7 Reasons for Church Decline and How to Address Them

I sat across from someone I didn’t know at a recent church luncheon that was open to the community. We introduced ourselves. She soon found out I was the pastor. After some conversation she said,

The churches aren’t as full as they once were, back when I was a kid.

Why do you think that is?


Here is my answer:

Unsustainable Demographics

Most churches are designed (whether they are aware of it or not) assuming they will self-perpetuate indefinitely: the children of the congregation will grow up to be young adults in the congregation who will eventually take over the leadership, and raise their children in the congregation and continue the cycle. This is not a world we live in anymore. Young adults often go off to school or start their working lives elsewhere. They often do not return or if they do they are in transition. People have fewer children than previous generations did. Families are mobile; moving across the country for jobs away from their home of origin and either don’t stay connected or have a hard time connecting in a new place without the support of parents, grandparents and extended families. Children of divorced parents split their time between parents over weekends in different locations making a 50% potential attendance rate 100% from their perspective.


Many congregations are designed assuming that people are both eager and available to give time and effort. The rise of many denominational churches came in the 1950s and 60s when many families had one parent at home with the children looking for ways to connect and contribute. In many families today single parents are carrying the load for their family or both parents are working. The desire to be involved and participate may be there, but long-term commitments are hard to make and maintain for many.


People are busier than ever. The church once filled a social need that was absent of other activities and organizations years ago. Today, many opportunities abound; and participating in church becomes one more choice among many. The belief that sports and other activities will help with college admissions drives the schedule of many families. In contrast, there does not seem to be many families pushing their children to apply to college based on Sunday School attendance.

Eroding Generational Connections:

People that were marginal in their church participation in previous generations have children that are even more marginal participation, and by the third generation have little or no connection to the church at all. For a growing number of people in society, church is a foreign place. It is a community outside of their everyday experience.


People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. There have been so many scandals that people are looking elsewhere for answers, meaning, purpose and community. “Hypocrisy” is given as a reason many stay away or leave churches every year. People of faith that make headlines in the media seem either bigoted, backward or both, and as people look for something positive to connect with – religion can have a bad name.

Consumer Driven:

Many congregations are closed systems that exist for the sake of their membership, and meeting their needs and expectations; rather than connecting with the outside community and putting faith into action. The church becomes a club that has little impact on how people live their lives or care for the world around them. Questions like: “Who would miss us if we were gone?” Or: “Why bother?” Are left unanswered.

Imploding Systems Will Not Save the Church:

All or some of the above challenges have brought many congregations to the breaking point, where the dynamics of survival overtake the dynamics of sharing life together. Many congregations have and will self-destruct trying to save themselves, rather than teaching how to give yourself away for the sake of others.


Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England. The new church was built beside the ruins of the old church bombed out in World War II. The ruins are preserved as a memorial to peace. Wikipedia: "Coventry spires-2Aug2005-2rc" by derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk)Coventry_spires.jpg: G-Man - A modified version of Coventry_spires.jpg originally uploaded by the author G-Man to commons with PD license.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England.  The new church was built beside the ruins of the old church  that suffered bomb damage in World War II. The ruins are preserved as a memorial to peace.
Wikipedia: “Coventry spires-2Aug2005-2rc” by derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk)Coventry_spires.jpg: G-Man – A modified version of Coventry_spires.jpg originally uploaded by the author G-Man to commons with PD license.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I believe all these challenges press upon every community in 21st century America (whatever their relationships to communities of faith might be), and we must come to terms with these realities before we start talking about the quality of our churches and how well we might (or might not) be connecting with our people and the neighbors outside our doors. The economy of our community life has changed. As the church we need to adjust what we are doing and how we are doing it in order to stay connected.

My conversation with my new acquaintance drifted to other topics, so I didn’t tell her what I thought the church could provide as an alternative to the ongoing decline we continue to observe and experience.

But here are a few thoughts I share with you now:

Sense of Urgency:

What would we change in our approach if we assumed WE WERE IT. If we were the only Christians on earth, gathered in the only community called “church” that existed, how might we plan, lead, talk about, train, and serve others because the amazing message of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and acceptance we have in Jesus would not be known in the world if we didn’t? What might we learn to coordinate differently, when we realize with that same sense of urgency, that there are others, just like us?


What if we stopped running programs and filling empty slots to perpetuate the system, and instead helped each other use and share our specific giftedness as our holy calling? What if we stopped trying to do all things and only be able to do them part way, and instead focused our energies toward a few things we could deliver well? What if we got to know what our people are struggling with, what are neighbors are struggling with, what we as leaders are struggling with, and started the conversation there?


People are busier than ever – and need an oasis. The church needs to be a safe place to “be” as much as a place to “be involved.” We have forgotten Sabbath; how to rest, how to pray, and be a voice for renewal the rest of the week. Gathering for worship invites us first to put the world on hold before we can venture out serve in it. What if we thought about Sunday mornings (and any time we gather corporately) not as the time to cram all of our activities into, but we treated our time together as sanctuary, refreshment and reconnection, so we can be sent back into the world as God’s agents of restoration?

Make Generational Connections:

Studies indicate that parents are the number one factor in the faith lives of their children. the church also occupies one of the few remaining structures in society that feature multiple generations. What if the church nurtured and equipped parents at home, reinforced and supported faith through mentoring across generations, and gave each generation, purpose, focus, and a voice to learn and inspire one another? What if we saw each person as called to ministry (regardless of age) and helped develop opportunities to serve in ministry? What if faith development was not just seen as a class, or a program, or something a few people invested time and energy in but was the center of congregational life and its activities?

Deliver and Gain Trust:

People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. We need to build relationships with others so they can see us as dependable. We cannot do everything. We might not always get things right. What if we took small steps to gain trust and exhibited grace in our dealings with one another, so that people could see what we believe in practice?

Network Driven:

We live in multiple locations, with multiple networks of relationships inside and outside our congregational life. What if we thought in terms of those multiple orbits of relationships, rather than just our church rolls when organizing projects, seeking out partnerships, and reaching out to others in our neighborhoods? What if those energies were placed on mobilizing ministry anchored in the community around us, so that whether the people around us were part of the congregation or not, we were seen as a valued part of our communities with specific assets we shared?

Renew/Rebuild Systems Towards Hospitality and Mission:

Part of our self-destruction is doing the same things over and expecting different results. What if we rebuilt our organizations from the bottom up to accomplish the tasks we hope to achieve in service to others?  What if we thought of our systems as open, adaptive and fluid? (Think centered-sets; not bounded sets.) What if we considered the stranger, the outsider, the newcomer the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious” as our allies in helping us discover who we are and who God calls us to be?

I’m under no illusions that implementing how we might answer these questions would be able to recapture the glory days of the church when (at least as we remember it) the pews were full and the days were bright. I do however, believe that spending some time rethinking what we are doing and why we are doing it with intentionality and a heart for others that opens every conversation we have for transformation.


About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Volunteer Firefighter, Teacher, Mission Focused Church Leader, Camp Lover, Change Proponent, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
This entry was posted in Church & Mission, Church by Perception, Thinking About Church Differently and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 7 Reasons for Church Decline and How to Address Them

  1. John J Flanagan says:

    Let us be honest for a change. SOME churches SHOULD decline in membership, especially those which preach a social gospel, twist and distort the Bible, and promote sinful activity as acceptable alternative lifestyles. Serious Christians need to distinguish between apostate and heretical churches and those which, though imperfect, are faithful to the word of God.

    • Some congregations should not exist. Some will not exist. Especially the ones with no love of either God or people. Most I think though, just need to do some homework about what they are doing and why. The church is a big place, with a number of traditions and rich history.

  2. Pr. Michael Jannett says:

    Great article! Using at my council teaching time this Sunday!

    Good at shaking things up. And providing a first step forward.

  3. Great article and great points. The only thing I would add is – be approachable. Based on conversations I am having, the approachability factor impacts so many other things. So often we create walls of separation within our churches between the clergy and lay people, between generations, etc. Even our architecture creates walls of separation keeping people from approaching God, clergy, each other, and the community.

  4. Well said. I really like the ‘Sense of Urgency’ idea.. What would it look like if…

  5. Reblogged this on Thoughts on the Edge (of Town) and commented:
    A friend of mine commenting on the reality of church. An astute commentary not centered on the idea of ‘growth’ but instead being real and authentic.

  6. Guest says:

    Someone posted this so I decided to read. As a nonclergy person, this article missed the mark. These are all very practical “reasons”. One, John Flannagan’s comment says it all, exactly why I left the church, you can’t emulate Jesus and live in hatred. He’s picking the message that he wants to live by and there is no room in his world for anyone else. They don’t fit in with his lifestyle so they should not exist, close those places down. I believe the word for that is narcissism. No thanks. Two the music, it should be uplifting, not monotone. You shouldn’t leave feeling like you wanted to fall asleep. Get up and rejoice, clap those hands. Encourage people to sing, not just listen. Three, the message, not the lecture. This article misses it again. “We need to relate to people’s struggles.” Do you think people don’t know what their struggles are? “Oh you’re life is hard”, “Oh what can we do to look to Jesus for help”. “This week I’d like to talk about the struggles”. What week don’t you talk about the struggles? I went to a church last year with great music and all the pastor did week after week was talk about the struggles. Talk about depressing! I was in a good period of life and it really brought me down to hear about it week after week. And when I am struggling, I want to hear GOOD stories that help me to get out of the funk, not remind me that I’m down. Yes we all know, struggle, downtrodden, defeated blah blah blah. And if he asked one more time to “bring in more people, help bring the church up, build, become bigger”. He was fixated on never being enough. I walked out of that church and never looked back. I want to go to church and hear stories about people doing good things in life, stories about good things going on in the community, I want to pair off into groups and share good things that happened this week with the person I’m sitting with and hear their good stories or even bad stories or whatever they need to share that week. I have never forgotten how one pastor tied a dollar bill to God and life, he took it, folded it many times, crumpled it up, threw it on the floor and stepped on it, talked about feeling it in your pocket, crumbling it up and it still holding the same value, how it related to how you treated family and friends, putting its worth ahead of others but also it having the worth to help others. One little dollar bill and he made an amazing 1/2 hour correlation to life out of it. You just wanted more. One week he had the kids come up and join hands and pull against each other. He had them link arms to show strength. He had them team up and now you couldn’t pull away even if you tried. He tied It to gossip and hatred, friendship and support. You could picture what he was saying and think about what you did to contribute to these things, really look at how you either build others up or bring them down. He had us fill out papers about ourselves and then share them with our rows. “I am happiest when. . . .”. “My favorite thing to do is . . . . ” He tied his sermon into those questions. His stories were like that week after week, when he left, so did I. We were back to the same old defeatest “Oh but God will pull you through stories, yes we all know we’re all constantly struggling, you’re figuring out what we all need, and you’re here to help, got it, thanks I’ll call you”.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Before saying anything else that’s my message – thanks. I know how easy it is to just click on something else – so thanks for chiming in. Second – this was never meant to be an exhaustive list, so could other things be listed? Of course. Third, I intentionally stayed away from taste. One person’s favorite style is another person’s drudgery. One person’s great illustration was another dismissive attempt at being cute. I get it. The things I attempted to engage here I believed to have a little more universal appeal – it doesn’t matter what songs you’re singing if there aren’t any people to sing them. Could the song choice be the issue – maybe. I was trying to probe a little deeper. Conservative churches think the problem is the liberals and the liberals think the problem is the conservatives. Maybe the problem is we think the other guy is the problem and we don’t take the time to listen. Maybe the world we face is bigger than either/or. Could your politics make it harder or easier in your context? It depends who you ask. Is the goal of the church to make people happy? That’s certainly the goal of the American psyche, and many churches pursue that goal. I happen to believe the cross is a different message than happiness, and that we’re called to something deeper, something more authentic, something more real for the sake of others. But those are the choices I’ve made. I’ve also decided that for myself it’s better to stay involved and work to change that which I think is amiss, rather than walk away. We could use your help too. Find a community and get involved. Contribute. Help be the change you long for. Stick around. We’d all be better off if you do.

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