By Thom S. Rainer
Churches in the United States have entered a new season of ministry.
Gone are the days when church attendance was a societal norm. For most of our American history, cultural and technological change was gradual, sufficiently paced for churches to lag only five to 10 years.
Now churches are lagging 20 and 30 years as the speed of change increases dramatically. To many people, the church seems irrelevant.
I am particularly concerned about the declining health of many churches.
Several thousand churches close each year. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes.
It’s tempting to blame secular culture, national politics, or church leaders for the declining evangelical influence in today’s culture.
If outside forces and culture were the reasons behind declining and non-influential churches, we would likely have no churches today.
The greatest periods of church growth, particularly in the first century, took place in adversarial cultures.
We are not hindered by external forces; we are hindered by our own lack of commitment, selflessness, and evangelistic urgency.
Hear me well, church leaders. For many of your churches the choice is simple: change or die.
Certainly from a biblical perspective, I understand the bride of Christ will be victorious. I understand the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).
But that does not mean individual congregations won’t die. Revitalization is needed in nearly two-thirds of American churches. For some, that might mean an evangelistic boost. Others need a complete turnaround.
So, what can churches do to bring about much-needed revitalization?
We must remember our purpose. Many of the people in our churches have lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.
Church members need to be reminded that God placed us in churches to pray for and love one another, to proclaim and teach God’s Word, and to take the gospel to our neighbors and the nations.
We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. Our churches are often busy, but we are not doing the business of God. Revitalized churches have a desperate and prayerful dependence on God.
We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God’s truth is unchanging. We do find comfort and stability in that reality.
But your church may need to change methods and approaches to better meet the needs of those you are trying to reach.
Church programs and human traditions often become places of misdirected comfort. “We’ve never done it that way before” is a death declaration. We must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference.
We must emphasize evangelism and discipleship. We have been given the Great Commission to make disciples and build God’s kingdom.
To fulfill God’s mission, Christians must go out into the community, love their neighbors, and reach the lost with the gospel.
We must focus externally rather than internally. Churches that need revitalization are usually spiritual navel-gazers. They are more concerned with programs for members than reaching the lost in their community.
Thriving churches are focused on providing ministry to those outside the church and creating bridges for sharing the gospel.
Consider taking a community survey that includes demographic research as well as a survey of spiritual and physical needs. Then look for ways your church can become a more effective ministry force in your community.
Too many churches are dying, but I am optimistic about the churches in our nation. I am optimistic about this time we are living in. I’ve seen God deliver a number of churches from the throes of death to become thriving churches.
Make no mistake; there is no silver bullet solution. Revitalization will look different for each individual church. However, dying churches have a real possibility of turning things around.
Our hope lies in Jesus Christ and being the church He has called us to be—joining in His mission of reconciling the world to Him.
When a church moves from poor health to good health, it changes the community. It changes lives. It changes the world.
Thom S. Rainer
Thom is the former President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources and author of numerous books, including Autopsy of a Deceased Church.
NOTE: A previous version of this article stated that between “6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year.” However, a credible source for these numbers could not be found. The most recent study from Lifeway Research found 3,700 churches closed in 2014.
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