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7 Reasons Smaller Churches Struggle and Close

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Leadership guru Max De Pree is well known for stating that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
As one who has spent a lifetime providing leadership to smaller churches, I want to define the reality that many of them are facing.

In my opinion, many smaller churches are near the end of their ministries. Thousands of U.S. churches close every year, and I think we will see that trend continue.

Why are so many smaller churches struggling and some closing? Let me offer a few reasons and then offer a word of hope.

1. There are fewer pastors willing to serve in these churches.

Seminary-trained pastors often carry a lot of student debt and realize that debt will not easily be paid back from the salaries smaller churches often offer.

Some come out of larger, suburban churches and want to return to those types of churches while others believe it is not a good use of their spiritual gifts to serve in a smaller church.

Regardless of the specific reasons, studies have found that many pastors simply will not serve smaller churches.

2. More and more smaller churches are seeking bivocational leadership.

Few bivocational ministers can easily relocate due to their other employment, which limits pastoral searches to a smaller geographic area.

Few full-time ministers are willing to move to a new location and search for other employment to supplement their church income as a bivocational minister.

3. One of the essentials for a healthy, growing church is strong pastoral leadership and many pastors are unable to provide such leadership.

Some have not been trained to be leaders, as seminaries tend to develop managers, not leaders. Others struggle to provide leadership because they are not leaders; it’s not how they are wired.

Many small-church pastors with leadership skills are not permitted to do so. Any effort to provide leadership is quickly halted by immature controllers who have been allowed by the congregation to exercise their dysfunction on the entire church body.

4. In many smaller churches you will likely see a lot of gray hair.

These churches are often aging and, as members become unable to attend church due to death or illness, younger persons do not replace them.

One reason for this is that much of what the church does is geared for their older members, with little effort focused on attracting younger persons to become involved in the life of the church. 

5. Finances are often a problem.

It is well established that younger generations do not tithe or give to the church as the “builder” and “boomer” generations do.

Many smaller churches also do not make it easy to contribute. I read an article recently that showed that check-writing among young people is almost a thing of the past; everything is done with a debit card or by direct withdrawal.

How many smaller churches offer the opportunity for people to give through either of those means?

6. Many smaller churches have forgotten why they exist. Some are so focused on survival they have forgotten they exist for mission.

Although they may say the right words about outreach and mission, the reality is they have not seen anyone brought to Christ in years (decades?). One pastor told me he was preparing for the first baptism that church had experienced in 50 years.

Unless a church understands its God-given purpose and is attempting to live it out, one must question whether it is good stewardship for that church to continue.

7. Even more of these churches have no vision for ministry; they merely drift along from week to week hoping that someday something good will happen.

God has a unique vision for each church, and it is the responsibility for the church and its leadership to discern that vision and begin to live into it. Scripture is correct that without a vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18), and so do churches.

I could list even more issues, but I promised a word of hope and here it is: Those churches that address these problems and begin to correct them can enjoy a productive ministry.

I do not believe any small church has to close, but if they are not willing to confront the reasons why they are moving in that direction, it is unlikely they will survive.

If you are in a struggling church, I encourage you to read down through the issues I’ve listed and ask if any of them are part of the reality your church is facing now. If so, what can you do about it?

Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Ind., for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.