7 Deadly Sins of a Dying Church

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I’ve seen many churches reject the darkness of these seven sins and do something about them, says Thom Rainer.

I stood before some 700 church members on a Sunday evening. My task was straightforward. I was to share with them the results of a consultation my team members and I had worked on during the past several weeks.

The presentation should have been easy and uneventful. To the contrary, the time proved to be stressful and contentious. When I pointed out even a small area of concern with suggested remedies, dozens of members raised their hands to tell me how wrong I was, how the evaluations of the consulting team were far off base.

The church in question had been in decline for nearly two decades. Yet, from the perspectives of many of the members, the church was healthy and thriving. From my perspective, the most obvious reality I saw was denial.

Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future

Over the past 20 years, one of the richest blessings in my life has been the opportunity to study and consult with thousands of churches. I’ve seen hundreds of healthy churches that have taught me valuable lessons.

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Unfortunately, I’ve also seen thousands of churches whose ministries are declining, whose members are discouraged, and whose evangelistic impact is negligible. Recently, I reviewed many of my past consulting and research projects to discern common characteristics of declining and dying churches.

I found what I call “seven sins” that characterize dying churches. These issues are not mutually exclusive; they are often directly related to each other. Rather than being a source of discouragement, I pray that my elucidation of these seven sins will be a tool to help you avoid the pitfalls that other church leaders have experienced. 

Sin #1: Doctrine Dilution

One of our consultants sat in a Bible study class of a church that had brought in our team for a long-term consultation relationship. He had been told that the class included some of the church’s strongest leaders. Much to his surprise, the entire Bible study was a debate on whether or not a non-Christian might go to heaven. After much argument, the conclusion was that God would indeed allow such a person into heaven.

When such cardinal truths as the doctrine of exclusivity become issues of doubt, a church is in trouble. There’s little motivation for outreach and evangelism if other paths and other religions are equal to Christianity.

Ironically, in our survey of unchurched persons across America, we found that these non-Christians were much less likely to attend churches with weak doctrinal beliefs than those with strong ones. “Why should I waste my time in a place that does not have much certainty of belief,” Amy, a 29-year-old unchurched person from Arizona, told us. “I can find plenty of uncertainty in the world.” 

Sin #2: Loss of Evangelistic Passion

It is no surprise that declining and dying churches have little evangelistic passion. In my January/February ’05 Outreach column, I highlighted one of the major reasons for evangelistic apathy: Many senior pastors either don’t have or have lost their evangelistic passion. Congregations tend to follow the passions and visions of those in key leadership positions, particularly the pastor.

Sin #3: Failure to Be Relevant 

Unfortunately, many churches in America are out of touch with the changing trends and values of today’s culture.

Some churches, for certain, abandon many of the cardinal truths of the faith in their quest to be relevant to the community they serve. But even more churches are woefully unaware of the realities, hopes, and pains of those around us. Failure to be true to doctrines of the Christian faith leads to apostasy. Failure to understand the world in which we live and serve leads to irrelevancy.

Sin #4: Few Outwardly-Focused Ministries

In a recent survey of churches across America, we found that nearly 95% of the churches’ ministries were for the members alone. Indeed, many churches had no ministries for those outside the congregation.

Many churches seem to exist only for themselves. While there certainly should be ministry available for church members, often the balance between external and internal ministries is heavily skewed toward internal. When churches seek to care and minister only to their own, it’s a likely sign that decline is in motion and that death may be imminent.

Sin #5: Conflict over Personal Preferences

Some of the more vicious internal battles in congregations today are not fights over defending the great truths of the Christian faith. Instead, members have conflict over their preferred worship style, the way a room is painted or carpeted, and the type of pulpit the preacher uses. Battles like these are sure signs that members are more concerned about their needs than the needs of the hurting and unchurched people who live and work next to them.

Sin #6: The Priority of Comfort

A few years ago, my youngest son, Jess, was a high school senior on the football team. Because he gave so much of himself in the Friday night game, he often slept late on Saturdays. Around noon, he’d trudge down the stairs, turn on the television in the family room, and collapse on the sofa.

One Saturday, I passed him as his extended body contorted on the sofa and noticed that my football player son was watching HGTV. Curious, I asked Jess why he was watching a home and gardening show. His response was classic—“’cause the remote is broken.”

Many churches are in definitive patterns of decline because church members simply will not move beyond their couches of comfort. It’s much easier to do things the way we’ve always done them, rather than to get uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of the church.

Sin #7: Biblical Illiteracy

Only 3% of churches in America have a planned method of instructing their members to learn the Bible in its entirety. While studying the Bible shouldn’t be limited to a church setting, it’s imperative that churches take the lead in these types of endeavors.

When only three of 100 churches even attempt to provide a way for their members to understand Genesis to Revelation, biblical illiteracy is likely to occur. And biblical illiteracy means that our churches may not be obedient to the calls of Scripture because they don’t know what the Bible says.

Lights in the darkness?

Our research shows that many churches in America are sick, declining, and dying. Still, I remain an obnoxious optimist about the American Church. I’ve seen many churches reject the darkness of these seven sins and do something about their decline. They’re truly lights in the darkness.

I recently concluded a one-year consultation with a church that had seen a reversal of almost all the negative trends in its congregation. The pastor summed up the experience well: “We were not lacking in resources or know-how; we were just lacking in obedience. When we made a decision that mediocrity and complacency would not be acceptable, God began to bless us. It is just that simple.”    

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at http://www.thomrainer.com

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  • Maria

    This is helpful.

  • Pastor Ron

    Your insights are great. Thanks! As a pastor, I can relate to everything you are saying. The church is in trouble if it doesn't wake up and realize that our mission, or ( commission) is to reach out to the unchurched with the love of Jesus, and show them that they are in need of a Savior because of their sins. A drowning man will never ask for a life preserver as long as he believes he can save himself. It is only when he knows that he cannot, then he will call with all his might for the life preserver, or " the preserver of life, Jesus". As you said, " complacency is all too acceptable in our churches today". shame on us, we must wake up for Christ. Thanks for the great article.

  • Grover

    This is a great article! I wish every church member everywhere would read it.

    It summarizes what I have felt for a long time and it does so in a professional and compassionate way.

    Thank you for caring about our churches.

  • Getie Mengistu

    What is your vision?

  • ermias

    great insight bless you.

  • kimbe ishaya

    Dear pastor Ron you spoke the truth! After readin the seven sins of a dying church i meditate about it and saw my own side and my own part in partaking in some of this sins and asked God for forgiveness.As a studentpastor I shall share this with the church i worship with your permission. please keep on the good work. I'l be in prayer with you for God to giveyou boldness to share his word faithfully.

  • kimbe ishaya

    Dear pastor Ron you spoke the truth! After readin the seven sins of a dying church i meditately think about it and saw my own side and my own part in partaking in some of this sins and asked God for forgivenes.As a student pastor I shall share this with the church i worship, with your permission. please keep on the good work. I'l be in prayer with you for God to give you boldness to share his word faithfully.

  • ron

    This one is very insightful! thanks for spending effort in making your consultation.. God bless

  • Alan Dueck

    "Relevancy" ("sin" #3) is irrelevant. It is overrated at least.

    Stay strong and true to the gospel, teaching "all that Jesus commanded"–the whole counsel of God from the Scriptures–and you will always be relevant. Truth is always relevant.

    Scripture, wisely explained and thoughtfully applied, is sufficient to address the ever-shifting "realities, hopes, and cares of those around us" [see 2 Tim. 3]. This is the job of the biblical [b]pastors[/b].

    The church does not need innovation to keep pace with the culture, it needs faithfulness to old truths, and yes, old, [b][i]biblical methods[/i][/b].

  • Al

    Points well taken. i Think i will pass them on

  • Gary

    If you spend more time understanding the so called "Old Testament", which it isn't. You will learn more about what the "New Testament" which it isn't, is really about. He has always had a plan and has never wavered even with bringing the Gentiles into the fold.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_J7AHWTSDSFZU533UHVHTFQVZHM Liberty Adamson

    What I think has killed the North American Church is 1.  Gossip – treachery in the ranks – it’s appalling.  2.  The church became a fund raising entity instead of a fellowship of believers.  3.  Many churches became pagan organizations still believing themselves to be churches, but they stopped honoring God.  Claiming to be worshipers, they merely became participants at weekly concerts.  They became groupies of their ministry teams instead of following Jesus. 4.  The church became an organization of judgmental people overly concerned about others sins instead of their own.  Well, I guess I have 4 to your 10.

  • Phil

    Regarding number 1 and 7 (“Doctrine Dilution” and “Biblical illiteracy”), most Christians want doctrine and learning, but it is today’s “pastors” that are not willing!!!  The dumbed-down church is, I believe, a pastor-driven movement. This has been confirmed by numerous fads foisted on the church and studies conducted in the wake of church collapses. (Best example: The “REVEAL Study” done at Willow Creek showed that the most mature believers were the most under-fed and most likely to leave the church within a few years!)  I’ve heard Christians plead, and I’ve pled, for deeper doctrine in preaching.  But today’s pastors hold firm to this truth: uneducated Christians are easy to preach to!  I’m now convinced that sheer laziness and cowardice is what is driving today’s pastors to abandon toiling in the Word and thus avoid raising up an educated membership who will come to expect doctrinal passion and accuracy.

    Much of this is driven by a corollary problem: The road to the pulpit begins in youth “ministry.”  Time and time again I’ve seen goofy “men” move from youth pastor to senior pastor, and oh God how it’s killing us.  These guys never preach about deep pain, life challenges or passions in the lives of real adults, because they only thing they can muster is lightweight concepts wrapped in adolescent-minded allegories from their youth pastor days! Seriously, what I hear from the pulpit these days is no deeper or challenging than a mini-sermon we used to hear at evening campfire in youth camp.

    • Laura

      I completely agree Phil!  I just want to add a huge “Ditto”

    • Timothy W.

      Agreed, I would also add that “Doctrine Dilution and Biblical illiteracy” have their basis in the seeker church movement. Doctrine is dumbed down to make it palatable and receptive, but the seekers never move on to “meat” and the deeper things of God.

    • Rcarr777

      Maybe you could come on over and work in the dicipleship ministry? You’re forgiven for the sweeping generalizations.  As a pastor, I wrestle with how to penetrate the minds and hearts of theological infants who either have been coddled or chosen to not act upon the milk they have been given. I wrestle with my own abilities for communication and understanding of content as well. Trust me, I take no joy in a ‘dumbed down’ church, and the few pastor’s I know closely enough to know their first names, aren’t cloistered somewhere strategizing the next round of dribble to sensationalize on thier power point. Honestly, I think we need to take responsibility for one another as Scripture plainly teaches and exhort one another to love and good deeds, and own one another’s spiritual development by working out one another’s salvation with fear and trembling… that is after afterall a community exercise, check the Greek, it’s plural. 

      • Ryan

        I suggest to just preach deep and meaty sermons and leave the milk to Sunday school classes or study groups. Encourage people to come and ask questions if something went over thier head. You might find your congregation may actually have teeth. My last years of church for the most part was a weekly refresher. I cooked my own steaks during the week and washed it down off the bosoms of mother church on Sunday. I love reading the words of my Father for the guidence I get from Him. It’s a lot different that what comes from pastors. A bit more subtle.

        • mike

          I think you have it backwards. The Pastor is preaching to a wide range of people whereas a Sunday school, or small group, is more narrow minded and can focus and dig into scripture. Our society needs to start taking responsibility for themselves and not expecting someone to feed us. Sure, as brothers and sisters in Christ we need to be there to encourage and ensure accountability, but we cannot expect our pastors to take our Christian walk for us. Part of that christian walk is learning what the Bible has to say for ourselves, and not relying on what someone else claims it says. Let’s not forget that pastors are human and fall short of the glory of God just as the congregation does. It’s the Pastors job to provide direction, not to give us the meat, that is our job and I think scripture backs that up.

    • Gdulaney

      Great point. However, for those so called “mature Christians” I think the Scripture of ” study to showed thyself approved, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed” applies. The Pastor cannot do it all in an hour on Sunday. Each Christian’s home is a house of God as well. Fathers answer the call to be the “priest of your home.”

  • http://twitter.com/burlw Burl Walker

    I love the closing quote! “We were not lacking in resources or know-how; we were just lacking in
    obedience. When we made a decision that mediocrity and complacency would
    not be acceptable, God began to bless us. It is just that simple.”  That is so very true! Having lived in many states and a few countries and in doing so being involved in both churches that declined and those that are thriving, this quote seems to me to be the key difference! 

  • DEBS

    Excellent Awakening.  It can also be said that for many Pastors today the church is seen as a business and not as God has originally ordained it, a place where one is taught the basics of christianity and then from there into maturity and the deeper things of God.  Most pastors are way to concerned about numbers and how it will affect the offering basket and yes the fact that there are untrained christians and very weak doctrine coming into fellowship week after week is irrelevant.  fact is that weak christians or illiterate christians will inevitably make up a weak church, weak fellowship and most likely weak witnessing.  Most pastors are too afraid to teach the gospel in its entirety and most defenitely are afraid of offending the big business men in the church who fill the coffers and by saying that im referring to addressing the word which yes will and does and should lead us to check our own hearts and lives agains the gospel and whether or not we line up.  sin is very very seldom addressed in churches now a days and theres this very dangerous doctrine that implies that as christians who have been pardoned by Christ we may do as we desire and God will forgive which he does but whats not pointed out often enough is that there are consequences of sin and the wages of sin is death.  I cannot for instance as a christian get involved in extra marital affairs and expected God to continue blessing me, cause the bible is clear that when we sow to the flesh from the flesh we shall reap destruction.  my point is that the churches are in urgent need of honest to God anointed By God and chosen by God pastors that will stand up and be willing to preach the gospel in truth and nothing else even it it does offend, instead of having so called men of God standing in the pulpit who to begin with were never chosen and or anointed by God trying to play church for their own selfish reasons and who in the interim are doing nothing else but bringing confusion and a wishy washy gospel which at the end of the day leaves members with no sense of Gods presence and or power in the fellowship and or in individuals lives and once that begins to happen that is exactly when these weak sheep are open to the wolves because the foundation is weak and ignorance is not always bliss. of these men Jesus would say : Having a form of godliness but denying its power, woe to you scribes of the word.

    • cornel

      We have the pastors we deserve, because of our own lack of spirituality and lack of wisdom. We choose them, just like in politics. Then, instead of changing them, we move from church to church.
      After this election some wanted to leave the Union, immigrate to Canada or beyond. Same thing.
      Unfortunate, the local church has become a political run organism, a party not a body.
      There is no secret, each local church needs wisdom from above, love and determination to change the things that need to be changed. Who should be the instrument of change? Each situation is different, there is no one single solution. But the Word, Prayer, Wisdom and Action is mandatory!!!

    • mike

      David had an extra-marital affair, and killed the husband. He was considered a man after God’s own heart. Yeah he went through a valley, but he repented and God continued to bless him. I do not go to church to feel God’s presence, that is not the point of church. In the old testament there was a temple, the people gathered in the outer courts because God’s righteousness would have killed them instantly, a veil separated them from God. Well, that veil was torn. Christ death on the cross meant that not only can we have direct communication with God, but His Holy Spirit actually lives in us, read that again. If the Holy Spirit dwells in me, why do I need a building to feel his presence? I do not. The church was meant to offer praise and worship to the Father, and for fellowship of believers, not for us to come and take, take, take. If your spirit is dry it is no ones fault but your own, unless the pastor is not teaching scripture, but if you are not studying the scripture you cannot know what it says, so how are you even certain what he is telling you is the truth?

  • Den

    I have had the privilege of being senior pastor of a purpose driven, seeker friendly church for the past 20 years and I realize that some may have the failings some bloggers mentioned–but–I feel we write off and put them all in the same basket–that is unfair.  In the past years, our congregation has some of the deepest,
    Word based people you will find.  I wholeheartedly feel Liberty is right–we as leaders have become so judgmental of other that we forget to first look at ourselves.  You can see that completely in most of the judgmental posts of Thom’s article.

    • Islanderwaab

       I would not classify them as “judgmental” but as “assessments.”  Mr. Rainer used to be a church consultant who assessed churches and helped them with recommendations to become healthier churches. His job was to take a snap shot of the church health and helps them.  If a church (case in point at the beginning of the article) doesn’t like what they hear than indeed, they are in denial.  A drug addict does the same thing.  

  • Olen Batchelor

    I noticed that Paul’s letters are always split right down the middle. The first half is faith, and the second half realized faith. 50-50.

    • Islanderwaab

       Very true: In other words, first half is doctrine and the second half is deeds. 

      • Pettor

        Or – justification, sanctification.  Notice that the second half (sanctification/deeds/realized faith) is always interwoven with what Christ has done for us – gospel.

  • Islanderwaab

    Here’s something that I read somewhere (can’t remember who said it).

    *When the church started in Israel, it was a fellowship.  When it moved to Rome, it became a religion.  When it moved to Europe, it became a culture, and when it moved to America, it became an enterprise.

    Very interesting……………

    • mike

      I agree, and I think it is time for a drastic change.

  • Cathcart Boy

    Can someone please ensure Domn Miller reads this post? Thank you

  • Stanroam

    Good insights into the failure of the church to keep it spiritual. Our church was dying and over the last year we have doubled in size. The primary causes were establishing a Spirit led service, full of love, and an expectation of making Christ preeminent in our lives. For staff, each week we give 100% to God as a goal. There are no excuses! Oh, by the way, what I have also noticed in most churches crave change and passion in the life of the pastor! When he has been with the Lord other Christian’s sense it and it motivates them to change too! God, thank you for choosing us to be your disciples!  

  • Dr.D.W. Jordan

    If the church is dead then the pulpit has died..the fire comes from the altar not form the floor…

    • Ryan

      The fire come by way of God’s word into the heart of the people though the work of the Holy Spirit. Too often a pastor makes a whole sermon off just a few verses and the congregation starves. I would often read several chapters in the bible a day and God may only speak to me every so often from that… not every day even though I watch for things to stick out and touch my heart.

      • mike

        It is not a pastor’s job to study the Bible for you. If you want revelation from God, pray for it and dig into the word. God does not speak to pastors everyday either. You have placed the man at the pulpit on a pedestal. God didn’t speak to any of the old testament writers everyday, and I would go as far as to say he did not speak to the new testament writers everyday either. The same Holy Spirit that reveals scripture to pastors lives in you, that means if you open the Bible and read, I mean really read and study, He will reveal those things to you as well. Reading several chapters a day and actually studying what they say are two entirely different things.

  • Nigussie N Yadete

    Dear brother Rainer,

    I would like to appreciate that your survey reports reveal the state of churches in many parts of the world. God bless you for taking up the mantle of helping the church through research and consultation.

    However, I would really love to see your summary reports and discussion to be founded on the principles in the Bible. For example, just use some scriptures to show that church decline, even death is possible (which the Lord warned us in Revelations).
    I believe your accounts can muster more authority.
    Keep up the good work!!

    Nigussie Negash Yadete

  • Cheryl

    only one life that will soon be past only one life for Christ will last

  • Sad break up

    Our church just split in the past two weeks. Our church was thriving, loving, community active and on fire. 8 months ago our pastor started changing his method of teaching, he started sharing his harsh opinion on paganism and started teaching on all the laws. He started teaching & celebrating all the feasts, teaching Hebrew classes, informed us of the evils in celebrating Christmas & Easter. When he was asked repeatedly to explain his change he said salvation was to be done outside the church. Our church became UnChrist like the love left and i felt that was when satan took over. When many members asked him if he had changed his beliefs to Hebrew Roots Masianic movement, he called the church to vote for him to leave or stay. The entire church was spit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wingatec62 Cindy Wingate

    I FEEL LIKE YOU MUST HELP THE HURTING INSIDE THE CHURCH SO THAT THEY CAN BE STRONG IN THE LORD AND EMPOWERED TO GO OUT AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE, WHY WOULD ANY ONE WANT TO GO TO A CHURCH WHEN THE CHURCH HAS NO LOVE FOR THE HURTING AND BROKEN INSIDE THE CHURCH. WHICH I HAVE SEEN ALOT AND IT’S AS IF THEY ARE MORE CONSERNED ABOUT THE 99 THEN THE ONE AS JESUS TAUGHT THAT HAS WENT ASTRAY. I THINK IF THE PEOPLE INSIDE ARE REALLY LOVED AND HELPED AND KNOW THAT IF THERE IS A NEED IN THERE LIFE THEY CAN TRUST THERE CHURCH TO BE THERE. NOT FORGOTTEN, BECAUSE THERE ARE ALOT OF HURTING FOLKS INSIDE GODS HOUSE. PEOPLE JUST CARE AND HELP EACH OTHER LOVE IS AN ACTION WORD…….