Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Autopsy of a Deceased Church
Thom Rainer

While this experience dates back about a decade, it is still relevant. It involves my consulting service to a dying church, one whose attendance had peaked at 750 way back in 1975. By the time they asked for my insights, the weekly average had fallen to 83. The now overly-spacious sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively modest Sunday-morning crowd.

Despite their serious straits, most of the members did not want me there. Most were not about to pay some fancy consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent soul offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.

Tough solutions

I worked with this church for three weeks. Although the problems were quite apparent, the solutions would be tough to implement. On my last day there, the benefactor walked me to my rental car.

“What do you think, Thom?” he asked. Seeing the uncertainty in my expression, he followed up with another question: “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment and offered the bad news as gently as possible: “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just last year. Like many dying churches, it clung to life tenaciously and survived 10 years after I delivered my terminal diagnosis.

Eleven factors of death

My benefactor from that church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had judged correctly on most of the signs of their impending demise. Together my friend and I reviewed the events of the past decade; I think we pieced together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.

1. The church refused to look like the community. The community had started its transition toward a lower socioeconomic class 30 years earlier. However, church members had no desire to reach out to new residents. The congregation gradually became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.

2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  This may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions: There were no attempts to reach the community.

3. Members became too focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded one in memory of our 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 fell on the past.

4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the time of the church’s death, that percentage had climbed over 98 percent.

5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation is on its fatal descent.

6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted.As the church continued to decline, members’ inward focus turned caustic. Arguments erupted more frequently and business meetings grew more acrimonious.

7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final 10 years, with the last three serving in a bi-vocational role. All seven pastors departed feeling discouraged.

8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, corporate prayer consisted of a three-minute period during the Sunday worship service. Requests were limited to the needs of members, their friends and families, or physical ailments.

9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. With no vision and no mission, it had no purpose.

10. The members idolized another era. Over the final six years of the church, all active members were over the age of 67. They all remembered fondly—to the point of idolatry—the era of the 1970s. They saw their future in returning to the past.

11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. Ironically, this wasn’t a financial issue, but a spiritual one. Members failed to even notice the continuous deterioration of their building. Simply stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Reversing the trend

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 it will be even less than 10 years. That is why helping reverse this trend is every church leader’s business.

The above article, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” is written by Thom Rainer. The article was excerpted from: web site. July 2013.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.