12 Markers of Churches on the Downslope

Church growth writers talk about the bell-shaped curve that characterizes the growth of many churches. The left side of the bell curve is exciting (vision, outreach, growth, etc.), but the right side is challenging (nostalgia, decline, division, etc.).

Based on my years of church consulting, here are some markers of churches on the downslope. Every church should be aware of these markers, just in case they’re unknowingly moving in the wrong direction. 

  1. A visionless leader – Often, the primary leader in the church – the pastor – has lost vision for the future.
  2. Unspoken conflict – The conflict may not have yet risen to a raging fire, but the embers of division are beginning to flame quietly.
  3. A “back door” problem – People are leaving the church more rapidly than they’re joining. Sometimes, the difference between the two is stark.
  4. Few converts – Congregations on the downslope seldom do much evangelism. 
  5. Non-returning guests – It’s not that first-time guests aren’t coming to the church; it’s that they never come back after the first time.
  6. Stagnant, if not declining, finances – Long-term members may be keeping the financial ship afloat, but nothing suggests coming growth in giving.
  7. Fractured leadership – Ongoing conflict among staff or lay leaders is not uncommon in churches going in the wrong direction.
  8. Decreasing funds for ministry – This problem is often the result of maintaining a larger-church staff as the church itself gets smaller. Salaries dominate the expenses as the church struggles.
  9. “Yesterday” conversations more than “today or tomorrow” hopes – “I remember when” statements become much more common than “I’m so excited about what God’s doing.”
  10. Longer-term leaders just “hanging on” – Even the strongest, most faithful members begin to think about leaving when a church is on the wrong side of the curve.
  11. Increasingly a one-generation congregation – Typically, younger families leave rather than wait out any needed changes.
  12. Entrenched hopelessness – Those who remain begin to lose hope, but they remain unwilling to change.

What other characteristics have you seen?


  • David Atkins says:

    I hope you quickly follow this accurate, grim diagnosis with a robust, biblically sound treatment plan. (Those of us serving in such an unhealthy place need all the help we can get.)

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Fair point, David. In the weeks to come, I’ll be dealing with several of these issues individually.  

  • Ed Amundson says:

    Instead of authentic worship directed toward our matchless Master that exhorts the worshiper to depart to the mission, dying congregations often prefer a “Sunday service.” Only it’s pronounced “serve-us.” And they depart expecting to be served rather than to be servants of God in Christ… Reheat and repeat…

  • Jeff Whedbee says:

    The question is–WHO is positioned in the church to see this coming? Or to have his hand on the pulse of the church to catch it before it becomes an epidemic? The Pastor? Elders? Lay leaders? And how is it handled, without causing a full-blown church split (those that want the church to “more than survive” vs. those who are “comfortable” and don’t want any change)?

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      I’ll be writing more about addressing these issues in the next week or so, Jeff. Thanks for your prayers.  

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