to love guests as image bearers loved by God and important to us, they tend to stay. How does your church need to change how it does things to better love your guests? (A good place to start is by assessing whether you are a friendly church or not by bringing in a Sunday Secret Shopper as church hospitality tends to be an indicator of your love for your neighbor)
2) The church focuses more on internal than external issues.
It is easy to get consumed by all the things you have going on, visiting people who are sick, preparing messages, and handling all the conflict that comes up in the church. I don’t think pastors intend to shift their focus to internal issues at the expense of impacting their community. It happens when internal ministry demands increase without intentionality to guard one’s time.
Some would argue with this point to say that a pastor should focus on pastoring the flock rather than everyone else. Pastors who focus only on insiders create a get out of jail free card that allows a “me focused” membership that ignores Ephesians 4 and an irrelevance in the community.
3) Program quantity and quality trumps Gospel proclamation.
Ever find yourself thinking that you have far too many programs in your church? Many, many pastors have wrestled with this issue over the years. But I’d like to back the truck up a little and ask how you got there.
Sometimes churches start so many different ministries that sustaining all of them becomes the primary ministry of the staff and lay leaders. Maintenance mode begins to trump transformation. Be careful that your time is not engulfed in constantly improving and adding programs to the point that you have ceased forming relationships with non-Christians and sharing the Gospel with them. A good way to keep yourself and others in check on this one is to regularly encourage people to intentionally form NEW relationships with non-Christians and avoid spending every weekend with Christian friends. If we aren’t forming new friendships, we likely are not sharing our faith as frequently as we should.
4) Your building is in severe need of maintenance.
How are your facilities doing? The building where you church meets can serve as an outside indicator of the health of its people. This isn’t a 100% consistent truth because well manicured grounds can also serve as a facade to the internal sickness of the church. However, over time, a facility that lacks proper maintenance points to a church that has lost its focus on reaching its community.
Guests don’t want to see a stained carpet and disgusting bathrooms. They want easy access to information not only on-site but also on the web. They will infer certain things about your church health when they see cracks in your bathroom floor and weeds growing in your sidewalk. What do they infer about your church? I realize that when you make everything about the guest and attracting them at all cost, that can also indicate a church that has lost its focus on discipleship.
But everything you do as a church communicates. As Christians, we must remember that everything we do may not communicate the same thing to us as it communicates to guests. Rarely can an individual or organization effectively self-diagnose and evaluate without an outside perspective. The longer you have been in a location or role, the less able you will become at effectively evaluating it. This is why we recommend an outside Sunday Secret Shopper Assessment.
5) Your lead or senior pastor is expected to visit everyone.
If this describes your church, don’t read any other part of this article. Focus here until you see improvement. The expectation that the pastor should visit everyone has destroyed and is destroying more churches than most anything else in church history. Do you support this destructive expectation intentionally or unintentionally through your words and actions?
Pastors need to work against this idea through preaching, leadership pipeline development, and through re-assessment of job descriptions and evaluations. I’d rather see churches evaluate their pastor on the development of leaders rather than the amount of people visited or upset about not getting a visit from the pastor. One approach promotes ministry hoarding and the other encourages equipping and training. You decide which one aligns better with Ephesians 4.
The pastor isn’t a shepherd hired to meet everyone’s needs but a servant leader required by Scripture to equip others.
6) Your worship services aren’t inspiring or encouraging.
How would you describe the worship environment on Sunday mornings? When is the last time that you assessed your worship services? What about your development of leaders within your worship ministry? We find that on a routine basis churches have hired “worship leaders” rather than creative arts pastors who develop worship teams to lead worship. One focuses on doing. The other focuses on developing.
But what about the overall environment of the worship service? Sometimes the worship service can feel painful and almost as if everyone is struggling to want to be there. Whether due to poor music preparation, a less-than-relevant message, or an architectural environment that depresses people, you still should stay aware of how your guests, regular attenders, and covenant partners/members are experiencing the worship services. I’m not suggesting that every message needs to be uplifting because there are times that your worship service should utilize varying methods to align with a sad tone such as Good Friday and others. But people experience so much pain on a weekly basis that we have a big opportunity to regularly provide hope and inspiration from the truth of God’s Word along with encouraging times of worship.
7) Your lead pastor never mentions or has no plan for succession.
The average church member may not ever have this conversation with the pastor. I understand that but someone should have this conversation with the pastor. A pastor who doesn’t keep succession in mind is intentionally planning to sabotage your church upon departure. If this is acceptable to us, then we are complicit.
Pastors love their people and get very invested in seeing their ministries make a large impact. But effective succession doesn’t happen without intentionality. There are some contexts where systems are in place to facilitate more effective transitions such as in the mainline denominations that we have worked with in the past. But even so, I think a word of caution remains in effect. Even though your denomination has a district superintendent, regional leader, bishop or other individual that can come in and provide direction, how come you haven’t taken responsibility for your own church? How come you haven’t already started working with your pastor to bring on a successor you will begin to groom in preparation for the future transition?
Never forget that all ministry is interim ministry as none of us will be around forever. Let’s take our collective heads out of the sand and address this issue. Let’s move in a direction that affirms that faithful ministry of long-time pastors, the longevity of our churches’ impact, and the gifts and abilities of our younger leaders who are looking to be entrusted with the chance to serve and lead. Intentional successions honor our Lord as we serve with purpose and prioritize His mission over our tenure.
Never forget that all ministry is interim ministry as none of us will be around forever.
8) The church’s community impact isn’t noticeable.
Does the community as a whole notice your church’s impact? Notice that I didn’t encourage you do try to do everything in your community. I also didn’t encourage you to “seek out” recognition as we need to direct the recognition to our Lord and not ourselves. Sometimes we have a tendency to try to do too much and to seek out attention for our good deeds. Neither is acceptable.
Rather than trying to do everything, step back and identify one or two areas where your church will do the majority of its service. A good starting point would be a local school, non-profit, or other area that allows you to invest without needing or expecting anything in return. Rather than priding ourselves on helping 357 different ministries (you know who you are), why not humbly invest deeply in few ways in one area of the community such as an elementary school? Your community will take notice when your church sacrificially meets a need in your community. The difficulties will be identifying that need, ending some of what you are already doing in other areas, and focusing all your efforts in one direction. Be careful that along the way you don’t seek out attention or attempt to get all the credit. Celebrate your volunteers and their selfless sacrifice, the faithful teachers in your local schools, or others in your community who may appreciate a thank you from your church.
9) Unintentional growth that isn’t understood or addressed.
This one may surprise some people because we don’t like to think of good things in a negative light. But when good things happen and we don’t know why, the surface level impression is that things are good but the engine is puttering out when you look under the hood.
A good example of this would be growing attendance numbers. Growing attendance doesn’t mean things are necessarily good or bad. But if you don’t know why numbers are going up, it could indicate a very undesirable situation. It might mean that your church attracts large amounts of people to an event but lacks substance, group life, and discipleship. You could easily celebrate the growing attendance and soon watch your church decline rapidly because of a lack of depth and discipleship.
10) Attendance is declining.
Attendance is not the most important measure of your ministry fruitfulness. Attendance growth or decline usually is more of an indicator of something else related to church health. When your attendance is declining, it usually indicates another sign of ministry sickness (but not always as occasionally ministries need to contract to get healthier before expanding the healthy areas).
For example, a decline in attendance could be due to a frustration with your worship and it’s lack of relevance to the louder, more worship-band focused preferences of the younger generation. Declining attendance could point to sermons that don’t connect with the real struggles of the people in the church. It could point to a lack of meaningful group life. It could point to many things. Regardless of what it points to, you need to take time to assess what’s driving the decline, discuss how this occurred with your staff and lay leaders, and craft a plan for how to address how to move from a sick church in decline to a healthy church.
11) Staff turnover is high and vacation time is rare.
Pastors and ministry staff don’t usually leave healthy ministry contexts. They leave unhealthy ministry contexts found in sick and dying churches. How is your church doing with staff turnover? How long do pastors and support staff tend to stay with you? What is driving them to leave your church? What part of your church’s anatomy is impacting their decision to see your church as an unhealthy place to serve?
What about vacation time? Does the staff at your church regularly take vacations? The goal isn’t to spend as much time out of ministry as you can. Not at all. What I’m trying to assess is the degree to which the leadership of your church are engaged in healthy rhythms that will sustain them for the long-haul, drive retention numbers up, and improve your overall church health.
12) Prayer is no longer prioritized.
Prioritized prayer occurs when modeled by the pastor and cultivated among the lay leadership in your groups and families. How are you cultivating the prayer life of your congregation? How are you training parents to pray with their kids? Do children know how to pray?
As someone who grew up in a tradition with a tendency to write down all their prayers, I found that praying with a group or in front of a group or with anyone was a difficult task for me. I initially learned by experience that a prayer was something we either read from the page or recited from memory (i.e. Lord’s Prayer and others). It wasn’t until my teens and 20s that I came to understand the freedom we had as Christians to pray directly to God without advanced preparation and writing. As a result, I rarely prayed for years because I assumed that true prayers occurred on Sundays and should be written out. I’m sure there are many others in more traditional contexts that struggle with the same thing and the idea of praying an original prayer seems difficult and distant from their daily experience.
Other churches have a tendency to value improvised prayer to the point that their prayers lack the depth and theology that others do. If this describes you, you might want to consider how equipped your people are to pray. They may shy away from praying because they perceive that they will never be able to think of a prayer without advanced planning like you can.
No approach to prayer should be propped up as the only way. What I want us to do is understand how our tradition affects the willingness of our people to pray. By extension it affects your prioritization of prayer and theirs (or lack of prioritization). If you truly believe prayer is a priority, you will do more than preach a sermon series on prayer and occasionally mention prayer. You will ensure people know how to pray, get opportunities to pray, and are encouraged to prioritize their time to allow for a focus on prayer.
Prioritized prayer occurs when modeled by the pastor and cultivated among the lay leadership.
13) Lay leaders (and pastors) don’t know where the church is heading.
Do the lay leaders in your church know where the church is heading? If I walked into your building and asked a few leaders at random to articulate the vision of your church, what would they say? I don’t expect them to know the exact wording but could they give me a general idea of where you want to be in 3-5 years? What about how your community will look different as a result of your church’s ministry?
Typically, when I do this people say one of the following:
– I have no idea. (People don’t know the vision by studying a website or a document. They hear it, experience it, and live it.)
– Whatever the pastor says. (The pastor should communicate vision but others should own it and communicate it too.)
– We don’t get all focused on vision statements. We are here to serve Jesus. (There is nothing wrong with serving Jesus but we will more effectively serve Jesus when we can connect what we do to the realization of a future vision.)
– I think it’s on the back of the bulletin. (They are usually referring to a mission statement, not a vision.)
These types of statements don’t indicate a lack of faithfulness on the part of the lay leadership. Quite the contrary. I think lay leaders want to make a large impact and will faithfully follow strong servant leadership. They indicate a lack of intentionality on the part of the pastor, session, staff, board, or other leaders to faithfully clarify the vision, communicate it, and ensure others know it. Which of these areas do you need to address? Where do you see these deadly sins of a dying church in your church and its ministries?
If you are a pastor and you don’t have a clear vision of the future, the bravest thing you can do isn’t to try to go it alone by figuring out where the 13 deadly sins of a dying church occur in your church. You likely should collaborate with others. Take tangible action, listen to your leaders, get outside input, and begin clarifying a plan forward that includes vision clarity, precise measures/ends, and a leadership pipeline that equips and develops people for fruitful ministry.
What do I do next?
Great question. The worst thing you could do is nothing with these deadly sins of a dying church. Take action by speaking about this post with your staff. Email the 13 deadly sins of a dying church to your board, session, council, trustees, deacons, or other oversight body to get their input. Feel free to also setup a phone call to speak with us about any questions.
If you would like an additional resource to help you lead your staff to address these deadly sins of a dying church, complete your church profile and we’ll send you our 16 Church Analysis Questions as a service to you. These questions are the result of thousands of conversations with pastors and churches to better understand what areas to assess before moving forward with a church revitalization effort. We encourage you to process these questions in community with other pastors, lay leaders, and potentially with an outside church consultant. An outside church consultant can serve as the lead navigator for you and your team as you work on your church’s health and prepare for the exciting growth ahead.
The Malphurs Group offers a Sunday Secret Shopper Visit and outside ministry navigators (otherwise known as Church Consultants) to walk your church through the strategic growth process. These services can ignite tremendous growth in your church and reinvigorate your ministry. Please contact us if you’d like to learn more.