No one wants to see their church become one of the thousands that fail each year. But the only way to learn from failure is to study it.
That is the premise on which religion researcher Thom Rainer wrote the 2014 book “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”
In the 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.
As Rainer writes:
Growth may come rapidly, but decline is usually slow, imperceptibly slow. This slow erosion is the worst type of decline for church, because the members have no sense of urgency to change… The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.
A little depressing, I know. But with an estimated 100,000 churches 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, as outlined in “Autopsy of a Dead Church.”
Lessons from “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”
When that post unexpectedly struck such a chord, becoming the most popular blog ever on his site, Rainer knew that he had to dig deeper.
That original blog post identified 11 symptoms of a church on its deathbed: things such as separation from the community, a fixation on the past, and an inward focus.
The book goes one step further and identifies 12 approaches to keep your church alive, or at least go out in a dignified manner. The first four are aimed at churches that are showing symptoms of decline, the second four are aimed at churches that are on life support, and the last four are for churches that are beyond hope. Let’s take a look.
NOTE: These lessons are paraphrased in my own words. I recommend reading “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” in its entirety. Rainer includes a lot of helpful content such as prayer prompts and questions for thought.
Churches that are showing symptoms
St Pancras Old Church in London, image via Wikimedia Commons
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.
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
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
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.
- Church Leaders Speak Up: 10 Honest Thoughts on Church Attendance Decline
- Dream Big: 8 Motivational Lessons to Try at Your Church This Fall
- Top 6 Takeaways From the Exponential Church Planting Conference
- How Churches Today Can Use Technology to Rebuild Community
- How to Build Your Church Social Media Strategy to Boost Engagement
- 8 Expert Tips: How Leadership In The Church Can Better Communicate With Their Congregation
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