Is There a Church Death Spiral?

Thom Rainer headshot

Please don't shoot the messenger.

And please wait on additional data and research that will be more positive and helpful.

But please read my words closely and carefully. I am troubled by one major aspect of the research we just conducted.


You can peruse the details of our research at my previous blog post. Simply stated, we conducted a random sample of churches with data in 2013 and 2016. The margin of error of the research is +/- 3.1 percent. It's an accurate study – very accurate.

In the previous post, I shared that 65 percent of churches are declining or plateaued. For most of us, that number was better than the conventional "wisdom" we have heard. In that sense it was good news.


Over 61 percent of churches average fewer than 100 in worship attendance. Yes, we are a nation of small churches. I love it. I love small churches.

But if your church has fewer than 100 in worship, it is likely to be a declining church. In fact two out of three of these small churches are declining.

Even more, there is a direct correlation with the rate of decline in a church and the size of the church. Simply stated, the smaller the church, the greater the rate of decline in attendance. Perhaps these three statements will clarify my point:

  • A declining church with an attendance of 200 or more declines at a rate of 4 percent each year.
  • A declining church with an attendance of less than 100 declines at a rate of 7.6 percent per year.
  • A declining church with an attendance of less than 50 declines at a rate of 8.7 percent a year.

It's a death spiral. Declining smaller churches decline much more rapidly than larger churches. Once the declining church goes below 100 in attendance, its days are likely numbered.

Here is the sad summary statement of this portion of the research: Once a church declines below 100 in worship attendance, it is likely to die within just a few years. The life expectancy for many of these churches is ten years or less.


Yes, I am very concerned about our churches. Yes, I am very concerned about our smaller churches. It is a gloomy scenario.

But in my next article, I will share some of the good news. I will demonstrate how growing churches are not just growing; most are growing faster than the communities in which they are located.

Once a church has a turnaround from decline to growth, the outlook becomes very positive.

In the meantime, we must seek God's solutions to help these smaller and declining churches.

We are learning so much even as I write this information.

Stay tuned ...

Originally posted at

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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