Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

I'm going to try writing a book: Here's the 1st draft of the introduction

by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.

Really. I think I'm going to knuckle down and do it. I want to write a book. I'm going to base the book off my dissertation research, but will try to rewrite in such a way that it will be useful to people besides professors and other doctoral students writing their own dissertations. 

This is the first draft of my introduction. What do you think?


“Where is everybody?!”

Buella’s dismay was as unmistakable as her New York accent, which hadn’t faded despite her sixty years as a Florida resident. At 101, she still drove herself to church, the grocery store, and the beauty parlor. Frankly, she was livelier than almost anyone else present among the dwindling congregation.

“This is terrible!”

The centenarian widow and forty-five-year member of the small, struggling church continued in shocked disappointment.

“This place used to be packed!”

Yet the little Southern Baptist church near Tampa had been nowhere near packed during the month or so that I had been preaching the Sunday morning sermon there. I say “little” church, but the building, modestly sized as it was, swallowed up what was left of the congregation. I couldn’t help wondering how the church’s sorry state could somehow seem like a surprise to Buella. Had she only now noticed? I rather doubted it.

Buella recalled the congregation’s better days—when children, teenagers, and young families worshiped in a vibrant community—but those days appeared long gone. And the decay process hadn’t taken place overnight. The church hadn’t had a pastor in over two years; before that, there hadn’t been a pastor stay longer than a couple of years for over a decade. Before that, there had been some feuds, some church splits. At 62, Gloria was the “baby” of the church. She had worshipped there as a youth from the day of the church’s founding some fifty years before. Now she happily led congregational singing—and like at Burger King, she had it her way.

Perhaps once in the eight weeks that I preached to and consulted with that church’s leadership (Glenn, the deacon), did anyone under forty ever darken the doors on a Sunday morning. The church was uninterested in having another, more prosperous church help it revitalize if it meant giving up an ounce of that prized Baptist “church autonomy.” I saw little hope the church could ever recover. I reported to the local association of the Southern Baptist Convention I thought the church’s prospects were dim. Still, a pastor friend of mine was willing to try to lead it in that direction before concluding some eight months later that the church would not heed the warning—coming from me, my friend, local denominational officials, and likely others—that the congregation must “change or die.”

Just a few months before, I spoke to the pastor of another nearby Southern Baptist church in similar straits, who concluded, “Nobody wants to go to church anymore.” For my part, I could see why they wouldn’t want to go to his church. More than that, it was clear to me, as I quietly observed the rather lifeless worship service, that many of the church attendees appeared to be related to the elderly pastor, who struggled to preach much of a sermon. I’m sure things used to be different. But I couldn’t help but wonder if many of those few in attendance—especially those who appeared to be in their thirties or younger—wouldn’t move on when the pastor (Grandpa? Uncle? Dad?) either passed away or became too debilitated to continue even the charade of ministering to the church.

Just a few months later, near Grand Rapids, Michigan, I visited and consulted the leadership of a declining church. I asked them to tell me what had happened. How had the church arrived at a place where attendance was a fraction of days gone by, and young adults and children were notably absent?

These men—over 70, all but one of them—explained what happened: people drifted off, gradually at first, and then at a more accelerated pace, especially as family members followed relatives and friends followed friends. But I had already surmised that. That’s what always happens. What baffled these gentlemen was the why? Why—really, honestly—had all those people, especially the working-aged ones with children at home, left? Like every other dying church—at least every struggling church not in complete denial of a problem—this one was perplexed about why people had left.

For small churches (especially), it’s a big problem.

I’m not the first one to say it.

Just Google a few terms like “church decline” or “church closure,” and results galore document the heartbreaking trend. From what I’ve seen, from what I’ve read, from what I’ve heard in discussions with American pastors from all over the nation and representing the full spectrum of Christian denominational traditions, this story repeats itself in most churches in the United States.

I could only find statistics from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The SBC admits that about 900 of its congregations close every year. Of course, the denomination plants new churches and receives established churches from other backgrounds into its fellowship every year. Still, the net loss for this single, admittedly large denomination is at least 250 to 300 churches annually. If the SBC’s trends are similar to those across the spectrum of American evangelicalism, as I suspect they are, that could mean that a net of 3,500 to 4,000 churches are closing each year without being replaced by another congregation in the local area.

Most of these churches were small—tucked away in communities where they were easily accessible. This means that thousands of potential neighborhood Gospel lighthouses are gone for good. I say “potential neighborhood Gospel lighthouses” because most dying churches ceased to be lights to their communities long before they closed. If revitalized (or the facilities passed on to a new church plant), they might serve that function again. However, that won’t happen if the property is sold to become a gas station (I’ve seen it before) or a strip mall. No longer kingdom real estate, that location can never again serve as a beachhead for penetrating the community with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Some of the excuses

Church leaders and members who will admit to a problem usually do so because the church’s decline has become glaringly obvious. They often have theories about the causes of the decay. The first blamed is typically the nearest megachurch. 

Blame the megachurch.

I get it. In my own experience as a newly-minted pastor of a small, dying church, I heard it. “Pastor, we hate to leave, but we’re going to Up-the-Road MegaChurch because we need a church with programs for our kids.” I was still new enough to look objectively at our church and admit that I could hardly blame them.

And even as the American church, as a whole, is in a state of free fall, the truth is, right now, in the post-COVID world of 2023, most megachurches are bucking that trend.[1] No, they typically aren’t seeing explosive growth anymore. But for the most part, megachurches aren’t declining either. And despite the prevalent notion I’ve found in small, struggling churches, megachurches as a whole have not compromised fundamental Christian principles to reach an accommodation with American culture.

An intellectually honest examination of the megachurch phenomenon, in its entirety (not just the scandalous exceptions), generally does not reveal a watered-down version of Christianity that is “soft on sin.” Yes, invariably, they hear Sunday morning services delivered by pastors who are dynamic and gifted communicators. Most preachers—myself definitely included—could only hope to speak the way they do. But these pastors—and I know a few of them personally—are not preachers who “tickle the ears” of attendees.

Certainly, many refugees from dead and dying churches find a home in megachurches. But, for the most part, a truthful look at those who have migrated over does not reveal disgruntled, religious consumers looking for the next trendy Sunday entertainment option. Rather, those who have left churches on their last legs are typically sincere believers in Christ, mournfully departing a place of spiritual death to find a new spiritual home of life, growth, and community. I’ll talk more in later chapters about why megachurches are growing while so many others are declining and dying. However, the basic reasons are simple, timeless, and—quite thoroughly—biblical.

If everyone who left a dead or dying church found their way to a megachurch, I might be tempted to shrug it off and be happy that at least they have a church home. Just chalk it up to cultural shifts—the church has always had those. But, for various reasons, many of those who abandon the sinking Titanic—the dying church—never again find the safe harbor of any church. I find that troubling. I hope you do, too. The smaller church has always felt more like home to me.

Blame the neighborhood and American culture.

It’s also easy to blame the culture and the neighborhood—as many leaders in dead and dying churches do. Indeed, the elderly pastor who told me, “Nobody wants to come to church anymore,” reflects that sentiment. “We haven’t changed,” members and leaders of the dying church reason, “but the neighborhood sure doesn’t respond like it used to. It’s their fault.” Blame the neighborhood.

No one would be wrong to say that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians has dwindled precipitously in the last few decades. Research by secular organizations such as Gallup Polls, Pew Research, and the U.S. Census Bureau, not to mention Christian researchers like Barna and LifeWay, bear that out.

And this cultural phenomenon was already accelerating before COVID-19 hit. While the global pandemic likely ended the suffering for many churches already on life support, the virus certainly brought many others, once in earlier stages of decline, to the brink. Those churches, which could ignore initial signs of trouble before the pandemic, may be paying the bills now—but without much margin left. You see, many members didn’t come back from the quarantine. Even fewer children are there. Due to the pandemic, some of the most vulnerable members worship in Heaven now. At the same time, some claim they still watch online, but their attachment to the church is marginal, at best. Those that haven’t come back yet aren’t going to.

The news isn’t all bad. Church growth gurus like Thom Rainer see the trends largely reflective of the death of “cultural Christianity.” People who might once have claimed to be Christian—people who might have even regularly attended church—because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do in America no longer feel the pressure or obligation to appear like good, church-going folks. If people want to be entertained on a Sunday morning, they no longer need church to fill that need. Fishing, Sunday sports leagues, or even a quiet morning at home will suffice—with no cultural backlash, no one at the office Monday morning asking how they enjoyed the services at their church. Cultural were never really Christians, but they saw the benefit to their careers, families, or standing in the community. Today, the church no longer meets that need—in some communities, it’s quite the opposite. So, cultural Christians are gone, and in many legacy congregations, their absence is palpable.

The American church is, just now, beginning to feel a little of what has been the global experience of the universal church for the past two thousand years. The United States is much more a mission field than in years past, and churches need to do more today than hang a shingle off the building expecting people to show up; they need to be a place of true spiritual connection. Cultural Christianity is gone, and that’s not all bad. The church today has a real opportunity to authentically be the church. The church in America has the chance to be the hands and feet of Jesus rather than remain comfortable simply knowing that people will show up. For church health—not to mention the advance of the Gospel—that’s a good thing.

Getting to the heart of the problem

The church has always grown for the same reason, beginning on the day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, chapter 2, and continuing until today. Growing churches focus outwardly. They take seriously—and personally obey—Christ’s Great Commission to go and reach locally, nationally, and internationally (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, to borrow Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8 more directly), bringing the Good News of the Gospel to those who need it.

For two thousand years, the growing church has believed that it was incumbent on it to follow the Great Commandment to love their neighbor as themselves and to be the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope and comfort to a lost and dying world. Growing churches invariably reflect a Gospel love for their communities in their preaching and teaching and provide opportunities to share the love of Jesus with their neighbors, in community with fellow believers.

I have visited enough megachurches to know that they are outwardly focused and generally committed to bringing the Gospel to the world, starting at the front doors of their buildings. Admittedly, the percentage of megachurch attendees who engage in their churches’ evangelistic outreaches is probably still far lower than their pastors would like. However, the leadership energy and intentionality in emphasizing Gospel outreach are far more in the megachurch (indeed, even in a church of 200 or more) than the negligible concern registered within the four walls of declining churches.

The megachurch up the street from your struggling church is probably decades younger than yours. Do you think they got that size without some intentionality in reaching the neighborhood? Assuredly, that did not happen. If you doubt me, spend a few Sunday mornings at that megachurch and tell me you didn’t hear the pastor mention the church’s desire to reach the community. I double-dog dare you.

No, megachurches aren’t perfect—no church that’s got people in it is. And for the record, I’ve never been a megachurch member. It’s possible to find fault with any outreach strategy—even some megachurches’ well-coordinated and well-intentioned efforts. But to paraphrase Dwight L. Moody, I like their way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing it.

Where did all the evangelism go?

Conversely, I have visited enough small, struggling churches to know the opposite is true of them. Prayer times consist of intercession for (sometimes not very) sick, (purportedly) saved people. Perhaps the church may lift up the needs of a missionary in their prayers, but seldom, if ever, have I heard concern for the spiritual condition or the eternal destiny of those in the neighborhood brought in front of the Almighty. That’s a fundamental difference in mindset between the growing church and the dying church.

If dying churches even think of evangelism, it is in the context of having delegated it to the “professionals”—the pastor and full-time missionaries. Such churches may even proudly showcase the missionaries they support. But it is the rare member of these congregations who goes the slightest bit out of their way to even invite a neighbor to church. Evangelism is dead in most American congregations. And evangelism is certainly dead in all declining churches (and now that I think of it, that’s most American churches). If you doubt me, there are plenty of statistics to validate this bold claim. I’ll bring you some in chapter one.

When churches abandon their concern for reaching their communities, they naturally stop looking like the community. As racial, ethnic, and economic demographics shift within the neighborhood, the congregation stops looking like the community. Even in racially heterogeneous areas, declining churches look far different from their communities in one major demographic—age. As the congregation ages, no younger people—except for children and grandchildren of members—become part of the congregation. Of course, even the children and grandchildren move to other communities, which is a natural part of life. As the inwardly-focused church fails to even biologically reproduce, the congregation ages at an accelerated rate. When I began to pastor a struggling church in Florida, the congregation’s median age was 71—compared to 37 for the surrounding community. From what I have seen and heard, my experience was far from unusual in America.

We all gotta go home sometime.

The wisdom and encouragement of senior saints have been invaluable to my life and ministry. Multi-generational ministry should be the norm in the local church. We should never desire to see older adults eliminated from participating in congregational life. Indeed, churches that minister to the young to the exclusion of older adults are missing out on a rich source of mature disciple-makers. But sadly, elderly saints have the actuarial tables working against them. I haven’t known many people who lived into their nineties, let alone over a hundred years, like dear Buella in Tampa.

The church’s loss is Heaven’s gain. But it’s certainly the church’s loss—right up to a point where, without an influx of younger generations, it eventually has neither the members nor the giving to sustain itself. The truth is, it is relatively easy to predict—to within a few years—when a declining church will close its doors. And the closer a church is to death, the easier it is to predict that date more accurately. It doesn’t require prophetic gifts, just simple math—with simple attendance graphs and charts of tithing contributions over time—to make such prognostications.

In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Rainer demonstrated that churches that closed their doors refused to look like the neighborhood, neglected the Great Commission, and became increasingly inward-focused overall. Membership in a dying church is much more akin to country club membership than being part of Christ’s body.

What this book is all about

An additional consideration goes hand in hand with these disturbing trends in a dying church. As Mark Clifton says in Reclaiming Glory—his work on revitalizing dying churches—part of a church’s refusal to look like the neighborhood, part of its inward focus, is its refusal to develop, empower, and pass the torch to emerging generations of leaders. As Clifton says, “Leaders will lead. If you don’t provide young leaders the opportunity to lead in your church, they will eventually go somewhere else where they can lead.”[2]

If a church is to undergo successful revitalization, it must recruit, develop, and empower next-generation leaders to act. According to Clifton, such leadership development activities will rest heavily upon the pastor leading a church’s journey of revitalization. My doctoral dissertation work validated Clifton’s assertions, as did my experience leading in a church revitalization setting.

This book is not about the ins and outs of church revitalization—I’ll refer to great books on that topic. Guys like Mark Clifton, Thom Rainer, and Sam Rainer, to name a few, have written extensively on church revitalization. These men definitely informed my thinking—and their direct input, in the case of the Rainers, influenced the course of my dissertation.

Leaders wanted—and you'll need to grow them.

Rather, I will concentrate on raising up next-generation leaders—broadly speaking, leaders under forty—to assist the pastor in the crucial work of church revitalization. This book builds upon my experience and the insights I gained interviewing eleven pastors who had attained at least modest success on the long road to church revitalization. These pastors shared with me the good, bad, and ugly of leadership development in a church revitalization setting. I hope their experiences will help pastors develop and empower disciple-leaders who will, in turn, assist them in leading declining congregations to renewed spiritual vitality, evangelistic growth, and disciple-making capacity.

My goal is not to exclude middle-aged and senior adults from leadership, or worse, to run them off—far from it. These seasoned leaders are part of the solution. From my interviews with revitalizing pastors, it seems clear that, often, no leaders are present when the revitalizer arrives on the scene at the dying church. Yet church revitalization is a task that is far too immense for one leader, the pastor, to accomplish alone. Everything—from deferred facility maintenance to neglected outreach, to much-needed pastoral care, to preparing quality sermons, to the revitalizing pastor’s family and often-held second job—needs the pastor’s attention.

A revitalizing pastor must reproduce leaders as quickly as possible—without handing leadership to those who are not ready. Recruiting mature believers from inside and outside the church and empowering them to act—and to help develop the next generation—is a critical part of a robust church revitalization strategy.

Biblical Truthand spiritual warfare

As God’s Word, the Bible is the normative voice for the church’s faith and practice. Scripture has much to say about church revitalization and leadership development in ministry. Our leadership development and efforts to revitalize the local church, the bride of Christ, must be bathed in Scripture. I will attempt, within the pages of this book, to consistently frame the discussion in biblical terms.

All truth is God’s truth. I think it’s demonstrably true that any good leadership is biblical leadership—and all good leadership development is biblical leadership development. Thus, in these pages, I will borrow from secular leadership theories where they can serve as useful, practical, actionable, and biblically-informed models to help pastors involved in the immense—indeed overwhelming, without the aid of the indwelling Holy Spirit—task of church revitalization.

The task of church revitalization is, at its heart, a massive undertaking in spiritual warfare. You already know this truth if you have been part of a church revitalization. Perhaps you haven’t been part of trying to get a congregation long withdrawn from the battlefield to reengage. After joining such an effort, you will quickly become intimately familiar with spiritual warfare. Indeed, even if you have been a spiritual warrior, this undertaking may be one of the most intense battles you have ever joined. Not long after taking on the pastorate of a church in desperate need of revitalization, I experienced the Adversary’s attack more intensely than ever before.

An old salt’s take on church renewal

Before I entered the ministry, I had been a career naval officer—a “surface warfare officer,” a “ship driver.” Long before I was a pastor, I was a student of physical warfare.  I had served in “joint” roles, where all of the branches of the U.S. armed forces—and those of America’s allies—operated together. So I gained a pretty good understanding of military operations in the air, on land, at sea, and even in space. In studying spiritual warfare, I found uncanny parallels between military operations and our battle with the Devil.

In the military, I also learned a tremendous amount about leadership development best practices and empowering young people to act in critical situations. Frankly, I found the armed forces do a better job growing and unleashing leaders than most churches (and remember, by definition, all good leadership development is biblical, no matter who undertakes it).

I am convinced that my military experience equipped me to be a better spiritual warrior, leader developer, and church-revitalizing pastor. Seven of the eleven pastors I interviewed in my dissertation research had military experience (one Soldier, one Airman, two Marines, and three Sailors) and felt the same way. I do not believe in any way that military experience is somehow necessary to succeed as a church revitalization pastor. Indeed, one of the pastors I interviewed had been a teacher, while another had been a postman. Both found these experiences of benefit in church revitalization ministry.[3]

However, where I found my military experience to benefit developing leaders for church revitalization—and where those I interviewed found their time in the armed forces positively informed their mentoring and disciple-making practices—I hope to translate that into something every pastor can use, regardless of background.

Recognizing my limits

My formal research had its limits. I only talked to evangelicals, and even then, because of my orbit when I conducted my research, ten of the eleven were interviewees Baptists (of several denominations or associations). Although many of my interviewees led multiethnic churches, these pastors were all white, and they were all men. Had time and resources permitted, I would have preferred interviewing pastors from many denominational backgrounds (indeed, I tried to find these pastors, but without much luck). I wish that I had been able to interview pastors belonging to multiple ethnic groups.

Only one of my interviewees pastored a church with an egalitarian view of church leadership, which allows women to serve as pastors—but, again, the interviewee was a man. It would have been interesting to see how women pastors’ approaches to church revitalization and leadership development may have differed from those of their male counterparts.

But, despite my limits…

Still, in the months since I defended my dissertation, I have had the good fortune of having myriad conversations with pastors and leaders. These leaders come from multiple denominational and non-denominational backgrounds, albeit they are still mainly—but not always—evangelicals. These conversations have led me to believe that what I learned in my dissertation work has wide applicability across church denominations.

Indeed, the stories are always similar—North, South, Midwest—white, black, Hispanic, or multiethnic—Baptist, Wesleyan, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Pentecostal, Evangelical Lutheran, Congregationalist, Evangelical Covenant, Bible Church, or non-denominational—Calvinist, Arminian, Provisionist, or somewhere in the middle—dispensational or covenantal—charismatic or cessationist—complementarian or egalitarian—rural, urban, or suburban. Without these particulars, the stories all sound the same.

Across the board, no matter the theological flavor or the local context, churches in America are struggling. They are aging and unsure how to cast a Gospel net in a culture that is changing at a dizzying and accelerating pace. They are stunned that, for the first time in their lives, people don’t just reject the Gospel message but accuse Christians of bigotry and hatred.

They are wondering with Buella, “Where did everybody go?!”

God will help you, and I hope this book will, too.

I freely admit that I don’t know everything. However, I know the One who does. I trust He will empower you as you mentor, equip, and unleash your church’s next-generation leaders to see your church to renewed vitality, vibrant ministry, and bold witness to the life-transforming, soul-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know He can bring your church back to life—and He’s the only one who can. I know that, over the centuries, the church has seen decay and decline, followed by revival and “Great Awakenings.”

I know that, for better or worse, the church—including your struggling church—is the bride of Christ. And he loves her.

What I do know, I share now for His glory. I hope this work might assist and encourage other pastors who have committed to traveling the hard road of church revitalization. You are my heroes. I’m rooting for you. I’m praying for you. I believe you are where you are for such a time as this.

[1] Scott Neuman, “Megachurches Are Getting Even Bigger as Churches Close across the Country.” NPR, July 14, 2023. megachurches-growing-liquid-church.

[2] Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory, 2nd edition (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2023), 25-6.

[3] Interestingly, ten of the eleven pastors I interviewed during my dissertation research entered the ministry as a second career. One pastor had only been in ministry (not counting college jobs) and, even then, he had served on a church staff for over a decade before tackling revitalization.


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