Five Things That Masked the Death of a Church

As we look at the incredible response to the book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, on its fifth anniversary, I think it’s worth noting why some members were really surprised when their church closed its doors.

“I didn’t see it coming,” commented a member of a deceased church. She knew the church had declined, but she was not prepared for the demise of her congregation. In her church, and in many others, there are at least five things that can trick members into believing their church is doing okay. Here are five things that masked the death of these congregations.

  1. The church had money. In some cases, the church had a lot of money in the bank. Accumulated dollars do not equate to congregational health. In fact, it often points to sickness, even sickness to the point of death. A vibrant bank account is not the same as a vibrant church.
  2. Members still had their friends in the church. This issue masked the death of the church quite often. As long as the members had their holy huddle around them, they were oblivious to the deteriorating conditions around them. The stench of dying and death was masked by the perfume and cologne of friends.
  3. Guests still came to the church. We interviewed one member of a deceased church who was shocked the church had to close because guests came almost every week. If she had looked carefully, though, she would have noted those guests never came back.
  4. Mission giving was still good. Many churches have specific mission funds and missionaries they support with zeal. That’s good. But if the church is reaching no one in the community, that’s bad. You can’t conveniently excise “Jerusalem” from Acts 1:8.
  5. Meetings were well attended. Sadly, most of these meetings served little purpose. They were fixtures from “the way we’ve always done it.” The same people came to the same meetings and accomplished the same thing: nothing.

Sometimes it is better for a church to have obvious conditions of decline and decay; members are most likely to notice. But, in some of these now deceased churches, the depth of decline would never have been noticed. These and perhaps other factors masked the impending death well.

On a positive note, thank you for your great response to Autopsy of a Deceased Church the past five years. Because of you, it is the all-time bestseller in church leadership. We are celebrating by providing our first-ever video study course to accompany the book. Perhaps it’s time to take your leaders and members through this study.

It is my prayer the book will be used to prevent yet the death of another church.

One autopsy is one too many.

Posted on April 17, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • observer says on

    Just as an evil organization can function well and function for a long time, so can a church. A church can exist for a long time, be rich and have many people and be very wrong. An example of this (rich, having people) is the church in Laodicea. A problem is that people can see a church having been around for a long time, being wealthy and having many people and conclude that it is a good church. A better standard–a church vs. I John. Wealthy but cold–programs to help, but without compassion or responsive like Jesus (“and Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him”, Mark 1:41; “And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd”, Mark 6:34).
    …or “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?” (I John 3:17, NET)

  • Bud Rager says on

    I was just recently released from the church you described in the article. When hired they all said they wanted to get healthy, until even the talk of a new approach scared them. It was then after only 8 months I was not really a good fit. The body rebeled at my release (Deacons made the decision) so now they are dying faster. A church with history and a wasted future.

  • Anyone with any experience with church splits – where a splinter group starts another church?

    Is it true that in most splits, within a year at least half of the “splitters” are no longer at that church?

  • Cassandra Williams says on

    Excellent article. It is easy for church folks who have a sentimental attachment to their churches to ignore failure in the real measurements of faithfulness like service to the community, living out the gospel in life-and-world-changing ways, and using their resources to further the Kingdom. In my experience, a leader who tries to challenge defenses, such as those mentioned in the article is very often dispatched with impunity. Many dedicated leaders have been deeply hurt by such churches, many of which continued for several years after their departure and then failed . . . and soothed themselves by identifying that pastor as the cause of their decline. Perhaps, similar to persons dealing with addiction, who practice denial by focusing on superficial/inconsequential things they are doing right, it won’t be until the western church hits rock bottom that they will be humbled enough to listen, learn and change.


    I am now beginning my 5th year at FBCC. When I accepted this pastorate the church was on the verge of closing its doors. In the past four years we have been able to sustain healthy financial means to the point we have helped numerous organizations and churches. We have had the means to update our sound system and video. We have been able to purchase and install an LED sign. But my constant call to our finance team, deacons and trustees is that while we may enjoy a sizable bank account, we should not grow comfortable with it. It will only take one major problem to wipe the account dry. But, as it has been mentioned, our people, mostly the leadership feel secure in this. We do have visitors that have come and some have joined. Yet, at times I cannot help that what we are lacking is a fervent fire in our hearts. A sense of expecting a great miracle/s. Could it be that this “$” has replaced the cross? We continue to look for that sense of fire in our hearts but after being in ministry for about forty years, I’ve witnessed the closing and selling of churches. In them, we were happy and comfortable and did not see the dead end sign up ahead. Read the book a couple of times and it has become vivid in my heart that the church, not just ours, but churches all around have lost the sense of God’s presence.

  • Christopher says on

    Churches typically are not willing to make needed changes as long as they have plenty of money.

  • Great insight. I do believe the emphasis to be a reaching church has to be something prayed, pushed, planned, and practiced weekly.

    Prayed: Keeps the church body always thinking outside themselves.

    Pushed: From the pastors, staff, to the small group leaders. Always communicating outreach

    Planned: Staff meetings, Leadership training, and events geared toward outreach. When we are in the planning stage we are in the reaching stage

    Practiced: Weekly reminders of always seeking to serve the community. Food pantries, service projects, whatever allows you to put into practice ministry that gets you out and about.


    I love reading Mr Rainer’s thoughts. He gives me good insight that I have used in our Elders meetings from time to time.

  • Wanda Hayes says on

    Churches and people can die healthy

    • Wanda –

      I’m not clear on your point. How is a dead church a healthy church?

      • Gene Neal says on

        I’m not sure if this is what she was talking about, but in our area there are some “healthy” churches that need to close the doors. Due to nothing but demographics, they have dwindled down to fewer than 10 people consisting of maybe 3 families. Their community is non-existent and there is no one to reach. The church is doomed to death but spiritually, they are healthy. I know it’s a play on words but there are many churches in our area where “death” would be “healthy” if mergers could take place.

      • Judith Gotwald says on

        Mergers rarely work. They look good administratively, but assets are often the only thing merged. Leaders think they have accomplished something but it is ephemeral. The people tend to scatter because members no longer recognize their role and feel less valued in sharing leadership with strangers. Sometimes one side feels like the loser in a merger. Sometimes both sides feel like losers.

        Even small churches with 10 members can revive with sensitive leadership. I’ve seen it happen.

      • From the experience of a church merger, it takes at least one full generation (30-50 years) for the merger to complete. The human side of the churches finds it hard to think “us” and “them”.

  • This is better insight than the autopsy book! We’ve been told for years these are great metrics to measure health. As a pastor of a church right now that has an unbelievable amount of giving going on right now, it causes me to pause and re-think. I am praying desperately for our evangelism and discipleship strategies and for our people to catch that vision. It cannot remain “us four for us.”