July 15, 2010 Tony Morgan

5 Attributes of a Church in Decline

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk with a denominational leader in a different part of the country. Over the last few years, he’s personally been involved in consulting engagements with about 60 declining churches within his denomination. That grabbed my attention. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of experience working with churches that are in decline. With that in mind, I was curious to learn if there were any common themes. Within moments, he rattled off these five attributes of churches he’s worked with that are in decline:

When I work with churches for the first time, I think sometimes they’re frustrated with me because I’m not willing to help them fix something specific. Sometimes they want me to tweak their internal systems. Other times they want me to speak into improvements in their Sunday service environments. Other times they want me to provide feedback on their website or their music or their facility. I’ve found that churches can become convinced that they know why their church isn’t growing.

There comes a point when it’s healthy and appropriate to address specific environments, systems or tactics; however, these five foundational aspects of a healthy ministry have to come first. If we’re unwilling to address these critical elements, then we’re not going to shift the declining trends.

The crazy thing about this is that there are many churches that would rather close their doors (hundreds every year) than make the necessary changes it would take to have an impact. Why is it that we put our personal preferences ahead of our ministry impact?

I’m glad at least one denominational leader in one part of the country is willing to try to change that pattern.

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Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

Comments (34)

  1. Tony what you are sharing here is surprising, isn’t the issue pride in the end? I read a quote once that said “people don’t mind change they just don’t like to BE changed”, people get set in their ways. Unfortunately churches do too.
    The church is a living, growing thing and the people, who should be giving and showing the fruits of God’s spirit should show that beautiful transformation in their lives, it should be reflected everywhere you walk, when the people don’t reflect that “truth & life”….something is missing, something is wrong and needs to change.

  2. Man this is true. The specifics never seem to work out because, in my opinion, there’s no buy in with the top leadership. Oh sure, you might have their “blessing” to move forward on something but in the end, they aren’t really behind the change–they are letting you scratch an itch hoping that it will keep you satisfied and if congregations don’t sense a buy-in from the leadership, neither will they.

    So frustrating. Leaders, pay attention to these 5 Attributes of Decline.

  3. Yeah this is very sad, but extremely true! The church in North America seems to be losing ground. I am very thankful to be a part of a Denomination that is committed to Revitalization of their congregations so that they can place God’s mission at their center and not personal preferences.

    One way we are doing this is to get pastors into an affinity network around Revitalization. We are learning from each other and we are also being there for each other for prayer and support. Some of the things we have learned is that the church needs to have deep sense or urgency surrounded by the Gospel first and foremost. Without this, changes is never long lasting or Jesus centered.

    Another way we are learning Revitalization is through coaching. Church planters have coaches. But those who are turning churches around rarely do. This support is absolutely crucial in the success of the revitalization. Through the network and coaching; we are staying encouraged and the by-product to this is pastors are staying at church’s longer.

    I really believe there is a huge need for this type of support in all denominations and also non-denominational churches. This is one area that I believe that the North American Church can really “beef” up and start to take some ground back. Anyway, I wanted to share what I was learning, my two cents, and a little of my heart.

  4. Great observations — see it all the time in big and small churches . I would add the 5 things Jim Collins points out in “How the Mighty Fall”

    Hubris born of success
    Undisciplined pursuit of more
    Denial of risk and peril
    Grasping for salvation
    Capitulation to irrelevance or death

  5. Tony that list sums it up pretty good because from those five fundamental areas lots of different wings come out.

    it seems (someone tell me if i’m wrong) that most declining churches not all but most are those that have been around for decades, again by this i’m not saying that church plants or recent churches aren’t can’t be stuck without growth, but could it be that since many of these declining churches are established churches that there needs to be a re-establishment of the five fundamental principles?


  6. Great insight. I knew when you mentioned you were going to blog on this yesterday that an “inward focus” was one of the 5 reasons. That’s why I believe so strongly in the secret shopper service that my company offers churches. You must be strategic and intentional about creating warm and welcoming environments for new people. An outward focus also effects how you make decisions in your organizations. Growing churches make decisions based on the people that aren’t yet there, not based on keeping those already present happy.

  7. deserie

    I have to agree. After we left our church of 6 years, we have been searching. It has been 23 churches in 1 year.
    It is hard to not feel bad when asked “why didn’t you like that church?” Its hard to not feel like a jerk for saying everyone just wants to be in the inner circle, or they dont want to be changed or not one single person spoke to us. While I have been told “its not about you”. I was already aware of that, but if your not being reached out to, how would the people you are bringing feel reached out to?
    I have found that men are more likely to reach out than women. Out of the 23 I have gone to I was not reached out to once. Reach the man you reach one person, reach the woman you reach the whole family. I don’t know who said this, but it is so true. I have found a majority of the time it’s the women that are unhappy. Change, change, change Lord teach us how to change.

  8. Fred Dempster

    Have to agree – these are fairly close to what I’ve researched.

    Transformational Church by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer is a book I’m using – well worth the read. Ingredients for a TC:
    – Vibrant Leadership
    – Relational Intentionality
    – Prayerful Dependence
    – Worship / Community / Mission
    – Missionary Mentality

    Churches do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

    Regrettably is has become acceptable to sit in church week after week and do nothing but call yourself a follower of Christ.

    The book is upbeat… these just hit the church in decline… God will not let His church die!

  9. Jim

    As a member of a mainline denom that went from 400+ on Sunday, new building, room to expand to 30 on Sunday, we satisfied 100% of the 5 attributes. The difficulty was in leadership who thought their role was to protect the denom and denom leadership that had no interest in church that strayed outside “normal” denom parameters.

    Look at the attributes and point the arrow upward. Clear mission/vision, concise strategy, simple org/decision structure, focused connection, strong leadership. 5 attributes of a growing church.

  10. I agree a lot with what you wrote here. I’m Israel Tarlit, pastor in the Philippines. The sad thing about the churches here is that they are on a decline and they won’t admit it. They still think that this is God’s will.

  11. Tony, this is a really great post.

    The number of churches I encounter who can not state their mission, purpose or vision is staggering. Often they make excuses saying mission statements are “overrated” etc. Or they have a catch phrase that the staff can recite but it has no real definition, distinctive, or impact. “Loving God, Loving our City” <– what?? You're a church! It's a given you love God & your city.

    I think pastors get overwhelmed with trying to create the perfect motto or mission statement. I wish they would just take the time to reflect on their congregation and ask "who are we? and what's our assignment from God?" That should lead to some concise & unique attributes, assignments & callings for each congregation. Congregants will naturally rally around an honest assessment of their church's unique posture/position/potential in their community.

    I'd love to see you write more on attributes of declining congregations.

  12. “When I work with churches for the first time, I think sometimes they’re frustrated with me because I’m not willing to help them fix something specific. Sometimes they want me to tweak their internal systems.” I have come to understand that through my own experience.

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