I recently picked up Thom Rainer’s book Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. It sounds like a negative book, but it is meant to be a helpful resource for existing churches. Rainer did research on churches that had closed and did interviews and analysis of what happened as they ceased to be. The hope of the book is that, by looking at these autopsies, churches can see some of these characteristics coming and find motivation to change.
Rainer lays out 10 trends of churches that have died. I will share the 4 that hit me the hardest as I read it:
- The Past is the Hero– Churches that die get stuck in the past. Most of the time their view of the past is not even accurate, but it does guide the church more than the future does. The adage becomes “We have always done it that way.” Churches who get too stuck in the past have not future.
- The Church Refused to Look Like the Community– Churches that die have not changed with their communities. Most of the churches studied had seen dramatic changes in make up of the neighborhood around them. This change in age, ethnicity, or class is not mirrored in the church itself. When a church does not look like the community then it is on the way down.
- Pastoral Tenure Decreases– Churches that die show a very similar pattern in pastorates. Pastors begin to stay at the church for very short tenures. The pulpit becomes a revolving door of pastors. It generally takes a few years for a pastor to get really productive in a church. With short tenures, pastors never get productive and cannot exert the needed leadership for change.
- The Church Rarely Prayed Together– This is the trend that was most shocking to me. Yes, these churches did have congregational prayers like prayers of confession and pastoral prayers in worship. But these churches did not have deep times of prayer and did not have times of seeking God’s will together. I realized in reading this chapter that I have not done enough to encourage prayer in my own church.
After talking about what a dying church looks like, Rainer makes recommendations of churches that look sick, churches that look very sick, and churches that are dying. These last 3 chapters are great for starting conversation about how to respond to decline in a church. He challenges churches to make big changes and to consider radical efforts–even considering closing and giving away your building.
I highly recommend this resource. I read everything that Rainer writes but I found this book and his last book I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference to be especially accessible and helpful. This book would be great for councils and sessions of established churches to read through together and discuss. I even wonder if presbyteries and higher governing bodies should read it. So many of our churches are sick or dying. Very few are truly healthy and fully fulfilling God’s plans for them.