Behind the Decline: Unraveling the Forgotten Reasons of Fading Neighborhood Churches

by Sam Rainer

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “There goes the neighborhood.” Historically, it has been associated with ethnic minorities moving into white neighborhoods. I don’t believe most people use the phrase today in such a way. However, during the civil rights movement and the following decades, many white neighborhood churches changed locations, often moving to the growing suburbs where fewer minorities lived.

For the congregations that stayed, the fracturing of the neighborhood also meant the fracturing of the church. Many neighborhood churches struggled to understand the changing demographics and failed to reach their new neighbors. Many congregations struggled to find their place in what they viewed as a fragmented world.

The mission of every church is to go into a fragmented world and share the good news of Jesus that heals the brokenness. Historically, many neighborhood churches believed their meaning and identity would shift with changing demographics. Such thinking was antithetical to the gospel. The white flight of churches was horrid, but it alone does not explain the decline of neighborhood churches. More was at play and is still affecting neighborhood churches.

A Me-First Mentality

Inward-focused churches always decline. Some more quickly than others. But spiritual navel-gazing always kills a church. People with a me-first mentality believe the church exists to meet their needs rather than a way for them to serve their community. When personal preferences are elevated above God’s mission, the church will turn inward, creating a culture of selfishness and entitlement.

The operating budget is often the first indication of inward movement, even before attendance begins to decline. When money that once was allocated for outreach evangelism shifts to ministries that serve the members, the church is moving inward. The me-first mentality can pertain to trivial matters such as the color of the paint or the carpet, or to more consequential issues such as ethnic minorities moving into the neighborhood. The result, however, is inevitably the same: An inward culture will always kill a neighborhood church.

Church Bubble Syndrome

When a church views its role as protecting members from the rough and tumble world of the surrounding community, walls will inevitably go up. Though these walls aren’t physical, they might as well be—letting certain people know they’re not welcome. And when you stop welcoming one kind of person, it becomes much easier to stop welcoming others, as well. Some neighborhood churches declined because they tried to exist for only part of the neighborhood. Ironically, most would probably say, “All are welcome!” I’ve even seen that phrase on church signs. But it doesn’t take long to figure out who is truly welcome and who is not. Church bubble syndrome limits the reach of the gospel into the surrounding community, and God will not honor churches that limit his mission.

No Expectation of Growth

No church can grow indefinitely. Even massive churches with exponential growth curves will eventually slow down. It’s a physical reality due to the size of their campuses. It’s also a statistical and sociological reality. But far too few neighborhood churches have a culture and expectation of growth. If you examine a neighborhood church in decline, you will often find a congregation with an entrenched mentality. They want the church to stay the way it is. Visitors are welcome so long as there aren’t too many at once. Growth is viewed as a risk, and new people become a threat to the ideal size of the church.

Unnoticed Demographic Mismatches

In a recent consultation with a neighborhood church, I asked the leaders what percentage of their community was ethnic minorities. Their responses varied from about 5 percent to 15 percent. When I showed them the actual statistics, they were shocked. About 45 percent of the community was African American or Hispanic.

Then I asked them which generation was the largest in their community. Every leader said Baby Boomers, though in fact the Boomers were fourth, behind the Gen Xers, Millennials, and Generation Z. They had a hard time believing me.

“Where do you go? With whom do you hang out?” I asked. They all admitted their worlds were quite small, even within the neighborhood. They hung out at the same places and with the same people. These church leaders had not noticed the demographic change in their community because they unintentionally avoided it. Though they were not opposed to reaching a new segment of people, their patterns of living and an inward-focused church culture kept them from seeing the reality right before them.

Lack of Vibrant Prayer

One of the first books on revitalizing neighborhood churches, Basic Communities: A Practical Guide for Renewing Neighborhood Churches by Thomas Maney, was written in 1984. It was way ahead of its time. Maney correctly identifies prayer as the key to neighborhood church renewal. He notes that prayer prompts a congregation to move from indifference to enthusiasm, from being bored to being engaged. Neighborhood churches in decline almost always lack vibrant prayer.

Poor Leadership Coupled with Apathy or Antagonism toward the Community

I don’t know of a neighborhood church that is reliant on the personality of a nationally known charismatic leader. Growth or decline in these churches is based on issues at the local level and not the global platform of their pastors. But every church requires leadership. The most influential leader is typically the lead or sole pastor—the one preaching during worship services.

When leaders respond poorly to the surrounding culture, the church will tend toward one of two responses: apathy or antagonism. Some pastors even encourage these responses through poor leadership. A church that doesn’t work to understand or listen to the community culture will inevitably stop caring for the neighborhood or will start hating the people of the neighborhood.

The community knows nothing about the apathetic church, while the antagonistic church is known for what they oppose. A healthy neighborhood church will be known for what they support, and will have leaders who respond graciously to changes in the local culture.

Unattractive Facilities

Some neighborhood churches seem to care very little for their campuses. They’ve gained a reputation as eyesores rather than a point of pride in the community. Too many neighborhood churches are not investing in their God-given addresses. A church campus should be the most well-kept spot in the neighborhood. Why would someone visit a church when the campus looks more like a run-down gas station than a place where the people worship Almighty God? If the members don’t care about their facility, how will they care for their neighbors?

Conversely, there are neighborhood churches that care more for their campus than they do for the surrounding community. They put up locks and chains and don’t allow any outside use of their facilities. A run-down campus is unattractive because it is an eyesore, but an inaccessible campus is unattractive because it tells the neighbors they’re not welcome.

Neighborhood churches have the potential to be both nimble and flexible. Typically, they have smaller campuses and less deferred maintenance. Whereas larger regional churches must consider a broader demographic of people from various locations, ministries at neighborhood churches can be tailored specifically to the people right around the church. In the era of waning denominational loyalty, neighborhood churches can capture people based on their local presence rather than denominational preference. Though many challenges remain for neighborhood churches, a vibrant sense of mission is just waiting to be renewed. Your location is a key asset, and the future is bright.

I believe in a neighborhood church comeback so much that I wrote a book about it. The Surprising Return of the Neighborhood Church just released! If you lead or attend a neighborhood church or want to know more about this potential movement, you can pick up a copy now.