Autopsy of a Deceased Church

I recently heard a podcast from Thom Rainer (church consultant and church health expert).  In this podcast he talked about an “autopsy” he did on a deceased church — looking for the reasons that church died.

Below I have included the 11 things he discovered and have provided a link to the article so you can see it in its entire form.

In my own experience I have worked with churches that weren’t necessarily dead, but were in various stages of terminal illness.  It is important that those who work and worship in the local church continually ask themselves if they see any symptoms in their church or their personal spiritual walk.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned

I (Thom Rainer) 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.

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 ministriesThis 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.”

Where is your church?   Do they have 1 or 2 symptoms?  Maybe 5 or 6?

I think the 11 statements above can be grouped into a several categories:

Inward focus / living in the past / loss of a vital vision or purpose

My wife recently discovered she had breast cancer.  However, it was found very early and with few symptoms showing.  The prognosis is excellent and she is progressing very well through treatment and the likely outcome is that she will be cancer free by early next year.

Early treatment often means amazing recovery.

Search me O God, and create a clean heart in me — in my church — make us whole.

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