Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned

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Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned

Thom Rainer

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.

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.

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.

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.

The per­cent­age of the bud­get for mem­bers’ needs kept increas­ing. At the church’s death, the per­cent­age was over 98 per­cent.

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.

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.
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.

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

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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