Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned

April 24, 2013

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

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I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
  2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

What do you think of the autopsy on this church? What can we do to reverse these trends?

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  • Larry Rix says on

    The beliefs of the contemporary America church are mired in a focus on self and not on the Gospel of Grace! Moreover—the Spirit of God and the Promise of the Father that results in an inward crucifixion of our old nature, where the Father by the Resurrection Power of the Spirit raises us up as a new nature is utterly unknown to about 95% of Christians! See Romans 6.

    The evidence of the above is a church that is mired in Law and Legalism, where the scripture tells us precisely and without equal that the Strength of Sin is the Law and that Law is a ministry of death, yet we have been told and taught to extol the virtues of the Ten Commandments. We are taught to focus on ourselves, our love for God and not His for us. The doctrines preached to us lead us to believe our efforts are where we ought to focus our energy in “serving God”, when in fact, the willingness to do so comes as a powerful result of being inwardly raised from the old dead man that we used to be.

    Without this inward working of the Father and deep focus on God Working in us instead of us working for God—without the Grace of God being the sole and pure focus of people claiming to be Christians, we will continue to see the death of Christianity in America!

    Programs are not what are needed. This is not about hyping people emotionally. This is about the work of Jesus Christ by the Spirit of God changing lives inwardly by HIS WORK and not our effort. When people have that happen, then they change and life becomes about God and not about self.

    Witness that the church has a 77% of men addicted to porn issue! Young men especially are accessing and watching porn, living out secret sin-lives, hiding, lying, and pretending! This is not a recipe for a healthy Church that Jesus is operating in by His Spirit! This is the raw sign that we are following after our own efforts and have lost the Power of the Cross and the Grace of God is replaced with DO-GOOD-GET-GOOD and DO-BAD-GET-BAD!

    Start with preachers like Pastor Joseph Prince. Great book to read is The Grace Revolution, authored by the same. Once you have a solid foundation on Grace and unveiling Christ and abandoning Law, then read Romans 6 and understand that it is the Father that raises us up as a new person inside by His power and work and for His purpose!

  • Annette Alabaster says on

    I belong to a church where the pastor is annointed and powerful in his sermons. However, he has a full time job, as does his wife. He started out by having an additional Wed. evening bible study but soon found it to weigh him down too much. He emphasizes to all that the church is not one to have committees and so we are left with a women’s ministry which no longer meets monthly, a men’s group which does meet weekly, and a very small children’s program on Sun’s. Many left this church last year. I don’t know what to make of this since I had such hope for its success!! We are down from about 80 to 40 people in attendance (and not always the same ones).

  • Hey there Mr. Rainer,

    So I am the youth pastor at our church, but I also preach to the congregation every other Sunday night. I have been preaching a series in our church on Sunday nights based off of the chapters in the “Autopsy” book. Someone in our church even purchased a few cases of the book so that the people could read it for themselves. My hope and prayer is that the people in our church can open our eyes now before its too late. One gentleman approached me after my most recent sermon and said, “I read through the whole book and I couldn’t find anything in there about missions or youth programs. It seems to me that the mission program and the youth program would be signs of the health of a church.” We had a little discussion and I explained to him that the whole outreach vs. inward focus theme of the book seems to address both issues. I decided I would write to you and see if you had any “data” in those areas. So I guess my question is, in your findings of the deceased churches, did their their missions programs or their youth programs seem to play any role in their decline. Just wondering if you had any input for me. Thanks so much, sir, and by the way, the Lord has really seemed to be at work so far through this sermon series as people have communicated to me the conviction they are feeling and some of the actions they have been taking to reach out more. I pray it is a start to a great and much needed revival. – Zach

  • Left Running says on

    It’s worse than we think. This horse is writhing in pain, but the soul is so dark and paralyzed it can’t even complete the final humane act.

  • Keith Ivany says on

    We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. From a former Satanist, witches and warlocks astroproject(leave their bodies) and curse churches and neighbourhoods and houses that are not praying. No man or any church is bigger than its prayer life. it has been said if you want to know how popular the church is go on Sunday morning, if you want to find out how popular the pastor is go on Sunday nights, if you want to know how popular God is go to the prayer meetings. No prayer, no power then the church turns inward and starts attacking itself. The great commission tells us to go not to open the barn and hope the harvest will come in that is not what he has told us to do. I learned all of this personally after burning out in ministry 5 times and then pushed to almost committing suicide due to pressure and stress. Now I no longer have a messiah complex that it is my responsibility to do ministry now I listen and wait for him to lead me . It is so much easier. NO MAN(OR CHURCH) IS GREATER THAN HIS(THEIR) PRAYER LIFE!!!!

  • A great article which so many church leaders and members should read and reflect upon.
    I resigned from the local pastorate under duress after 17 years in a particular church. (I then became the 4th one over a 50+ year period to resign under duress or to be dismissed. This church has had a long and rich history. Year after year 12 or more persons died; and an average of 6 moved to warmer climate or to be near grandchildren and another 4-5 entered nursing home. My heart led me to reach out to the unchurched, resulting in 8-15 new believers annually. However several members vocally stated “we don’t want that kind of people here!”. The deacons routinely took 2-3 months to visit new members. One member even stated: “We need to take back OUR church!”.
    Since my departure 5 years ago, baptisms are rare and attendance has plummeted. Regrettably, itvis probable this church will close within a few years. So many churches need to wake up and begin to live out their lofty sounding mission statements.
    Churches must be committed to intentional outreach. Elected leaders must be willing to rebuke gossip and do their part to safeguard unity. May we all remember It is His church and that we are to be obedient to His word.
    Thank you for your ministry.

  • I’m looking forward to reading your book. I was part of a church plant that cycled through what you describe above at 3 distinct seasons of the church’s 28-year life span and fought back to health three, yes, three times. The church is now down to a core of about 30-40 and still grasping “tenaciously” to life, longer than I think most would have predicted. And, as you point out, 98% of their budget goes to members (mostly in the form of salary to family/friend) and about 2% to some sort of missions outreach. However, the leaders still hope (not in the Biblical sense) that something will “happen” to bring them back for the fourth time. The greatest impediment I witnessed among the leadership I have noted is an attitude that good or bad things “happen to them” — they don’t seem to grasp that God’s Spirit does the work, but He uses means and we must make the difficult decisions, take those decisive steps in faith and courage, and then be faithful to what we have received from God, by prayer.

  • Please expound on this statement from Chapter 4: “And no one, at any point, ever mentioned the possibility of a willingness to turn over the leadership of the church to the residents of the community.” I’m going to begin a Wednesday evening series on the book and I have a feeling this statement will strike some members as odd.

    • Jonathan Howe says on

      In chapter 4 of Autopsy, Dr. Rainer is writing about a dying church in a transitioning neighborhood. The first paragraph on page 25 describes a church where the “faces of the members before the church officially died” are significantly different than “the faces of most of the people who live in the community where the church is located.” The church failed to reach out to their community and transition with it. The church remained the same and died because the community changed.

      On page 27, Dr. Rainer is referring to turning the leadership of the church over to the residents of the community to keep the church from dying. The North American Mission Board shared a video at several years ago at the SBC Annual Meeting in Baltimore that demonstrates this concept very well. Here is the link:

      I hope this is helpful to you. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

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