Signs of a Struggling Local Church

Sam Rainer

July 3, 2009

The latest issue of Outreach has hit the stands. It features some good articles on small churches and bi-vocational pastors. You can subscribe to the print edition here. I write the Surprising Insights column in each issue. Here’s an excerpt from my article on the signs of a struggling local church.

Over 90% of churches are declining or growing less than the community around them. The national trends are not good. Before church leaders surrender to frustration and church members yield to apathy, our composite research shows there are signs along the way that suggest a church is becoming unhealthy. The following list is not exhaustive, but let’s see some key signals that an individual congregation is beginning to struggle.

We don’t emphasize Bible study anymore. When God’s Word is not the driving force of a church, people are bound to travel down the wrong road. Churches that do not elevate the proclamation and study of God’s Word veer off course. A lack of deep biblical teaching is one of the most glaring signs of a struggling church.

We cut our outreach budget. When we consult with churches and examine their budgets, a key health indicator is how much the church allocates to outwardly focused ministries. Struggling churches give less toward their mission each year—less money, less prayer and fewer people.

Our church doesn’t change with the community. Struggling churches are led by leaders with little to no understanding of their immediate context. As a result, their congregations either do not know about changes in the community’s demographics or they refuse to change with them. Every church leader must minister with the following question at the forefront: “What are the biggest needs in my community?

We don’t take risks. Unfortunately, many church leaders have been beat up or burned. As a result, they focus more on not getting in trouble with their congregation than turning the world upside down for Jesus. They lead churches to play it safe rather than taking risks to reach more people.

We don’t have a clear discipleship plan. A struggling church does not have an answer to the new believer or member who asks, “Now what?” These churches may have an abundance of programs and ministries, but they do not have an intentional plan to help believers become more like Christ. The absence of a discipleship plan leaves the back door wide open.

Any others that you would like to add?

27 comments on “Signs of a Struggling Local Church”

  1. Brian says:

    We elect leadership based on the name recognition that comes from long-past efforts or mere longevity rather than current knowledge of where and how God is at work and vision for the future.

    We tolerate leaders who find more value in the church’s real estate or the ability to bring back the church of their youth than in the church’s current and future ability to reach people for Christ.

    We have no one aware of how the church is being perceived by its neighbors and others in the community.

    Everything we do starts actually looking desperate….because it is.

  2. Bob Finch says:

    Prayer Meetings are nothing more than grace before Bible Study.

    1. Pastor Wynn says:

      Very good diagnosis of the trend of church decline. Thanks for the post.

  3. Tim Farley says:

    We become more interested in protecting our traditions than finding new ways to reach out to our neighbors.

    We see the unsaved in our community as the enemy rather than reaching out to them with love.

    I agree with all of your other points. Thank you for the article in Outreach magazine.

  4. Laura says:

    We set aside theology as too difficult or too boring and fail to train members to live the broad and deep truth of God’s word, leaving them ill-equipped for temptation and attack.

  5. This is a great, insightful post! I pray it will be found by those who will accept the challenge to go beyond the four-walls holy-huddle mentality, and risk getting their hands delightfully dirty!

    One I’d add is that some churches don’t anticipate guests. Sometimes newbies enter and wander around until someone notices they need help. And often, those who do greet them are ill-equipped to properly facilitate their initial visit. This first impression is critical; there should be trained, enthusiastic people on hand to make folks feel they’ve come to the right place!

  6. Greg Kell says:

    All of the comments about tradition, selection of leaders, etc. are all accurate, but they point to a deeper reality – those inside the church want an organization that serves THEM. Our people prefer THEIR style of music, want to hold services and events when it is convenient for THEM, and prefer leaders who agree with THEIR perspectives on life and church. The four walls of a church building may be necessary (that could be debated), but they often end up representing an artificial barrier that not only keep lost people out, but perhaps more dynamically keep our people in.

    1. Dean Lusk says:

      Wow, Greg. Good assessment, in my opinion.

      All of the points raised here reflect an organization (as opposed to a living organism) that is not filled with people who love Jesus Christ. Many of these things would likely be moot if Christ’s disciples placed Him as first priority and loved God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength — and loved their neighbors as themselves.

      The issues raised as problems in posts like this, while perfectly valid, are (again, in my opinion) only symptoms of a far greater and deeper problem. Churches in America are at best filled with lukewarm believers, and at worst, people who don’t even know Christ personally.

      If my statements are valid (and they may be argued against, of course), is it any wonder that there’s no great evidence of God pouring out His Spirit? Or is there any wonder that churches are struggling en masse?

      In my regional area, the southeast, there are usually about 10 church buildings for every five miles of road. If those venues were filled with Christ-consumed believers, surely there’d be SOME amazing things happening in our communities, no matter what’s happening with the church’s budget, organized outreach, etc.

      That sounds all crusty and argumentative, I’m afraid, but I don’t mean for it to be. As I’ve dug into these things and looked at my Bible for answers as to why, it becomes more and more glaring.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Don’t feel bad, you (as well as other posters) have put the bottom-line problem right out there. I would also like to add two more things that I have seen tear the body of Christ apart faster than any other — racism and politics. These are also Satan’s driving forces that he repeatedly uses against us because he knows that it works.

        Here is Satan’s plan: Sow lies, discourse and division in the church and it will surely fail to reach the people who need to both see and hear about God the most. The evidence of that is blatantly clear for all to see, but unfortunately Christians don’t want to see or address it. For some, it’s better to stay in hiding and not deal with it or take it on.

        The real reason why Satan will continue to tear apart the Body of Christ piece by piece is because (1) we think Satan and sinners are dumb, the truth is that neither are — what we show them is how they see God. (2) we refuse — clearly refuse — to enact 2 Chr. 7:14, 6:27 and James 4:10. Until we get our hearts right with God and show *REAL* love toward others, we will stay stuck in the quagmire and spend Sunday after Sunday asking God why things won’t change.

        Sadly, we chose to go along with the lies Satan has been putting in our hearts instead of rebuking him like we should have been doing. Because of this, we now see churches struggling. If the unbelieving world (especially here in the U.S.) don’t see God’s love in our actions and attitudes, how can we expect them to believe that God even exist at all?

  7. Gordon Marcy says:

    We complain too much. Widespread and persistent complaining, especially among the leaders, is a sure sign that a church is struggling. Chronic whining strains relationships, thwarts good decision-making, drains energy and hurts the witness of the church.

    We are blessed to be in a church, Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY, that is a textbook example for “Signs of a Healthy Local Church.” But that’s another post.

    Thanks for all you do to serve the church Sam.

  8. Brian says:

    When the church membership is not giving or tithing as they should, even after years of teaching and training about tithing. They respond to what they do not like by holding back on tithing or contributing to the church, and then complain when the church is financial jeopardy.

  9. Alex says:

    wow, a great list. Every church should consider these points. Each point brings a huge issue home. Thanks for the post.

  10. Derek Collins says:

    I do not believe that traditions are the problem. Instead it is a failure to understand the foundations those traditions were built on and following tradition for the sake of the traditions. I am very wary of someone who just reflexively says “get rid of traditions.”

    In truth churches are very good at getting folks saved. The beauty of the gospel is that it is universal. It does not depend on current trends or even cultural demographics. The gospel really requires very little effort on our parts to spread. It is also timeless. The hard work comes in once they are saved how do you disciple them. That is where learning the needs of the community you serve come in.

    I encourage everyone to examine the traditions your local congregation has built up over the years. Find the foundations that they were built on. Discard the ones that are just there for the sake of tradition and cling to the ones that keep your church grounded to the gospel and strength of Christ.

  11. Sam Rainer says:

    Great additions and comments! Thank you all for the constructive dialogue.

  12. I think you really hit a crucial element with the last point: There’s no clear disicpleship plan. Its so crucial to all churches, and its absence is made all the more tragic when many (especially pastors) say they desire to grow in the area of discipleship, yet they invest in no one and let no one speak into their lives (hope I’m not going too off topic here).

    With regard to traditions, it may have already been said, but when preferences become principles there is a problem. Traditions are great and should be honoured, provided that honouring those traditions shows people the Gospel.

  13. fred ruckett says:

    Has God blessed your life today? Is God still the one? What would Jesus Do? Let me say this, the day that I wake Up without a problem is the day I’ll be in heaven. Folks this is his time, this is his moment , this is our God moment. Let’s just live in a God moment, and maybe someone will ask me why I’m smiling when I come out of church with so many empty seats, I got Faith, my friend.
    God Bless you guys,
    keep up the dialogue


    1. David says:


      Great insights.

      I was especially drawn to your last sign – having a clear discipleship plan.

      I think most churches think they are involved with discipleship, but do not have a clear discipleship plan.

      You have motivated me to come up with a clear discipleship plan for our church.

      Any suggestions as I begin to plan??

      1. Sam Rainer says:

        David –

        I would highly recommend reading Simple Church. The entire book spells out how to make a clear plan/process for discipleship. It’s an incredible resource.

  14. To echo Greg Kell more than anything, I think it is difficult for a church to avoid deterioration when they fail to understand that God describes himself as a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in pursuit of the 1.

    Great post. Thanks!

  15. I agree with this basic list. The logical question to ask in regard to all this is what specific, strategic steps must be and should be taken to reverse the trend in each category?

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