At a time when much of organized Christianity is in decline, many are fearful and anxious about the future. But what does this mean for your parish? How can you tell that your church is in danger?
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying churches, what makes them tick, and how to tell if they are healthy or not. My conclusion is that, like people, churches are very predictable over time.
Before we go further, an important disclaimer: Much like a person who’s gone into cardiac arrest, many times dying churches can be saved. But time is of the essence, and delay is deadly.
Here are nine signs I’ve seen that a church dying.
1. Consecutive years of decline.
Every church has its ups and down. People come, people go. Major employers in the area might shut down, or new jobs created. But if you see more than 3 consecutive years of declining attendance or pledging units, the church is in trouble.
2. Your front door is wide open. The back door is open even wider.
Dying churches tend to lose members. Yes, they may welcome newcomers with open arms, but they sit silent as people leave. If you’re not following up with people who have left, why is that? You may not like what you hear, but it’s better than not knowing.
3. No one takes responsibility.
It’s everyone’s problem, but no one’s problem. People lament the church’s declining fortunes, but no one actually does anything about it.
4. Fighting is normative.
Conflict is normal in a healthy church. Fighting is not. When vestry meetings are a case of survival of the fittest, something is seriously wrong. Or when shouting, obscene gestures and other ugly conduct become okay, the church has lost sight of the baptismal covenant.
5. Change is resisted.
The old joke about the last words of the organized church, “But we’ve always done it that way,” is all too true. If all eyes are on the past, the future may not exist.
6. People talk about each other, not to each other.
When discourse is consistently ugly, and people talk about each other, versus to each other, the church is in trouble. And if you find that you are consistently talking about others, versus to them, it’s time to ask why.
7. Criticism is rejected.
The reality in life is that we all face criticism. No one is immune, including Jesus. Why should church be any different? But churches that cannot welcome criticism and deal openly with it are typically toxic.
8. Remaining members ratchet up giving to stave off the end.
Dying churches may experience relatively steady revenue for a number of years as the remaining members do more and more. And while members should be encouraged to give joyously, if you are clergy and you’re leaning on members to increase their support as total giving units decline, it’s time to stop. Stop and ask the real question, which is why you’re losing pledging units in the first place.
9. Denial, denial, denial.
Unhealthy churches typically try to pretend everything’s great, even though no one actually believes it. Many even engage in triumphalism: “We’re such a wonderful, friendly church!” But if that is the case, why is the church losing members?
And for heaven’s sake and your own, if you are clergy and your church is declining, don’t tell people that it’s growing and thriving. A lie is still a lie.