There are a number of reasons why a church may decline and confront the prospect of ministry death. Some of the causes are outside the congregation’s control. Others are a direct result of what the people are doing (or not doing) within the church.
Listed are reasons why churches close. The wise leader will recognize where his congregation is and prevent the loss of a church.
- Loss of population base within the community. A significant factor confronting many churches located in isolated rural areas is the decline within the community at large. As the children become adults, there are not enough economic bases to support them. As the population of the community decreases so do the opportunities for the church outreach and growth. New people, having no ties to the community, may travel to a larger metropolitan area to attend a church that has multiple programs.
- Demographic change within a community. Demographic changes alter the cultural setting of the community. Churches that do not adapt to these changes can find it difficult to minister to the new cultural setting. Because small churches tend to be homogeneous, they are often the last to change when transitions occur in the demographic setting. Unwilling to change, they soon become isolated from the mainstream of the community.
- Changes in society. There are several changes within society that have significantly impacted the small church and contributed to the decline of some congregations. In the past, the church was a social center of not only the people who attended, but also the whole community. People came to church to see their neighbors and friends. No longer is the church this social center; instead people have multiple social centers, which draw them away from the church. Consequently the church no longer has the influence within the community it once had. The downside of this is that people no longer attend church for social interaction, making it more difficult to attract new people. Another factor has been the mobility of people. People will drive past many churches to attend the church of their choice. No longer is there the true “community church” where everyone in the community attends because it is the only church available. Now, because distance is no longer an issue, people have multiple choices of which church to attend. A third change in society is consumerism. Previously people attended a church because of their loyalty to the congregation and community. Even if the church was not “ministering to their needs” they remained because of their sense of duty. Now people hop from church to church depending on their particular needs and availability of programs within the church to minister to those needs.
- Conflicts within the church. Because of its smallness, internal problems not only have a greater impact, but they are more visible. When one family becomes upset over the actions of another within the church, it influences the whole congregation. If one family chooses to leave, it often results in several families leaving. Since the church is small, the loss is felt by all. Within a small community, the image of the church becomes marred in the whole area. Even if the conflict happened years ago, people will still perceive the church to be a “fighting” congregation.
- Turnover of leadership or poor leadership. Two types of pastoral changes can decimate the congregation. The first occurs when a pastor resigns too soon. A critical question pastors must ask before leaving is, “What effect will my leaving have upon the congregation, especially the people who started attending after I arrived?” Secondly, since everything rises or falls upon leadership, sometimes a church declines simply because of poor leadership on the pastor’s part. He is simply not a leader and because of his actions, directions, etc., he causes people to leave until the church attendance reaches a point where it can no longer survive.
- Loss of evangelistic vision. A church can become ingrown to the point where it no longer strives to reach others and resists new people who attend. While they may welcome their attendance, it is made clear that the new attendees cannot hold any office and their new ideas are not welcome. They have lost their love of Christ that compels them to reach the lost. They uphold the traditional doctrines of the church and maintain active ministries, but their passion for the cause of Christ has been diluted. They are more concerned about maintaining past traditions and organizational structures than they are about reaching the lost with the gospel of Christ.
- Unchecked sinful behavior. Scripture indicates that deliberate rebellion and disobedience within the community of God’s people can significantly affect the overall well-being and effectiveness of the group (see Joshua 7). In the book of Revelation, God warns the church that unchecked sin can cause the removal of God’s work within the congregation.
- Cumbersome organizational structure. When a church has declined, especially from a middle-sized church to a smaller church, the failure to change the organizational structure can further hamper the effectiveness of the ministry. When it tries to maintain all its programs and organizational structure from “its glory years” instead of adapting to the present congregation, it can overload people with the task of maintaining the structure instead of freeing them to reach out to win their neighbors and friends. While there is no set method for determining the right structure for any size church, a rule of thumb should be that the congregation should have the simplest organizational structure necessary.
- Low morale. The attitude people have regarding the church significantly impacts the ability of the church to attract and keep new people. When the congregation becomes discouraged, they stop inviting people and they are less enthusiastic about programs and ministries. The tragedy of discouragement is that it breeds discouragement. As a small church loses members, the morale becomes weakened which causes more people to leave and less new people to attend. Thus the cycle continues until the church closes its doors.
- Never established a large enough base of members. Some churches close, because despite the efforts of the pastor, the church never achieved a large enough size to survive. All the burdens of operating a church continually fell upon a small group who simply could no longer bear the burden. These burdens might include the cost of operating a church, continual ministry load upon the same people, or never being able to own a building.
While there can be a number of reasons why a church begins to decline, it is important for the leadership to determine the factors which have contributed to the decline so that they can make the necessary action to rejuvenate the congregation.