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Blog #392: Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Autopsy of a Deceased Church (12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive) is a popular and influential 2014 book by Thom S. Rainer. In it, he writes, ‘No one wants to see their church become one of the thousands that die yearly…and the only way from failure is to study it.’ So, in his book, Rainer recounts his experience of working with a formerly prosperous Midwestern church that died a slow death over the course of a decade. Because churches aren’t operated exactly like businesses, and because they are built on faith and good intentions, red flags and signs of decline can go ignored in the hope that prayer and positivity will bring a church back to life. A little depressing, I know. But with an estimated 100,000 churches (in the USA) in accelerated decline, this is not the time to tiptoe around what’s at stake. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what causes churches to die, and what preventive measures can be taken to help save your church, so that you may help keep your church from being a statistic.’ In this blog, we will look at 8 of the things to do Rainer advises doing.

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. It’s not about paying your dues and getting perks. People aren’t looking for comfort, they’re looking for purpose.

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. To stay relevant, the church must diversify.

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. Rainer writes, ‘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.’

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.

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 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.’

For churches that are almost dead, Rainer also suggests that ‘If your church is beyond saving, 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: Sell your church building and help a young, growing church by donating the profits of the sale to it; donate your building to another church for 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”; turn your church building over to the community and it could become a youth center, or a community meeting space, or a food pantry. Think of your church as an organ donor that, in dying, is giving life to another; or, finally, merge with another church. By having 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.”

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