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Don't misdiagnose the actual state of your church's health.

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 gridlocked.

If leadership is hopelessly fractured and there is no real plan to fix the issue it could be a sign your church is starting to die.

If no one has agreed to step down and leadership is unable or unwilling to self-correct by removing someone from the ranks, or agreeing to disagree–it could be a dangerous direction for the life of your church.

2. No real growth for the last five years.

What I mean by “real” is a year where attendance went up at least 10 percent.

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 that there may be a problem and work and pray toward real solutions.

Tim Spivey Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California--a fast-growing plant launched in 2011. Tim is also the purveyor of New Vintage Leadership - a blog offering cutting edge insights on leadership and theology and the author of numerous articles and one book: Jesus, the Powerful Servant.

More from Tim Spivey or visit Tim at

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  • Joe McKeever

    Oooh, Tim, I do love this! Posting it on my Facebook page. Thanks!

    • Joe McKeever

      In fact, upon rereading it, I’d like to add something about the last point (the Lord giving a dying church one more chance). We had such a church here in metro New Orleans. They’d been dying the last 20 years and were on life support by then. They had the opportunity to merge with a dynamic startup church which needed a place to meet. When the entrenched pastor of the 6 or 8 people saw that he might need to step aside, he balked and shut down the process. Now, his tiny congregation still meets and bemoans the state of the world, while the startup congregation is flourishing in another location.

  • Shane Harris

    In point number one you mentioned that it isn’t relevant if you are in a rural context. I’m interested to know why?

  • Rev. Dan

    I am pastoring a 200+ year old church in a rural/small town context. I also would like to know why the statement about not being true in a rural context.

    • James Shelton

      I pastor a church that is in a extremely small farming community. And my understanding to what he says not being true in a rural context fits our church and our area perfectly. There are no people moving here. There is two churches in this small community and one that is about 15 miles out. People who settled here are here but the kids that are here are growing up and moving off. And there are not many of those left. So if I was to think my church is dying because of no growth would be foolish on my part because there is no more in this community to reach who are not going to one of these three churches already…unless I want to try to steal members from the other two. )which I will not do) So perhaps he is meaning in this type of scenario. It is not a cookie cutter type thing…he gives good points by typically all them cannot be applied to every church.

  • ServantHeart2012

    I would add denial to the list. If a church is experiencing any of these issues the people in the pews know it. However, if the leaders simply deny it and consider anyone who shines a light on it a “troublemaker” or “malcontent” that church will either remain stagnated or will die a slow, painful death.

    • Ruben

      Oooo… this is a genuine death rattle, in my estimation, Servant.

  • Jim

    What gets me about most of these articles is how they totally ignore the small church. They talk of staff (I, as the pastor, am the staff.), they talk of stuff that does not apply often to the small urban church. Our church has grown from 10 to 100 in 8 years…we have now run out of room, and have no money to expand…not sure what we will do next…but these articles totally ignore our issues.

    • Mr Hal

      Pastor Jim, I’m a 60-year old layman that has served in many positions of several churches over the years, including from small to mega sized churches. Today, my spouse, daughter, and son-in-law serve as staff members in a mega church. Personally, I’ve been a successful business builder, and business consultant, so I hope that you won’t take offense when I say that your church’s growth is reasonable for a rural church, but not for an urban church. Over the past 10-years I’ve witnessed urban churches planted grow into the 500’s & thousands in attendance. Sometimes the problem with corporate growth begins at the top, and trickles all the way down to the bottom employees vision of what he or she should be doing. Likewise, the problem in church leadership and growth can begin at the top too. I found this to be true of a missionary organization that I was asked to observe. Let me suggest that you ask for the critique and guidance of some successful pastors that you know. Sometimes it can be correcting just one problem that can turn around a church or business corporation’s success.

    • LovetheGospel

      Jim, what you have done in 10 year at that church is absolutely outstanding. It’s my personal belief that the best preachers on the globe right now are ones that we will probably never see at a big conference or convention or sell bunches of books…they are preachers that go unnoticed in the “celebrity Christian world.” God will greatly honor preachers like you when it counts the most. Keep plugging away and stay the course, brother!

      On a side note, I went from a small rural church that had doubled in size, and now am at a church in a very rural area, in a town of 200 people, and we run 1,000. Now that I’m “in” that big preacher crowd, and I’m at a “big church” people look at me differently, and I continually reference my experiences at the smaller church I was at, and continually try to remind people how important those churches are to the Kingdom, our country, and many families across the globe.

    • cissy49

      The message to the city church is not to the rural church.
      If you need more room, get creative. Break apart and focus on home groups that get together just for worship and potlucks, and do get togethers at city parks, open fields, etc. when the weather allows. Everything does not happen in huge buildings…certainly Jesus didn’t use one.
      I live rurally. I don’t have a mansion so I don’t have huge get togethers (and don’t most go to those parties just for the food and drink?). Bless the bread (provisions) you have, and use the accommodations you already have.
      City and country churches have completely different needs. We need to stop comparing apples and oranges, as each have their own appearance and benefit.

  • Disciple622

    I have read and re-read this article and I find by my own experiences, it’s right on point. Being a lay servant I have witnessed many dying churches in my rural area.Most of the congregation’s believe that their houses of worship are only for a chosen few. They scoff at the ideas of even inviting visitors. I know for myself that at one church in particular that I regularly attended. I would hear the statement “I wished that we had more people attending and more youth. So after prayer and asking God for ideas to be placed on our hearts and in our minds. We purchased the rights to show a movie, “Courageous” we invited the entire neighborhood and surrounding community churches.It was a wonderful time of fellowship and enjoying the movie together.The only problem was the pastor of the church wasn’t in attendance,his wife was though.This comment could become so very lengthy so I’ll just say this.Sometimes our churches die because of the jealousy from the Shepard. Not wanting help from others in building the church attendance. Its not like we would be sheep stealing in this area. Because so many of the sheep have no place that they feel they can go,grow and thrive. A church is a place to worship God the father, true!. But it is also kind of a hospital if you will, for ,the sick in spirit. It’s should never be a social members only club

  • Joe Rhoads

    My advice to all those pastors, lay leaders, and church members from small town/rural/farming committees: ignore the church growth advice from megachurch leaders. Few if any have every served in a small town/rural church. They don’t understand that the dynamic is different. What may work in a large city doesn’t necessarily work in a small town, and vice versa. As a pastor of a very small church in a small town, I have received more useful advice from other pastors of small churches in small towns/rural settings, because they have been there, they know that small town people are different than large city people. One such is Shepherding the Sheep in Smaller Churches by Paul W. Powell. Easy read with lots of helpful advice.

    • Ruben

      Agree 100%. John Maxwell pastored in Hillham, IN and references the experience a lot in his writings; however, he never seems to contextualize rural v. urban for leadership and growth application. Perhaps I missed it, but i don’t think so. To do so may have threatened the width of his readership and conference attendee (customer) base.

  • Deborah R L Simmons

    We pastor a small church in an urban lower, middle class community. However, we are located in a strip retail center. We have visible signage. We have held many outreach community festivals, served meals to the less fortunate, etc, etc. The Word is relevant, the music ministry is not the best, but it’s pretty good. The membership is not growing as fast as we desire and I really believe it’s because we are located in a strip center. I would love to hear from readers who have been in this situation and/or maybe presently experiencing the same problem.

  • Ryan

    My mom is in a dying rural farm town church where all we children have moved away. But they had other bad past issues that brought it to this point. A former pastor there had his kids run off, daughter get pregnent and wife left him. That took a third out of the church. Blam the pastor. Then the next pastor had an authority complex and drove another third away and then finally left. There was like one or two children there when I visited last new years. They had a potential pastor there, rather mediocer who they found wanted to do nothing but preach. That church has been there since like the 1870’s but I fear if they don’t get someone younger and more extroverted, it’s going ca-put. The church will die when the rest of the retired people who care, die.

  • Aaron

    Small church, big church,country church city church. Do this and you will succeed: Love people and preach His Word all the rest is details:)

  • robert harper

    Mega Church mentality is not completely biblical. who said better is biblical? Did Jesus say that? Is every church or church plant called to be a church of thousands? We all should strive to be as large as God calls us to be where we are until He says move. Some persons per-capita formula may be nothing more than prepackaged pride. Let be prayerful and careful. Moreover, let us be Biblical.

  • Joseph M K Gideon

    Churches in the rural set-ups is different from the ones in the ubarn areas, their dynamics cannot compare. However connectivity to God in both set-ups dictates the state of the church. A church may be small and very much alive or on the verge of dying depending on connectivity.

  • cajennison

    OK, where are all the first century churches on which many want to model our ministries? They are long gone, as they should be. They were not “failures” because they died, any more than a person is a “failure” because they eventually decline and die. Everything is finite, except God.

    Do we believe in Resurrection or not? Resurrection is not suddenly coming back to life just the way we were in our glory days. It is entering an entirely new state of existence.

    I believe that some churches are dying because it is the end of their life, and that’s OK. We should send them off with thankfulness and celebration for the ministry and mission they completed, and help the remaining members discern which faith community they should now join.

    Of course we will grieve! But we can trust that God says to the people of that church, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of thy master.” (and I don’t know why I quoted King James version, but somehow it seems to fit funerals!)

  • Ben

    good morning saints, i would like to ask a question of all of you, since when did the church become in competition with its self? why are some people bigger, why are some people smaller, skinner heaver, why do some people have more than others? why do we think we are smarter than others? this church is dying because and that church is this or that? where is the Spirit of God in all of this. If we are so concerned about numbers than Jesus was the biggest looser, why Jesus started out with 12 had 5000 flowers and ended up with 11, go figger. I am wondering how the [Church] survived in all of this years without our smarts. as i read these post I am just wondering how far are we from the Corinthians church that Paul began, we can’t handle the meat of Gods word but we are still sucking on milk. Ben

  • New Iberia, La

    I have seen churches that are constantly in competition with other christian churches in the same area. I have seen otherwise very godly pastors use sarcasm and public
    shame and humiliation towards church members from the pulpit. I have seen verbal
    abuse and people thrown out of ministries they have worked at for years at the drop
    of a hat because the pastor wanted to put someone “fresh” in their place. (The last time
    this happened the “fresh” new minister did not last even a year before the group
    started to disintegrate) I have seen jealousy in worship teams, choirs and behind the
    pulpit. And yet, it is an unwritten rule that members should never confront, even
    lovingly, a pastor about an issue, lest they be called a rebel and shunned by the church
    leadership. I speak from experience. I’ve even heard with my own ears a pastor
    remark, FROM THE PULPIT, that the ushers have been told to bar “ugly” people from
    services. Someone might say he was joking, but having experienced some of his
    sermons I have every reason to believe he meant it. The key word here is “denial”. It
    happens in big and small churches alike. That is what causes a church to die…some
    will take years and even decades to realize it.

  • lorna

    The problem in the churches is mainly that instead of serving the ministers are the ones being served. Real example, a senior (executive salaried) minister visits a poor church, he expects to be driven around, taken to restaurants, and will never stay in anything but 5-star hotels an does not know the names nor the conditions of the members, all that is for the local minister who is so busy trying to get freebies and free lunch/dinner from well off members or the “wanna bes” leaders. Messages that are uninspired and recycled. Most of the time, the members can get along with each other but the ministers can not and cause split upon split on the church organisation. The members have not been allowed to grow, they have been preached upon but never really heard, forced to be hearers rather than doers because of the corporate structure they have chosen not the ekklesia – or the assembly/congregation style taught in the bible.

    • Truthseeker424

      Can you speak more in depth concerning this last statement… “the corporate structure they have chosen not the ekklesia – or the assembly/congregation style taught in the bible. Can you please give me your take on it.


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