10 Behavior changes dying churches must make to thrive

How does a dying church move from near-death to being thriving and missional?

The dying church is often inwardly focused and self-preserving, while the path of renewal and thriving is counter to this. Churches must undergo behavioral and mindset shifts to survive.

Many of these behavioral changes were gleaned from Thom Rainer’s Anatomy of a Revived Church, which I highly recommend. For a dying church to move to a thriving church, they must:

1. Move beyond being an inwardly focused church. 

It’s easy for us to allow all sorts of things to distract us from our mission of sharing the gospel and making disciples. We may spend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on things that, while important, don’t help usher people into the Kingdom of God.One of those things is the infamous “worship wars” that are all too prevalent in dying churches. There are few things more inwardly focused than arguing about what style of music people — who are already coming to church — should sing. Corporate worship is an opportunity for those of us in church to be led in worship — not to lead it.

Worship styles and questions like the way the sanctuary is set up or whether or not to bring coffee into the sanctuary shouldn’t consume much of our time, energy and bandwidth. Answer these questions and then move on.

2. Move beyond prolonged meetings.

It’s not unusual for dying churches to have long meetings. As Thom Rainer puts it in Anatomy of a Revived Church, “meetings in declining churches are routine at best and divisive at worst.”

One of the reasons dying churches have prolonged meetings is the activity numbs the pain of death and the fact you’re dying. If churches keep busy, it’s easy to convince yourself your busyness equates to effectiveness, even when this may not be the case.

3. Move beyond being facility focused.

Church buildings can easily become iconic. The pews, the windows, the Sunday school classrooms, the painting on the baptistry — these objects often hold sentimental value, especially in older churches.

Facilities are important, but these things have to stop being an icon. There’s emotion attached to objects like these, but they don’t bring anyone into the kingdom. It can be a sacred place, but it shouldn’t become our idol. Facilities are a means to serve the community, not a way to meet our particular needs.

4. Move beyond being program driven.

One of the signs of a dying church is an over-reliance on programs and an under-reliance on the Holy Spirit. Programs are helpful, but they don’t change people’s hearts. God can and does use programs, but this isn’t where we should start. Oftentimes, something starts as a passion to meet needs and change hearts, but somewhere along the way our hearts become passionate about maintaining the program. In these moments, we fail to see the program as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Is your church passionate about doing ministry or running a program? A program is easy to manage and handle. Ministry is messy. But as Thom Rainer suggests, revived churches don’t tend to have an anti-program mindset either.

“Our anatomy of revived churches did not discover an anti-program mindset —many of the revived churches used programs and ministries, but many of the revived churches did not cling to the programs as their hope. To the contrary, they evaluated every program and scrutinized it for the right reasons. And if that program had outlived itself, it was done.”

5. Move beyond inwardly focused budgets.

Unhealthy churches typically use little of their annual budget and funds on ministry outside the church. In some situations, there are budget cuts or restraints, but revived churches tend to find ways to use the budget for ministry beyond the walls. Dying churches use their funds for their own comforts and security.

Taking care of your church and saving money isn’t bad, but if this pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us churches outwardly focused — even to the point of being sacrificial — will survive. In fact, they don’t just survive — they thrive.

Where is your budget focused?

6. Move beyond inordinate demands of pastoral care.

Members of dying churches can put an inordinate amount of pressure and expectation on the pastor and pastoral team. And while there are members who have needs that need to be met, some members often believe the pastor and the pastoral team should meet their needs, simply because they are members.

In Anatomy of a Revived Church, Rainer says a revived church has more members desiring to do ministry rather than receive ministry. Members should be less concerned with him doing something for them, and more concerned with how they can serve their community.

7. Move beyond attitudes of entitlement.

Similar to the above point, members of dying churches require a mindset shift from being me-focused to being others-focused. Some members see their membership as bringing them certain benefits and need reminding that their membership means they’re a missionary.

Join the church, not because of what you’ll get out of it, but to serve the church and the community. It’s not until you’re willing to participate in the church that you’re a member; membership means involvement.

8. Move beyond anger and blame.

Rainer says, “In most unhealthy churches there’s an unhealthy pattern that emerges as the church declines in health. Church members look to blame others for their problems.”

In dying churches, there’s often a lot of blame and anger. Members are angry at:

  • the former pastor, “who led us down this path”,
  • the members, “who left years ago” or
  • the denomination, “because they haven’t given us any money or any people to help us.”

We must move beyond anger. We’ve never seen a church revive that was angry. We’ve never seen a church focused on itself provide for others. We’ve never seen a church revive that focused on its budget, problems and people.

9. Move beyond the behavior of evangelistic apathy.

Rainer and his team have found that the most pervasive aspect of a declining church is evangelistic apathy.

“Evangelistic apathy has always been the most pervasive finding in our research on declining churches…very few members share their faith on a regular basis and most of the members seemed concerned about their own needs rather than the community in which they live.”

Of course, we’re called to pray for our church, friends and family, but are we praying for the lost? Are we broken for our neighbors and community who don’t know Christ?

In the New Testament, we see the churches and Christians praying for boldness in their witness. Their prayer for boldness insinuates they were sharing the gospel. When was the last time you heard people pray for boldness in their witness? When was the last time that was our passion?

May the Lord unite a new passion in dying churches to share the gospel where they live, work and play, and not be apathetic to lost souls.

10. Move beyond the resistance to change.

Dying churches refuse to make changes they must make.

“It boils down to their desire to be stuck in their ways, stuck in their routines, stuck in their sameness and stuck in their comfort. Almost any noticeable changes in the church evoke the ire of many,” writes Rainer.While there’s no simple formula to church revitalization, the one thing we know for certain is: churches that refuse to change are headed toward death.

So, how do we get people to change? We don’t guilt them into it, beat them over the head with information or tell them the church is going to die. Call them to love Jesus more.

They’ve got to love Jesus more than they love that painted baptistry and the money they put into the church. And they will love Jesus more when they understand the gospel more fully and deeply and realize how hopeless and helpless they are without it. As they fall more in love with this good news and this good God, they’ll see how absolutely glorious it is that Jesus’ mercy is new every morning. And with each passing year, the gospel will continue to warm their hearts and propel them on mission for the good of others and the glory of God.

Published August 19, 2020