Mainstream churches are declining

Published 9:19 pm Monday, December 2, 2013

By Joe Bass

American mainstream churches have been declining in attendance for decades. Knowing the characteristics of the few churches that are growing should provide insight into how to go about revitalizing the others.

For five years I did organizational consulting work with churches throughout Virginia. Although most were from one denomination, I worked with enough from other denominations to know that declining churches shared common characteristics and successful churches shared other common characteristics.


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I even wrote a book on the subject that few are interested in reading.

Declining churches shared many common characteristics. An important one related to the fact that members were “keeping the peace.” Keeping the peace sounds like a good thing, except to do so they had to ignore important issues they did not want to address, mainly declining attendance and giving.

Some of them had previously had 700 in attendance and when they asked for help had less than a hundred. And all the houses where the 700 previously lived were still standing. The churches had become more social clubs, rather than being the Body of Christ serving the people who lived around the church buildings.

Almost always, members of the declining churches were of only one race or ethnic group. I call this type of church a “donut church.” The physical church structure stood in the middle of a wide area in which few, if any, members lived. Members and their ancestors previously lived near the church but had moved away.

A second characteristic experienced in many failing churches involved conflict and divisiveness among members. When they finally realized they had a problem, members became divided between those who didn’t want to change and those who realized change was needed. Members were in conflict over who was going to control church governance.

Control and politics were more important than serving Christ and the community around the church.

A third characteristic involved the pastor and his or her relationship with members.

One common problem involved members expecting a new pastor to be a replica of a previous pastor, as if changing pastors were like changing the water pump on a car. Adding a new person to any group always changes group dynamics.

Another issue involved the pastor attempting to control and dictate activities, instead of building a consensus among members as to the direction and activities of the congregation. Sometimes, even, the pastor had the only key to the building.

A fourth characteristic of failing churches often involved type of music and worship styles.

Churches that were doing well shared the opposite of the above characteristics. The pastor and lay leadership worked as a team, building and maintaining a consensus among members as to goals, objectives and activities. These included reaching out to the people living around the church, regardless of race or ethnicity. Everyone was welcome, including those who didn’t “dress up” for church.

Different worship services were provided to different types of music and worship styles. The churches often developed and supported community activities such as sports, national holiday activities, education and child care. These were done to draw the “non-churched” into the building, exposing them to a welcoming Christian environment.

Churches are important to American communities. How is your church doing?

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at