Your Church is Going to Die

By Clint Clifton

People rarely consider how churches begin and almost never consider how they end. Churches, just like people, have lifecycles. They are born and they die. Where is your church in its lifecycle?  

Have you ever considered how close your church is to death? In his book, “The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health” Tony Morgan describes seven stages of a church’s life.  

  1. Launch
  2. Momentum Growth
  3. Strategic Growth
  4. Sustained health
  5. Maintenance
  6. Preservation
  7. Life Support

Where is your church in this lifecycle?  

People rarely consider how churches begin and almost never consider how they end. Churches, just like people, have lifecycles. They are born and they die. They close their doors, they sell their buildings, they liquidate their assets, and they stop gathering.  

If you don’t believe me, get on a plane to Jerusalem and look for the church first pastored by James. Then skip over to Turkey and see if you can find the church at Antioch still meeting. Those churches are closed, disbanded and scattered. American churches are closing too, and not just one or two at a time – they are closing by the thousands. This Sunday morning when you go to church, about 135 fewer American churches will be gathering than gathered the same time last week. That’s 600 churches disbanding every month – and 7,000 churches vanishing every year.

Western Europe experienced drastic changes over the course of the 20th century. During the 1960s, it experienced terminal decline of virtually all its large, organized churches and the pervasive Christian culture, which influenced Western Europe for centuries, virtually disappeared. Today the streets of major cities throughout Western Europe are peppered with church buildings that lasted longer than the congregations that erected them. Hundreds of church buildings are now being used as restaurants, nightclubs, concert venues, cafés, modern condominiums, museums and mosques. They stand as stark proof that western culture is spitting Christianity out of its mouth.  

The change is not really that shocking if you think about it. Churches are made up of sinners, and sin kills everything it touches. If sinners are going to church, churches will be dying. If churches are dying, new churches are necessary. Every year in America about 4,000 evangelical churches begin. Of those started, 35% close before their 5th anniversary, leaving about 2,600 new churches planted annually. While churches are dying at a significantly higher rate, each year in the U.S. approximately 7,000 churches close their doors forever. All things considered, the number of churches in the U.S. is decreasing by about 4,400 churches per year, while our population is growing by about 3 million people per year.

How is the American church responding to the crisis? We are spending countless millions of dollars erecting buildings that likely will outlast the congregations that erect them.  We are building the nightclubs and mosques of tomorrow, while tossing pennies to the establishment of new churches.  

As you get busy with your work, you will be tempted to find the measure of your success based on the number of people you successfully gather for worship. Please keep in mind that the mission of the church was to scatter, not to gather. Instead of measuring the success of your church by the harvest you gather, concentrate your energy and measure your success based on the seed that you scatter.  

Churches have a life cycle and eventually die, and one day yours will too. My prayer is that you would plant a church vigorously committed to planting other new churches. I pray you will stretch the faith of your people, not so they can have a larger building to worship in, but that Christ may have a larger kingdom of worshipers. 

Published December 8, 2021

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Clint Clifton

Clint Clifton is the founding pastor of Pillar, a multiplying church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the senior director of resource and research strategy at the North American Mission Board. He is the author of several books and periodicals on the subject of church planting, including Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel Centered Church Planting Guide and Church Planting Primer and is the host of the Church Planting podcast.