One Reason Established Churches Die Painfully Slow

Sam Rainer

May 14, 2017


A statistic looms over my denomination: About 80% of our churches are either declining or plateaued. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I’m doing my best to shepherd my church to be more effective at reaching and keeping people. It’s not easy, but I love every day of the effort.

We should celebrate the 20% of growing churches in our denomination, but this post is about the larger group—those declining and plateaued. The urgency is palpable when people quote the 80% stat. I share the sentiment. It feels like church doors will shut forever within a few Sundays. Some will. However, most won’t.

Established churches are notorious for hanging on, not for years, but for decades. How is it that churches can remain on life support for so long? The reasons are varied and—to some degree—contextual, but one demographic reason stands out.

Most established churches naturally settle into demographic replacement mode.

Assuming a church does not have a mass exodus, or a split, and assuming a church closely reflects the population age demographic (many do), the “replacement rate” of the population will kick in and keep the church afloat for decades.

Here’s how:

  • The average death rate in the United States is 8.2 deaths per 1,000 people, roughly 1%. You’ll lose about 1% of your congregation to death every year (Yes, it’s a morbid thought, but it’s also reality).
  • The “replacement rate” of a population is 2.1 births per woman. We’re at 1.9 in the United States. Aside from immigration, the United States is slowly losing population, and we’re slowly becoming an older nation. The same goes for churches.
  • But it takes about 75 years for a reduction in fertility to create real change in the population. Amazingly, the median age of a church is 73 years, about the same amount of time for fertility rates to affect population changes.
  • Therefore churches, like the rest of the nation, become older at a slow pace (decades!) and thus take quite some time to die.

Simple demographics in the United States explain the slow, painful death of many established churches. It can take decades for declines to catch up to the congregation. A church of 100 people will lose only one person to death per year. Typically, the same church will replace this death with about one birth per year. If this church loses two people per year who stop attending (for whatever reason), then it would take 25 years to lose half the congregation.

I consulted a church that lost—on average—eight people per year. This slow decline occurred over 40 years without many noticing. Then, a couple years ago, they woke up to reality. What was once a church of 500 was now a church of 180. What’s amazing is how long it took for people to notice the decline—40 years! Thankfully, their young pastor is leading them to grow again.

Obviously, there are other factors affecting declines in established churches. People move away. Rural communities decline. Urban communities change. Churches split. Young families transfer to a different church. This post just focuses on the demographic reality of slow declines in churches. Additionally, there are ways to quickly change slow declines into gains. Churches can get excited about evangelism and discipleship. Churches can become more accepting of immigrants (who typically have high birth rates). With this post, I simply wanted to reveal why 80% of churches can be in decline or plateaued and yet take decades to die. My prayer is this trend reverses.


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