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Why Churches Are Closing

Recently, a well-respected worker in my Christian denomination was interviewed regarding the rapid increase in church closures over the past few years. The first question, naturally, was why he believed this rise has occurred. His top two reasons for churches closing were:

  1. A mass exodus of people from the Midwest (i.e. the Bible Belt) to warmer climates such as Southern California which are traditionally lower in church population per capita (in his words, “you now have churches where people aren’t, and people where churches aren’t).

  2. People in America (particularly young people) are simply less interested in religion and religious activities than they used to be.

How do we, as Christians, feel about these two reasons? Are they sufficient? Are they satisfactory? Are they adequate?

Sadly, they are not.

Why? Because churches would not cease closing, or even declining for that matter, if these two factors were resolved. If no one migrated, and the interest in religious activities were on the rise, you may see an uptick in church attendance, but are we truly convinced that the solving of these two issues would be enough to sustain that attendance?

Now, I must say two things at this point. First, the primary goal of churches should not be to increase attendance, nor to avoid closure altogether. In fact, we must be open to the idea that there are cases in which a church closing can be a good thing. As Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)” Quite often, a congregation has become so unhealthy that the only way for God to raise up something new and fruitful in that place is for the congregation, in its current form, to die. Many pastors, myself included, have witnessed this miraculous metamorphosis firsthand.

Second, I pray that what I’m about to say is not received as too harsh. I have a deep love for the church, the bride of Christ, and firmly believe it is the only hope for a broken world. As Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12) Also, as a former pastor whose church recently closed, I feel I have a small license to offer some wisdom in this area.

So with these two lackluster explanations before us, I am prepared to contribute a third reason for the closures of so many of our beloved churches.

Before I put it on the table, allow me to explain why I feel it is necessary to put it on the table. You see, there is a common denominator between the two reasons offered above: both claim that the core issue of congregations closing is an external one, that it has to do with something outside the church walls. We say, “well, the problem must have to do with people moving, or people no longer being interested in religion.”

Either way, it must be other people who are the heart of the problem, not us…..right?

As much as we may find comfort in thinking this way, the truth is this: the primary reason for church closures is an internal one. When a tree ceases to bear fruit, we know that the cause cannot be what is occurring on the outside of the tree, but the inside. I don’t mean for this to be read as a blanket statement, as I’m sure there are a handful of churches who feel they are thriving. But overall (and statistics can easily support this), most of our congregations have simply lost sight of why they exist in the first place.

In the world of Medical Research, there is a famous phrase:

“Every system is designed to get the results that it is currently getting.”

If I were to apply this line of thinking to my former church (which closed in 2021), the sad truth (and it truly is sad) is that the system we had in place for doing church was perfectly designed to produce the result that we got: closure.

Some of us may resist this fact. We may make excuse after excuse for why our churches decline. Perhaps we will cling to one of the two reasons offered above. Or perhaps we will scour the scriptures to find some verse (out of context) that will remind us that we are still doing it right and the world is simply “going to hell in a handbasket.” Perhaps we will say to ourselves, “well, this was prophesied about. The majority will turn away from church, and so that must make us the few, the proud, etc etc”

But when the thought of taking a hard look in the mirror and entertaining the possibility that a drastic change is needed inside our church walls, we cringe. The thought that there might just be something incredibly unappealing about our current church culture to the unchurched makes us shutter.

So, that’s the question that every church in the first stages of decline must come to terms with: Is it them? Or is it us? If it’s them, well then it’s out of our control, and all that’s required of us is to stay the course and keep the lights on until the last remaining member goes to be with the Lord.

But if it’s us, well then according to Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step in recovery is admitting we have a problem.

And once we do that, then the real work can begin…

So the next question is, what is it about our current church culture that makes the unchurched completely uninterested in being a part of it?


Have you ever taken Karate lessons? If not, have you at least walked into a karate studio? If not, I can imagine that you have, at the very least, walked past a karate studio (which quite often has its doors wide open…strangely enough).

The formal name for a Karate Studio is a “dojo.” Dojo is a Japanese word that means “place of the way.” It is a hall or place for immersive, experiential learning. When you walk into a Karate dojo with the prospect of becoming a student, it is well understood what is going to be asked of you (which makes it a pretty “cut and dry” decision to either say “yes, I’m in” or “no, I’m out.”)

To say “no” simply means you will likely never set foot in the dojo again.

But to say “yes” means you will commit to:

  • Attend training sessions on a regular basis

  • Learn closely from the “Sensei” (teacher), who will gently guide you and correct you wherever correction is needed

  • Fail consistently as a means to growth

  • Be in a safe community of fellow learners, each at different stages of progress

  • Develop skills, habits, and disciplines that will be incredibly relevant to your life outside of the dojo

Ultimately, to say “yes” to a Karate dojo means that you have seen the vision for what your life could look like as a trained martial artist, you have deemed that vision to be attractive and beneficial, and therefore have chosen to put your full trust in “the way” as a good, life-changing process.

So when someone walks into a Dojo mid-training session, what do they find going on in there? Well, at the very least, they will find folks from every walk of life, every culture, every age, every economic status, learning from, and training to be like, their Sensei in whom they have put their trust.

You may find a 25-year-old “brown belt” (advanced) who has grown up in the dojo. You also may find a 68-year-old “white belt” (beginner) who has just recently discovered the dojo. And this the kind of place where that’s ok. The important part is, regardless of the level of expertise, that everyone in the room is oriented toward the Sensei, and committed to making progress and developing into someone who looks like their Master Teacher.

Each person in the room is a student, a disciple.

Now imagine a hypothetical scenario where you walked into a dojo for the first time and here’s what you saw:

Every student sitting on the ground, the Sensei giving the students a PowerPoint presentation about the basics of Karate. Perhaps the slides say, “Intro to Breaking a board”, “Theology of the Roundhouse Kick” or “Systematic Self-Defense.” Perhaps there would even be sentimental talks about how grateful the students should be to have been welcomed into “the club.” Finally, the Sensei ends the session by having the students recite the “core beliefs” of the Dojo. These presentations last for roughly 30-45 minutes, and then the Sensei dismisses the class, encouraging them to come back next week to hear more presentations…

You and I would both find this class to be ridiculous, or at the very least, incomplete.


Because you and I know that the point of a Karate studio is to produce students who can practice Karate. So for the students to merely take in a lot of information about martial arts would not be enough to transform them into martial artists. To be sure, the information is vitally important, but to simply attend every week and listen to the Master Teacher dispense that information would not, by itself, help you get that information into every fiber of your body.

And we would know intuitively that the students must, at some point, get up and experiment with the new information they’ve been given, and ultimately discover, through experience, that it is good, right, and true. They must eventually take the information that the Sensei has given to them, and attempt to break a board, make a roundhouse kick, etc. In other words, the information by itself is insufficient. It must be followed up with practice (experience), and then reflection (feedback).

If you read all four gospels, you will discover that this was Jesus’s method of teaching his students. He would give them new information, send them out to experience this new information, and then reflect with them once they returned from their experiences. And while the gospels show a lot of failures and mistakes on the parts of the students, the book of Acts reveals that all of this was for their good as they developed into people who looked more and more like their Master Teacher.

Now the “elephant in the room” that we must address is that this sort of training is simply not happening in most of our churches. Churches will begin to decline the moment they start to resemble this hypothetical image of the dojo, where folks are simply told to come, sit, hear some new information, receive the goods, recite the beliefs, and “go in God’s peace.” Again, it sounds harsh, but the truth often does.

Now, I know I’m oversimplifying what goes on in our churches, and believe me when I say that God surely does manifest Himself and do great work through His word preached and His sacraments administered during our Sunday gatherings. But the point I’m attempting to make is that to condense church down to simply hearing God’s word preached and receiving His sacraments during an hour on a Sunday is to immediately create a group of passive church attenders who are simply encouraged to “come as they are and receive.” If that is all there is to church, then that church is incomplete. And we should not be surprised that the unchurched would want no part of it.

But what if you walked into a church where there was immersive, experiential learning going on? Where there were folks from every walk of life, every culture, every age, every economic status, learning from their Master Teacher how to be like Him, and making steady progress in that endeavor? Can we really picture a setting like that being an unappealing place to be?

It’s hard to imagine that a Karate Dojo needs an outreach program. You simply sign-up, commit to the process, and assuming you are faithful to practice, practice, practice, you are transformed into a different kind of person. Then you go out into the world, and your family and friends take notice. You are incapable of hiding your “light.” It’s obvious how disciplined, strong, and balanced you have become, and perhaps those closest to you will ask “where did you learn to become this kind of person?” And it’s at this point that you lovingly point them in the direction of your beloved Dojo, and the Master Sensei who is waiting for them, and in whom they can entrust with their whole lives.

This is the way forward for our beloved congregations, large and small.

Until our faith communities begin to look more like karate studios and less like lecture halls, the world will continue to see, walking out of the church doors, expert “attenders” who are able to regurgitate information, instead of full-fledged apprentices of Jesus.

So, let us make appropriate plans to ensure that anyone in our Sunday gatherings, whether young or old, seasoned churchgoer or green novice, is presented with a path to transformation. Let us allow our local congregations be buildings where real training in Christlikeness happens. And may our churches become spaces where we can direct new students to the Master Teacher, in whom all things hold together.

As author Dallas Willard says,

“The really good news for humanity is that Jesus is now taking students in the master class of life.”


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