The church was dying and didn’t know it. Attendance was down, the building was mostly empty, and the glory days had long since passed.
As a last resort, a church member asked LifeWay Christian Resources’ president, Thom S. Rainer, for advice. Rainer spent a few weeks studying the church, then recommended a number of changes.
But church leaders rejected them.
As he walked out the door, Rainer knew it was simply a matter of time before the church died. Later, he and a friend performed a kind of autopsy on the church – reviewing its last few years for what went wrong.
Lessons from that church autopsy – along with about a dozen others – are included in Rainer’s latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church from LifeWay’s B&H Publishing imprint.
The book is meant for struggling and vibrant churches alike, Rainer said. “Even healthy churches need to learn from autopsies,” he said, “because they can tell us paths of prevention.”
Rainer found 10 factors – from slow erosion of the congregation and too many short-term pastors to a lack of prayer and neglected facilities – that cause churches to decline and die.
A number of the now-dead churches spent too much time thinking about the past, Rainer said, in a chapter titled “The Past is the Hero.” Remembering the past with fondness is fine for a church, he said, “but if it hinders us from looking forward, that is a problem.”
Most of the deceased churches Rainer studied had once been thriving and then went through a period of decline. In some cases, demographics played a role. About a third of the dead churches had been in urban areas where the ethnic mix of the community changed but the church did not. Instead of reaching their new neighbors, many withdrew and became commuter congregations, with no neighborhood ties.
“The common theme among those congregations was an unwillingness to connect with the transitioning community,” Rainer said. “Instead, the churches became a white island in a sea of diverse people.”
Some of the now-dead churches were in small towns where the population was shrinking. But more than a few were in thriving communities, yet they still failed to reach their neighbors. All became increasingly insular as they declined.
Surprisingly, most of the churches still had money in the bank when they closed. “You don’t have to be broke to be dying,” Rainer noted.
But those churches spent most of their money on programs that benefited their members rather than on mission or outreach. They developed a me-first mentality, Rainer said, and had little connection to the community around the church.
“Though it’s difficult to isolate any one factor as the most dangerous,” Rainer said, “the steep numerical decline of these churches was most noticeable as the congregation started focusing on their own needs. They became preference-driven instead of Great Commission driven.”
The book is relatively short – about 100 pages divided into 14 chapters, one on each risk factor plus three chapters of recommendations for how churches can respond.
Much like Rainer’s previous book, I Am a Church Member, currently No. 2 on the CBA’s bestseller list, Autopsy of a Deceased Church is designed for group study. Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions and a prayer challenge.
Rainer hopes church leaders and members will read the book and learn from the mistakes other congregations made. They may also have to face their own problems head on, he said, since that’s better than ignoring the signs of decline and hoping they’ll go away.
“The trauma of observing an autopsy is only beneficial if it is received as a warning to the living,” he writes.
That’s a reality Rainer knows well. The book was inspired in part by the childhood death of his sister Amy. Rainer’s father insisted her doctor perform an autopsy so the cause of death would be clear. He wanted to know if her health problems might affect the rest of the family. The autopsy revealed a weakness in Amy’s heart, which proved a warning sign to other family members.
“We all get checked out for our heart problems because Dad had the courage to ask for an autopsy,” Rainer said.
He hopes churches will have the courage to do likewise. That often starts with prayer and a willingness to love one’s church enough to point out its flaws and face its challenges.
“I do love the fact that so many people love their churches,” Rainer said. “But we can’t love them to death.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bob Smietana is senior writer for LifeWay Christian Resources’ Facts & Trends magazine.)