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January, 2012
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Honest Options for a Declining Faith Community

by, Dr. Les Robinson, Jr.

Organized religion in America is in a slump. Numbers of regular attenders are down across all denominations and many congregations are struggling with dwindling attendance and shrinking finances. The verdict is still out on whether the declining numbers are here to stay. What is clear is that faith communities should be aware of national trends and willing to ask hard questions about their own health and longevity.


Some Statistics to Get Started

FACT (Faith Communities Today) disseminates the results of research generated by representatives of more than 25 faith groups in the United States.  The most recent report compares data collected in 2005 with information collected in 2010. According to this research,

40 percent of the reporting congregations had a decline of two percent or more in average adult worship attendance during this five-year period, with 31 percent of the reporting congregations experiencing more than a ten percent decline. Consequently, there is a growing number of downsizing congregations. More than one in four American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010, and just under half had fewer than 100. Overall, median weekend worship attendance of the typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 (17 percent) during the last decade.

The picture is somewhat more jaded when reviewing only Oldline Protestant congregations. Fifty percent of those faith communities experienced two percent or more decline, with 33 percent of the reporting congregations experiencing more than a ten percent decline. In fact, in this five-year period, the median Oldline Protestant congregation saw their average worship attendance move from 179 to 73 – a 41 percent decline!

Further FACT research indicates that while American congregations were doing a lot of the right things during the last decade (2000-2010), they were fighting against strong headwinds.


A Steep Drop in Financial Health. Every year from 2000-2005, an additional four percent of participating congregations indicated a decline in financial health; every year from 2006-2010 an additional nine percent of the reporting congregations reported such a decline; in the 2010 FACT survey, 80 percent of all American congregations reported that their finances had been negatively impacted by the recession, and it affected nearly every kind of congregation equally: large and small, north, south, east and west, financially healthy or struggling before the recession.

Continuing High Levels of Conflict. Almost two of every three congregations in 2010 experienced conflict. In a third of the congregations the conflict was serious enough that members left or withheld contributions, or a staff member left.

Aging Memberships. Thirty percent of faith community members are over age 60, and when you add in the over 50 crowd, that number grows to 46 percent.

Growing “Nones.” Those folks who are not members of a faith community are the fastest growing religious segment of the American population and number more than any American denomination except Roman Catholic. Therefore, it certainly is no surprise that analyses of recent trends in individual religiosity in the United States are concluding that traditional forms of religious belief and practice (including worship attendance) are beginning to erode across the board.

What is surprising in the FACT data is that the vanishing presence in the pews is not only true of Oldline Protestant congregations whose numerical decline has been documented for the last fifty years. It is also true for the typical white evangelical congregation and typical racial/ethnic congregation.

Of course numbers are not the ultimate gauge of the health of a church, whether it is attendance, membership, financial gifts, and/or programs and mission opportunities. Yet generally speaking, when faith communities experience a decline in average worship attendance, a decline in the other areas is usually not far behind.


Five Warning Signs

Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, suggests there are five common warning signs to which congregations should pay attention in order to detect potential decline:


  1. The church has few outwardly focused ministries. Most of the budget dollars are spent on the desires and comforts of the members. The ministry staff spends most of its time taking care of members, with little time to reach out and minister to the community.  
  2. The dropout rate is increasing. Members are leaving for other faith communities in the area, or they are leaving the local church completely. 
  3. Congregations are experiencing conflict over issues of budgets and building. When the membership becomes focused on how the facilities and money can meet their personal preferences, congregational health is clearly on the wane. 


Referring again to the FACT research, the following chart indicates how the average faith community spends its money:


Budget Category

Percent of Dollars

Staff salaries and benefits




Program support


Missions and benevolence


All other



Obviously, with 65 percent of the budget dollars allocated to fixed expenses, there is not a lot of room for innovative missional emphasis.

4.  Corporate prayer is minimized. If the church makes prayer a low priority, it makes God a low priority.

5.  The pastor has become a chaplain. Members view pastors as their personal chaplains, expecting them to be on call for their needs and preferences. When they do not make a visit at the expected time or do not show up for the Bible class fellowship, criticism abounds. In some cases, pastors have even lost their jobs because they were not always present for the members. 

According to Rainer, if these five patterns become normative, few churches can recover. In fact, the great majority of these congregations do not recover.


So What Can Faith Communities Do When Faced With Decline?

Unfortunately, most faith communities do not get into a declining mode overnight, so their patterns of behavior have become normative. Consequently, it is going to be a difficult process, with no easy, quick or automatic solutions. Like turning a large ship around in a small harbor, it takes a focused emphasis, the captain (translated: pastor and lay leaders) must see urgency and want to do it, it will require dedication and patience because it is a slow and tedious process, and it will require a tug boat (outside assistance).


Focused Emphasis. Since the decline has occurred over several years, perhaps even decades, some habits have been formed that will have to be broken. Leaders may well have held onto the wrong programs, traditions and even staff, simply creating further entrenchment. Very likely some excess baggage will have to be shed as the congregation first becomes clear about their core values, and then focuses on a clear and vibrant mission and vision to guide the pathway.


It also is important to note that most church growth happens relationally. We are created as relational beings. People are more likely to stay connected to the faith community if they have developed meaningful friendships and relationships with others in the fellowship. This often means that the people must commit to breaking cliques and finding a connection to new people. This includes finding ways to once again interact with the surrounding neighborhood and culture.

Urgency. In his seminal work entitled, Leading Change, John Kotter suggests there are eight vital stages to successful change. The first of these is “a sense of urgency.” Until leadership - both the pastoral and lay leaders - recognize and agree that something must be done NOW, the decline will continue. Only after the leaders recognize that something has to happen in order for the future to be different than the past, will they be ready to lead the congregation to work on core values, mission and vision statements, and a strategic direction/plan.

Dedication and Patience. Change does not happen overnight. As much as I would like to lose a few pounds by tomorrow morning, it simply is not going to happen. The only way I can accomplish that task is with dedication and patience. Likewise, a faith community must dedicate themselves to a new future and then be patient as they work to make it open up. There must be a balancing of risk as members willingly take chances, try new things, and accept that everything will not work. Otherwise, the focus will be on maintaining the status quo – and they already know the outcome of hanging on to the past. Leaders will do well to find consistent words of hope and optimism as they lead the members through these changes.


Another Possibility

There is a more radical option. Turning to the words of Ecclesiastes 3, we are reminded that there is a right time for everything. Verse 2 says, “a right time for birth and another for death.” As much as most folks might want to live forever (on earth), we know that we must die in order to make room for new birth. Perhaps it is time for us to accept that nothing is permanent; that in order for new life to come into the community, some need to phase out; that it is okay for a congregation to acknowledge that God has used them in a powerful way to spread the gospel message; that now it is time to pass the mantle to others.

In human life, we emphasize end of life decisions. While we are seeing an increase in the centenary population, the truth is that the average human life expectancy in the U.S. is 78. Rather than ignore or deny the inevitable, people are encouraged to have wills, medical directives and pre-arranged funeral services. In other words, we encourage death with dignity.

When all faith communities in America are considered, the median year of founding is 1947, making them 64 years old. For the Oldline Protestant category that median year of founding is 1889, making them 122 years old. It seems that another legitimate option then, is for a congregation to accept that eventually they will die; that they will not disappoint God by admitting that they can no longer sustain their ministry; rather, they will accept that God continues to find new ways to keep the gospel voice alive, viable and powerful.

Maybe all faith communities should consider what death with dignity would look like for their congregation, and keep a medical directive on file so that when that time comes they will know what to do. While the purpose of this article is not to be prescriptive, some possibilities could be to sell the property and use the proceeds to support other growing and viable ministries. Or deed the property to another group that has the critical mass, energy and financial resources to develop a new ministry in the immediate community. Or the congregation might consider merging with other close-by faith communities that are struggling with the same issues.


A Final Thought

According to the American Research Project, once churches enter their fifth decade of life (40+ years old), on average they consistently decline, while congregations formed since 1990 are experiencing a growth rate of 3.5 percent to 7.4 percent. Could it be that congregations have the same kind of growth, vitality and life expectancies as human beings? Could it be that when our work is finished, it is time for us to step aside so that others may flourish?

Regardless of where we end up in the conversation, however, we can be absolutely certain that God is in control, not humankind. May God’s will be done!



For guidance and assistance during the challenging time of change and decline, contact the Center for Congregational Health® at (336) 716-9722 or


Thom S. Rainer. Five Warning Signs of Declining Church Health

Kotter, John P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing



Les Robinson is vice president of the Center for Congregational Health® 

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