Six Things We Have Learned Since the Publication of Autopsy of a Deceased Church


I was stunned.

When I wrote Autopsy of a Deceased Church five years ago, the response took me by surprise. While all authors expect or hope their books will be bestsellers, I frankly didn’t see it coming. Hundreds of thousands of book sales later, Autopsy became the all-time bestseller in the genre of church leadership.

Why? Why did church leaders, both vocational and laity, respond to the book with this level of interest? The concept was simple. We interviewed church members of churches that had closed their doors or died. We performed an autopsy of deceased churches. We found out why these churches died.

After about a year of receiving questions and comments from readers, I saw a common theme emerging. The readers wanted to know what they could do to prevent their churches from dying. Ironically, a book about the death of churches became a book about hope for churches.

While the sales of the book remain strong to this day, I think it’s worth noting what we have learned in the five years since I wrote the book. On this fifth anniversary celebration of Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Here are six things we’ve learned.

  1. Most members of dying churches didn’t see it coming. Many of the members were still dealing with the shock of the death of their churches when we interviewed them.
  2. Many of the members and leaders of these churches would have begun revitalization efforts if they knew how. I am so grateful for the revitalization revolution taking place today. Churches have resources and knowledge they didn’t have five years ago.
  3. “Minor” issues kill churches. Most of these churches did not die because of some major heresy. They did not die because of a mass exodus of the population surrounding them. They died because they lost their focus. They died because they fought over things that really did not matter. They majored on minors to the point of death.
  4. The silent majority killed churches. Some members saw the problems. They knew the power brokers in the church. They knew the personnel committee ran off a pastor without cause. They heard the constant chorus of not-so-well-intending critics attacking church leadership. But they said nothing and did nothing. Their silence was a dagger in the back of these churches.
  5. Some members waited for the silver bullet. Many of them said they kept waiting on that young pastor who would attract new young families. Some of the churches got those young pastors, and they ran them off when change began to take place. Most of the churches, though, never got the young pastor. They waited until death.
  6. A church does not have to die. Death is not inevitable. But most of the members of these churches would rather see the church die than change. They got their wish.

Thanks to all of you who purchased a copy of Autopsy. I am honored and humbled by the response. Now, for the first time ever, we have a video resource for the study of this book. Perhaps it’s time take a group through this book and see what God will do to move your church in the right direction.

I pray your church will not be the next autopsy performed.

Posted on April 15, 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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  • Steve Haddox says on

    I am going to a dying church right now, in an area almost exclusively of dying churches. It’s suburban (East Dallas area), and yes, the demographics are changing. But the problems are –
    #1 The churches don’t meet for corporate prayer, so functionally, the people don’t seek God, and the pastors don’t lead people to talk to God as their chief good. Just as it is bad for a husband and wife not to converse, so it is bad the bride of Christ doesn’t weekly talk to Him either.
    # 2 Professionalization of Pastors and church staff. The unwillingness of Pastors to look beyond a 40-hour week. Not to work nights or weekends. They want a “normal, professional” life. However, they are in the people business. When are the people available? At night and on the weekends. So, the Pastors have become blind to service, by serving themselves, and not the body of Christ.
    Jesus said in Matt 10:26, “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”
    Examples: A) We have men’s and women’s bible studies independent of any church leadership participation. B) We have cancelled Wednesday nights for adults, having youth and children only. C) We have cancelled Sunday evenings so people can spend more time with their families. D) We cancelled bible study and fellowship time for Christmas and New Year’s, so people could spend more time with their families. E) We closed the church office over the holidays…so the staff could spend more time with their families. F) Sunday is “their (staff) workday” so they are entitled to have Saturday and Monday off. The Sunday School and other volunteers do not have this luxury, they do 40+ hours a week. It appears the laity has more confidence in the work than some of the staff.
    Jesus said in Matthew 10:37, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.”
    People are happy to be told spend more time on yourself, and your family in your comfy home, but not on your knees, not in your bibles, not giving up your time to serve others in the church or to witness to the lost. The modern church is confused, and its leaders are ill prepared to lead it back to Christ, having lost the way themselves.
    Thankfully, we have a God who is a light in the darkness, a purifier of dross, a fountain of life-giving water, who never slumbers nor sleeps, who works all things according to His Holy purpose. If we wish to be healed, we must confess our sin. And we are all sinful and in need of purification. All of us have been part of the problem at one time or another, and all of us are required to be a part of the solution – all the time.
    We have the most glorious opportunity – to live every moment for Christ, that every waking moment we could be producing good fruit, something of eternal value stored up in Heaven for the glory of God, because He loves us, and we simply want to see His house filled with treasure for His sake.
    While we might struggle to see our secular jobs as a “holy calling,” we are there with other believers and with the lost. We witness to the lost with our lives, 40 hours a week. We witness more in our jobs (40 hours a week) to lost people in one month than most pastors do in one year.
    When scripture tells us in Eccl 9:10 to “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,” there is a tremendous power of God at work in us all day long towards the saved and the lost.
    May God bless us all with His extraordinarily powerful vision instead of our myopic weak one. If you want another Great Awakening, another Reformation, a Christian Enlightenment, well, it’s up to you, doing God’s will because you know Him well enough through prayer to be led by His Spirit in obedience to His written word.

  • Steve Schoonover says on

    I had to scroll down quite a bit to get to leave a reply. That’s a good indication of how vital this subject of revitalization is in churches of all denominations.

    Having gone through a remarkable revitalization (although at the time, that word wasn’t the one used) it is apparent that the church tends to die on the efforts, or lack thereof, on the part of the laity as well as the pastorate.

    The turn around for our congregation, which had dwindled to less than twenty regular worshipers, came when the retired minister sent with instructions to, “probably close the doors”, recognized the survivalist mode under which we were operating. That minister stayed with us for eight and a half years as we, reluctantly at first, followed his leading to a vibrant church once more.

    Although he has received his final reward now, I will be forever grateful for his perseverance. What he told our consistory the day we met him has been foundational and and echoes the sentiments of many of the replies to this article. “This church is getting ready to close because you have forgotten the purpose of the Church. You meet here once a month and your primary concern is how to pay next month’s bills. That is not God’s work. If you begin to do God’s work again, He will take care of the bills.”

    That was over thirty years ago. It was that man’s faith in a loving God and the work laid out for us by Jesus Himself that allowed us to regain the focus we had lost. A good rule of thumb has grown out of this rebirth: “If Jesus didn’t ask us to do it, then we have no business doing it.”

    As always Thom, thanks for your dedication to Him.

  • The book is a well-deserved success. I appreciate your willingness to always stay close to the ground level, seeking what the real issues are, and not merely trying to rely on favored talking points. I have continued to hold on to several things I learned from your book, not the least of which is the crucial importance of a mission-focused mindset. Blessings on your work, Thom!

  • Your insight is valuable, thank you. What most members of dying churches don’t realize is just how hard the revitalization process can be. We are 2 and a half years in. Many have left, it was just too much for them, they wanted the comfort of how they had always done church. . . Those who have stayed have been hurt and lost close friendships. . . But, God is good and faithful. We see hope in the future and God working in our midst. I’m thankful to have a pastor that is a strong enough leader for the task.

  • So, shouldn’t a healthy church should be growing? Jesus told some very bold parables about trees not bearing fruit, husbandmen not increasing the crops when the master was away and gaining interest on your talents instead of burying them in the ground. A church not growing is serious disobedience to the great commission. It does begin with the pastor who one day will answer like those in the parable to their calling and commission. Of course everybody is responsible – some plant, some water and God gives the increase but if a church is not growing there is something wrong. And yes, there are practical considerations. I’ve met so many pastors who don’t do the work of evangelism and blame the lack of people coming to Christ on sovereignty. There will be a reward one day in the form of a crown for Soul winners and the pastor should be the leader in this. My church growth professor in seminary used to say “a church grows because the pastor wants it to”. Of course God does the saving but we know He has said He wants to go into the highways and hedges and compel them to come. Research says that a church should basically grow by 10 percent a year if the younger families are just having children. If a church is not growing at better than 10 percent it might be time for pruning, investing and doing the hard work of evangelism because one day the Master will return and expect an increase!

  • Many little groups look at churches (all over America) as their little building. They have been there a long time, have attended for 20-30-40 years, have given a lot of money to the church, and they operate and act as if they own the place. It is Jesus’ church: whether Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal. Whether 20, 50, 100, 200 or 500 people in it. But the old timers don’t want to change and they fiercely resist any pastor attempting to lead change in order to grow. Decline of many churches, right now at this very moment and season and in the coming decades, should come as no surprise to anybody. A church is to be outward focused, but for many groups, the focus is not this in any way, shape, or form. Some think if they get some young, energetic, great speaker pastor that they will grow, by leaps and bounds, very quickly. This is a fallacy. Everybody has to pull in the same direction, all have to work and want growth, newcomers have to be truly welcomed, affirmed, and encouraged to get involved. And churches have to adjust when the growth begins and continues. Many groups in America (and churches would spit bullets at you if you said this face-to-face with them) are not churches; they are social clubs where ppl meet weekly. There’s no worship of Jesus. They can’t deal with preaching that hits on their sins. There’s no plan to reach out into the community. They are spiritually dead and in time they will be numerically dead and close. All churches? No, not all. A small percentage are growing, doing great things for the kingdom, and moving forward. But more are dying than not. Pastors, keep on keeping on. Don’t let the critics, naysayers, and difficult people in your churches beat you down and make you quit. Pastor for Jesus and Him alone! Thom, thank you for your fine work. Keep on doing it. You serve a vital purpose.

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