How do you know when your church is struggling?

Sam Rainer, co-author of Essential Church?, has written an article for OutreachIn the article, Rainer discusses signs that point to a struggling local church.  Here is what he writes:

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.

Would you agree with these signs?  Is there anything else you would add?

I would add (and mentioned these on Rainer’s blog) that struggling churches become more interested in protecting their traditions than finding new ways to reach out to their neighbors.  And struggling churches see the unsaved in their community as the enemy rather than reaching out to them in love.

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11 Responses to How do you know when your church is struggling?

  1. aaron says:

    “And struggling churches see the unsaved in their community as the enemy rather than reaching out to them in love”

    Tim, I think you really hit the nail on the head with this statement. To many churches have aligned themselves with strongg political idological values, rether hten christian values, then find a way to wedge politics into their views.

    When this happens, they are turning their backs to 50% of the population. A great example is Calvery Church in Charoitte. They had Ann Culter come and speak at their 5,000 seat church, Really, Ann Culter? Is she know for her deep understanding of biblical translation? How doees this further one;s understanding of Christ?

    I see on TV and listen to people localy describe their church in terms of ‘why those people are wrong or going to hell” .

    I am alwayse impressed with my wife’s church which says come all, we are not here to judge, only to preach and discuss God’s word.

    I think that the Amish have a really great model. Church is held at their homes, in much smaaller groups. They discuss the bible, it allows everyone to describe how they worship God. There is no marketing, clever tactics, or “finding ways to lead people into their church” like a used car salesman.

  2. Tracie says:

    I have been struggling for some time with my current church. The sermons are usually ok but there are no other opportunities for REAL growth. Sunday school is a social hour and even outreach is usually done with more ‘fun’ things then true outreach. The youth in our church has doubled since our joining it (they hired their first youth director- who gets paid less then the cleaning lady- right before we joined) However, the rest of the congregation has not grown…not even a little.

    Any suggestions (with the offer to lead in some of these suggestions) to reach out for growth have been shot down because it just hasn’t been done that way in the past. It really hurts my heart. We have discussed switching churches do to OUR lack of growth since joining but keep putting it off because we may be moving anyway.

    And the statement “And struggling churches see the unsaved in their community as the enemy rather than reaching out to them in love” is true. Our church says they believe we should reach out and yet they are so quick to judge those that already through those doors that I am even hesitant about inviting others in.

    Sad huh?

    One church in our community does reach out to others… of any look or background. In fact, they did this ATM card thing where they would do an ‘ ACT THAT MATTERS (ATM)’ to a randon stranger and then give them the ATM card telling them that they matter… to the person giving the card and to Jesus. Then the card listed both the web address, physical address and the phone number of the church. I LOVED this idea but when I presented it to some members of my church it received a ho-hum response.

    I guess we need to just take the plunge and start looking for another church. I just hate ‘church shopping’.

  3. layrenewal says:

    Who is responsible for spiritual growth? The church or the person?

    I believe we are each responsible for our own spiritual growth. The church should be one of those means through which we can grow spiritually. If the church is not, then where is the problem? If it is with the leadership, then how can they become better equipped? Or perhaps the question is, how can they become spiritually renewed? (Based on my “name,” you can guess this is the mission of the ministry with which I am involved…)

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a church and heard “We’ve never done it that way before.” Sad. Rainer, McIntosh, Stetzer and so many others are correct about the spiritual malasie that is so prevalent in our church.

    But, I would (hopefully) lovingly say that the need is not to leave the church. Passionate believers need to step up into areas of leadership and make change happen through the power of the Holy Spirit that is guiding their lives.

    Spiritual growth and community outreach. That’s what the Gospel and Great Commission are SUPPOSED to be all about.

    I need to go calm down…

  4. Tim Farley says:

    Tracie and Layrenewal:

    Both of you raise great points. I am in general agreement with Layrenewal when he says that it is the individual’s responsibility to grow spiritually. I believe that God has given us the Church to help us, but when we stand before God, we stand alone and are accountable for ourselves.

    I usually do not recommend leaving a church because I believe every church has its flaws and we need to show grace towards our churches in the same way Christ has shown grace to us. I believe that the best way to handle church problems is to stay and try to help correct the problem rather than leave and leave the problem for others to deal with.

    That being said, I do believe that there can come a time when a person can/should leave a church. When a church is acting unbiblically and will not bring itself under the authority of Christ and Scripture, it is time to move on. How do we know when it is time? That is the difficult part. If the church is involoved in gross sinful conduct, it may be easy to know. However, this is usually not the case. Most churches are more likely to be neglecting their responsibilities to care for the needy and reach out into the community with the gospel than be involved in gross sin. I would encourage most people to stay and try to work for change. As a pastor, I know the value of having people who are willing to stand behind you when you are trying to move a church forward. If, over time, it becomes apparent that the church is not going to change and the leadership of the church is opposed to doing what is biblical, then I would say it may be time to go elsewhere. But this is only after you have done all you can to try to help the church return to health.

    Layrenewal, since this is an area of passion for you, how would you counsel a person in a situation as Tracie describes (an unhealthy church that does not seem to have a desire to change)?

  5. layrenewal says:

    There’s an old church cliche – “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t stick around. You’ll ruin it!”

    In my experience, those churches that are unhealthy with no desire to change NEED renewal. This only comes through the Holy Spirit. Please understand – by this, I do NOT mean a charismatic movement. I simply mean the Holy Spirit as the Helper that Jesus promised to send.

    The answer to your question? PRAYER and the WORD. Find those in the church who are passionate about both. Begin to work to effect change by seeking God first and reaching out second.

    Patience and persistence are crucial to this. I’m amazed in studying the North American mindset of NOW. We tap our feet when the microwave popcorn takes too long. We need to have the attitude that the only way we are really leaving is after our funeral.

    As one practical suggestion for immediate action, I’d advocate for Tracie to consider paying for the printing of the cards herself and donating them to the church. It’s the easiest form of evangelism. Do those random acts and give them away. Leave one with a (generous) tip at a restaurant. Hand one over to a gas station attendant. Give one to a neighbor. Just do it.

    It might surprise you how many are willing to join.

    And, for full disclosure – I have left a church. Not because of sin among the leadership. But there were things happening that didn’t seem to fit the Biblical Church and the Scriptural model for behavior. Decisions were being made so that certain families would not get upset. Outreach efforts were squelched in lieu of devoting money to staff salaries. After getting increasingly frustrated and repeated trips to the leadership, I felt I had no other choice for myself and my family. The pastor rebuked me personally but not Biblically.

  6. Tim Farley says:


    Thank you for the response. I think you make some great points and that we would do well to listen to your counsel.

  7. Jeff Lahr says:

    How do you know when a Church is struggling? When the joy that is often described in a and is replaced with a sense of quiet desperation.

  8. Tracie says:


    Thank you for your response. I can understand your passion in people sticking something through and not giving up so easily or quickly. That is biblical. I believe that church relationships are simular to our marriage relationships in that there has to be commitment. You don’t leave when the warm fuzzies leave. But unlike marriage, I do believe there is and can be a time to move on. I am also in agreeance that we are responsible for our own growth through our own studies of God’s Word and our prayer time.

    However, I also am of the belief that some of our growth comes from the atmosphere of our place of worship. It is through fellowship with and through others that some (and I emphasize- some) of my best insight and lasting conviction have come. It has been invaluable in who I am today. This is also a biblical concept.

    I do like the idea of my just bringing the cards myself and showing my own enthusiasm for the project to enlist others. However, my hesitancy to do that is again in that I don’t have the desire to invite people to my church. When I wrote that above, that was the realization to me that maybe it was time to leave.

    I have prayed with the current youth pastor for the hearts of some to change. I have prayed for my pastor to quit fearing some within the congregation. I have taken on SEVERAL leadership rolls in our church to try to help facilitate change or even excitement within the church with most of my thoughts quickly stopped. And I would back up and try a different approach to be shot down again. And the changes I was attempting were not BIG but small. I thought baby steps would be better. The only change I was able to impliment was the changing of our VBS curriculum.

    I am not abandoning ship with just a couple of tries either. We have been ACTIVE members for almost four years. My first month there, I had plugged into two volunteer positions. And, I made very few attempts at change the first year. I just observed and plugged in. The sad part to me is the potential of the church. And yet there are about three families within the church that seem to stop any forward movement.

    Our church is about 30% youth (only about five students of which have parents that also attend), 60% elderly and 10% 25-45 years of age. My youngest three children and one other boy are the ENTIRE children’s division. I have mentioned starting a MOPS outreach. I have mentioned following up VBS with visitation (I have been forbade to go by myself as it should be a group of two or three members that go visiting but schedules never seemed coordinate). I have mentioned the possibility of have family movie nights ( I would set up and clean up) but ‘we don’t want the sanctuary to get dirty’.

    I am not saying all this to complain, although in a sense I guess I still am, but I wanted you to understand that I have invested. I am not one who complains and wants someone else to do the work. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty so to speak.

    It boils down to what Tim said. The church is sinning. They have found a Pastor they believe is called to that church but allow him no real power. And he has become complacent to that. I mean they had a fit when he moved the organ off the stage. And it was only ever played for the Christmas service.

    I am open to suggestions. I do love the people there. Even the stubborn ones who are set in their ways and believe it is the only way. I do love the youth pastor and those in the youth. The pastor has a great heart. Even the church building itself is in a great location and could serve many if the doors would open for that and the people inside would love unconditionally. I do see the potential for such love, growth, and service.

    For a short period of time (one summer) they did change some things. They offered two worship services – one more contemporary and one more traditional. With Sunday School sandwhiched in the middle. Although we didn’t ‘grow’ during this time, the attendance was the biggest and most consistant it had ever been since the current pastors time there. However, there was complaints from a few of the ‘elders’ that it divided the church and they wanted it put back. And so it was. When that happened, attendance quickly dropped below what it had been before the change (no one left that i know of but became very inconsistant in attendance) and has never recovered. That was two years ago.

    I believe a large part of the ‘problem’ is that actual community service is getting harder and harder as the congregation gets older and older. And since they are doing nothing to appeal (and not that you should bend over backwards but I do believe there should be some consessions there) to the 25-45 age level, there are no ‘workers’. I believe, in part, that is why so many ideas are shot down. There is no energy.

    “When the joy that is often described in a and is replaced with a sense of quiet desperation.” I guess my desperation has become not so quiet. Sorry for the rambling. But I am open to suggestions.

  9. Tim Farley says:


    Thanks again for your willingness to share. I am happy to hear that you have been very involved and working to help your church. I do not think there is a checklist that we can create that says “If your church is failing in these areas, it is time to go.” I do believe we need to honestly evaluate what role we have played in trying to help the church move forward and also what role we may have played in keeping the church from thriving.

    A church that continues to fail at being a true church will eventually die. Sometimes this is for the better because it forces those in unhealthy churches to move into ones that are more healthy (every church has some problems) where they can minister and be ministered to as the Church is designed. While I do believe that we are each responsible for our own spiritual maturity, this does not mean that we are supposed to do it alone. In fact, the whole idea of the Church is a group of believers who work together to help one another grow in Christ-likeness. Part of our personal responsibility is to connect with a group of believers who will walk beside us to help us as we do the same for them. If a church is not doing this, you may need to move on.

    I would just caution us all not to make a move without much prayer and honest evaluation. Here are some questions I would want to ask myself: Why do you want to move? What are the issues? In what areas is the church failing to act like a church? Are there areas where the church is doing well? Is there any indication that the church could change? Are there unresolved personal issues involved that are making me want to leave? Are there others in the church who are willing to make or work at the necessary changes? If so, can you work together as a group to make the changes (even if only in certain areas of the church at first)?

    One thing that I would mention is that you said you really like your youth pastor and his heart for kids. How would your leaving impact him? Pastors need encouragement – and people leaving does not encourage. We need those who will come alongside us and show us that they believe in what we are trying to do and they are willing to help us get there – even when it is difficult.

  10. layrenewal says:


    Truthfully, I do hear you. Tragically, I’ve heard this many, many, many times. My job can be depressing. However, it can also be very uplifting. When you see God changing hearts and lives, it is wonderful.

    Time is very relative. I worked with one church for almost a year before an elderly member of the church finally “got it.” He said in a meeting – “My grandson won’t come to the church. I want that to change. What can we do?” It was a very much a break-through moment for the church!

    Although you’ve said a lot, without knowing more information about the church, I’m fairly limited in counsel. I think Tim has asked some good questions to consider. A core group of people is a great place to restart. Small successes breed greater effort and greater successes.

    Based on some of the demographics you’ve shared, I think it might be worth considering some intergenerational ministries.
    – Mentoring and tutoring are good places for older generations to begin.
    – Reverse mentoring (teaching older people to use email, the internet, texting, etc…) is good for younger people to connect to older. Even if the older generation doesn’t actively use those things, it’s good to understand what they are.
    – Game nights are good because it’s something the older generations enjoy.
    The key is to build bridges. It opens receptivity to change.

    No guarantee that these things will work. In fact, like your ‘movie nights,’ I had an almost dead church refuse to open their gyms doors to a Christian group because they were afraid of wear and tear. Tragic! Nothing was right for them. (And, 12 years later, after shrinking to 20ish, they closed.)

    – Small, planned changes are better. 20 little blessings in a year beats one giant one. As people get used to seeing positive things happen, they will embrace more.
    – Find a core of support and begin working with them. You’ll strengthen and encourage each other tremendously.

    If things are as difficult as you say – AND although this would be the most difficult part – try to get your pastor to agree to an outside consultant. Perhaps it could be a fellow pastor, a denominational resource or another group. (Yes, it is what I do so I’m biased.) However, we’ve come to call it the “briefcase factor.” Even if the pastor and/or a key leader has been saying the same thing for years, when someone comes in carrying a briefcase, suddenly people hear with new ears.

  11. Tracie Wilkins says:

    Thank you both for your responses. I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond back myself. Life has been crazy….

    That being said, I appreciate your suggestions. Both of yours. The questions are good ones. Especially the one about the affect on the youth pastor. Never thought of that one but it should be one considered. I would never want to hurt him intentionally or unintentionally.

    And I like the mentoring idea but I am not sure how to put that into practice. I don’t see some of the elders in our church learning anything new like texting and most of our congregation doesn’t even own a computer ( I live in the middle of nowhere and they are WAY behind in technology – an example is most of the gas stations still have dial pumps. LOL I know! ) So we would need to go about that a different way but it might work if we could find a way to make that happen. It would facilitate the meet in the middle mentality.

    And I agree that smaller changes are better changes. I think that large changes can often cause way more disharmony thereby making that change anything but positive. Which in turn defeats the original purpose.

    I will be praying for an opportunity to bring the ‘briefcase factor’ up with my pastor to consider. I don’t see him necessarily being against the idea but it may not go over well with other ‘powers that be’ within the church. I will be praying about that too. God is bigger than all that and I know He ,too, longs for my church to be used with the right heart again. Less focus on ‘looks and stuff’ and more on love. I am all about LOVING people into the kingdom.

    Thanks for the boost. I will keep you posted about when the opportunity for that talk happens. I have been praying about leaving but have not felt completely at peace about leaving yet.

    We will see, maybe this blog is part of that reason (thanks Tim).

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