2 Solutions For a Declining or Dying Church


The End is Nearing

Do you sense your church’s best days are behind you? If so, keep going! This post, while dire, is for you.

There is hope.

We will attack our final two phases of the Church Life Cycle in this one post. These last two phases are too emotionally difficult to spread out more than is necessary. And they both have identical solutions.  

Like we’ve done previously, we’ll focus primarily on how this affects churches. However, if you lead any other type of organization, substitute your organization for “church,” and the principles will apply.

Following the Preservation Phase, the decline often accelerates, leading us to Deterioration and Expiration.

Declining to Death 

The final phases are bleak. Very few organizations, including churches, can recover by this point in the cycle. The strategy and approach are so ingrained that even suggested changes are shot down and the suggester vilified.

Worse, in decline, most strategic thinkers and leaders from within the organization are gone. In many cases, their exit propels the organization into the final stage of deterioration and expiration. An organization lacking leaders yet still full of managers perpetuates and accelerates the problem.

Remember, by this stage in the life cycle, the most significant issue is serving the model over the mission. Organizing the original idea is why managers were necessary in the Orchestration Phase. Growth must be nurtured and manicured through strategies, systems, models, and plans. Leaders usually create these plans, but managers orchestrate the systems. When leaders within the organization begin to leave, the balance of creation and orchestration swings wildly out of balance. The “this is how we do it around here” directive becomes the unmovable and irrevocable law.

The end is near. Or, at best, nearing.

What to Look For During Deterioration and Expiration

Every church attempting to reach people today with a 1995s plan is most likely in some version of decline and death. Too much has changed in the last 20 – 30 years, including the internet, a pandemic, and the death of cultural Christianity.

When creation and innovation are absent, and management dominates the day, decline is inevitable. 

It’s easy to see this state within Elder boards and senior “leadership” positions. The red flags of organizational hospice look something like this in a church setting:

  • Decision tables are dominated by orchestrators over creators.
  • Staff and volunteers feel disgruntled and are leaving. Specifically, ones who work hardest and want more.
  • Quality communication has decreased.
  • Dissenters and other opinions are scarce.
  • Leadership is surrounded by people with nothing to say. 
  • Apathy is tolerated.
  • The focus is nearly (if not wholly) 100% inward.
  • Future dreams are surpassed by organizational memories.

If you’ve ever experienced an organization in the Deterioration and Expiration Phases, you’ve seen some of the above. Yet, it’s often subtle.

Deterioration and Expiration are hard to spot because those most likely to see it clearly have left the team. In the Maturation and Preservation Phases, low, mid, and even some senior leaders push for innovations and strategic changes. When they aren’t heard or taken seriously enough, frustration grows. This frustration becomes intolerable when metrics, dashboards, and anecdotal stories show an evident decline and the mission is missing in the work. Leaders who are unwilling to listen to others eventually find themselves surrounded only by managers without solutions.

Your Last Chance: Two Solutions for Deterioration

It’s possible but growing more unlikely by the day.

In deterioration, most everything gets progressively worse, even if the point leaders refuse to see it or acknowledge it.

A church or organization arrives in deterioration because of the ongoing resistance to see or acknowledge that the current strategy isn’t achieving the mission as it did previously. 

And it did work in the past.

Your church or organization made it out of Creation and Orchestration and into Maturation and Preservation precisely because your strategy, model, and methods worked. A lack of systems and plans would have kept you in creation and eventually death. The fact you designed solutions to allow your ideas to scale means you experienced some level of success.

That orchestration led to growth and more success. The better you orchestrated, the better your church or organization performed. Then, in maturity, you first felt like using the “we’ve arrived” mantra.

But as we’ve discussed in previous posts, your “arrival” was your first step to leveling and your eventual plateau.

Solution # 1: Replant as a Church Plant

We suggested a leadership change might be in order during the final moments of the Preservation Phase. In Deterioration, a leadership change is no longer a suggestion but a mandatory requirement for a recycling event. The only hope to salvage the church or organization in this phase is through a holistic turnover of leadership, brands, names, and most staff.

To say it another way, you recycle the church by replanting the church.

A “going out of business” to “under new management” is the final hope.

This can happen via a full-fledged replant with a new leader (pastor). 

By the Expiration Phase, it’s unlikely anything can be done. Mainly because the leadership has proven unwilling or unable to make necessary changes. Heals are dug in. These churches would rather die than relinquish control. And they will. 

Solution # 2: Church Adoptions as Kingdom-Minded Solutions

How about approaching a healthy, multisite church to become a campus location under their leadership?

I’m very biased toward this solution. I’ll admit that upfront. There are several reasons, perhaps the greatest being this was my doctoral dissertation topic! 

Healthy churches bring to the dying church precisely what the dying church needs: NEW.

New resources, culture, ideas, strategies, models, etc.

A thriving multisite church can adopt a struggling church and immediately infuse new energy and momentum.

However, and this is a really huge HOWEVER, it requires the dying church to accept a full adoption into a new church family. This isn’t a “merger.” It’s a complete “takeover.” The absorbed church must adopt everything that makes the multisite church work, including its DNA, culture, strategy, preaching approach, kid and student environments, and everything else you can fathom.

I’ll write more on this strategy later (or email me, and I’ll send you 125 pages of about it!).

It’s a fantastic strategy when executed strategically. And again, while biased, multisite churches adopting dying churches as campus locations may be the best strategy to stop the overall decline of the church today.

The Other Option

The only other option is hospice care and burial. I’m amazed at the number of church congregations willing to die rather than experience revival through replanting or multisite adoption. It’s perhaps the final selfish move in the Church Life Cycle.

I’m sure you’ve heard (or experienced) stories of deteriorating churches praying fervently for “revival” while dynamic, young church planters struggle to find property and multisite churches’ new locations.

The dying church’s revival may look different than they hoped, but a different type of revival is still revival. The other options are gone.

Companies take over empty church buildings daily to construct apartments, stores, and anything else. None of these move the Kingdom forward. They are a net Gospel loss. We can’t afford to allow our pride to fall the Kingdom in our community.

If you find yourself at the helm of a rapidly declining church, I pray that you will consider the most humble decision possible: Gift your resources to a church in the Creation or Orchestration Phase.

You’ll see a revival. Perhaps not the one you imagined, but a revival nevertheless.

Praying for you,