Lessons From “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”

Have your numbers started to decline from year to year? Do you often look back to a point in the recent past as your peak? Have most of your ministries shifted to serving your members rather than the surrounding community? If so, your church may be showing signs of sickness. The good news is that you still have time to change.

1. Get back out into your community

Rainer talks again and again about church demise beginning with a shift of focus from serving the community it is located in to keeping its own members comfortable.

“Membership in the church is not country club membership,” he writes. “It’s not about paying your dues and getting perks.”

Or, as Peyton Jones—founder of New Breed Church Planting Network—puts it, “People aren’t looking for comfort, they’re looking for purpose.”

Any healthy church serves its community first. Is your church serving the community around it, or just keeping your members comfortable and insulated? If the answer is the latter, it’s time to get to work volunteering and meeting new people.

2. Break up the cliques

Your church can lose its growth momentum when members start “forming holy huddles,” as Rainer describes them. When your ministries are isolated within your church rather than directed outside of your walls, and they involve the same people socializing with each other week after week, growth is almost impossible.

This can result in stagnation, which can reverse growth, which eventually leads to death.

As Efrem Smith, co-lead pastor of Bayside Church, Midtown in Sacramento, says, “To stay relevant, the church must diversify.”

Send volunteer groups out into the community, mix up your small groups with fun ice breaker activities, or invite your members to bring their unchurched friends and family to participate in your activities.

3. Follow the money

Rainer says that in all of the dying churches he studied, there was a clear money trail that showed an out-of-whack budget.

One church he worked with spent 98% of its budget on member needs.

Think of a business that spends 98% of its budget on employee compensation and perks, and the remaining 2% on things such as advertising, public relations, research and development, etc. What chance of survival do you think that business would have?

If your church is spending less than 5% of its annual budget on outward ministries, try shifting some money around and see what kind of results you get. If you’re not sure where your money is going, church accounting software can help.

4. Take specific action toward change

Praying, hoping, and wanting to change are one thing, but real change only comes with specific, focused action. Once you’ve determined that your church is lagging when it comes to community outreach, make concrete steps toward changing that balance.

An example that Rainer gives is a church leader who met with the principal of a local elementary school to ask what they needed most. At the time, that need was fresh paint on the walls, and soon 100 members of the church mobilized to paint the walls at the school.

If all this sounds daunting, church management software can make things such as scheduling volunteers and managing groups much easier.

Churches that are very sick

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Churches that are very sick

An ancient church, image via Wikimedia

Has your church attendance been declining for more than a decade? Does the prospect of change cause major conflict among the decision-makers at your church? Does your church cycle through pastors every couple of years? Your church may be very sick, and saving it will take drastic change.

5. Acknowledge where your church is headed

The biggest flaw with a very sick church, Rainer says, isn’t the symptoms. No, most of those symptoms can be fixed with some willingness and hard work. The biggest problem with a very sick church is the stubbornness that prevents change.

If you can acknowledge that your church needs to change course, there is hope. Maybe this comes from a new pastor, or soliciting ideas from youthful new members, but it all hinges on not doing things the same way just because “that’s how they’ve always been done.”

6. Be willing to do whatever is necessary

Change will likely have to be drastic. It could mean moving into a new building, or rankling some long-term members who are unwilling to embrace a different church culture, or parting ways with staff who aren’t willing to accept a more outwardly focused role.

It might be painful, but your church is dying because of neglect, and reversing a course that has been underway for decades won’t be easy.

7. Get radical

For decades, your church might have stood firm against allowing video projection, or rock bands, or technology use during service. Some members of your congregation may be perfectly content having service the same way it was held in 1975.

But if you want your church to survive, you’ll need to consider that there are many ways to worship, not just the way you’ve always done it.

To save your church, you need to be OK with leaving your comfort zone.

8. Prepare to become a new church

With new leaders, new ministries, hopefully new members, and maybe even a new building or name, your church will look much different than it did before these changes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ideally, your church will look vibrant and energized as opposed to stale and withering.

This may irk some entrenched members, and maybe even some church leaders. That’s understandable when things have been done a certain way for decades. As we said in No. 6, things will be difficult in this late stage. But it’s better than the alternative.

Churches that are terminal

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Churches that are terminal

An abandoned church in New Mexico, image via Wikimedia

Maybe your church hit its peak attendance during the Reagan administration. Maybe you’re only seeing one or two new families join per year. Maybe you don’t want a newfangled lighting system or an app you have to update every week.

As a church leader, you know in your heart if your church can be saved or not. You know when it’s time to accept that it was a good run and gracefully bow out. If you’re not there yet, feel free to go back to 1 through 8. But if you’re beyond those steps, all hope is not lost.

Here are some dignified approaches to make sure that your church’s resources don’t go to waste, and your remaining congregation will find a new home.

9. Sell your church and help a young, growing church

You may have admired a new church from across town. One that seems to be doing amazing things in the community and growing every week. While your church might not have the resources or energy to replicate what they’re doing, you could support their mission by selling your property and donating the profits.

As Rainer writes, “You can be assured that the death of your church helped another church to live.”

10. Donate your building to another church

Real estate is expensive, especially in big cities. There are many promising, energetic churches out there meeting in high school gymnasiums and multi-use spaces. If your church has 15 people stretching their legs in a 500-seat worship space, why not open your doors to someone who can use it? Don’t think of it as giving up, think of it as opening your home to a family in need. Choose a church with ideals that match your own and the transition will be natural.

As Rainer says, “New churches are starting by the thousands every month in America. One of their biggest challenges is to find a place where they can meet.”

11. Turn your church over to the community

One reason that many churches fail is because they refuse to adapt to changes in the community around them. These changes can be cultural, generational, or socio-economic.

One thing for sure is that your community is not going to go back in time to exactly what it was like 20 years ago. Why not let your church serve the community by turning it over to community leaders who are making a difference in the neighborhood? It could become a youth center, or a community meeting space, or a food pantry. Think of your church as an organ donor.

12. Merge with another church

This is a great option for churches that have seen steep decline and are clearly on the way out, but still have enthusiastic, passionate members.

By allowing a healthy, growing church to take over leadership, you’re relieving yourself of a burden and giving your congregation the opportunity to join a thriving church community.

“In simple terms, you are allowing the healthy church to take over your church,” Rainer writes. “That is sacrificial. That is a way to die with dignity.”

Keep your church from being a statistic

Want more advice on how to keep your church thriving? Check out these other articles.

6 Responses to Lessons From “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”

  1. Troy Day
    Troy Day October 18, 2019 at 4:28 am #

    it is what it is Michael Ellis Carter Jr.

    • Michael Ellis Carter Jr.
      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. October 18, 2019 at 9:24 am #

      Troy Day his last few suggestions pretty
      Much suggest closing down the church that is stagnant. Is that really our only
      Answer

    • Troy Day
      Troy Day October 18, 2019 at 8:40 pm #

      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. I agree with you – what else could be done

    • Michael Ellis Carter Jr.
      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. October 18, 2019 at 9:39 pm #

      Troy Day finding other churches in the community that may help revitalize it is an option. Reaching outside of one’s denomination and ask for support could be an option.

    • Troy Day
      Troy Day October 19, 2019 at 5:48 am #

      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. WELL then you start merging churches and / or member swapping which is not the answer either

      I’ve watched church swaps – they die eventually too

      What about a genuine REVIVAL There was a reason the old timmers had them Why cant a dead church be revived again ?

    • Michael Ellis Carter Jr.
      Michael Ellis Carter Jr. October 19, 2019 at 9:55 am #

      Troy Day oh i agree but if your church is really dying you will need the help of some other church to pull it off. There has to be an infusing of help, ideas, and the Holy Spirit.

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