Autopsy of a Dying Church

Jason Micheli —  July 2, 2013 — 9 Comments

closed-churchThis is from Thom Rainer.

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the rela- tively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did
not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudg- ingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were diffi- cult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expres- sion, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy.

Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transi- tion toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower- class residents.

  2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I want- ed to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.

  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other plac- es where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meet- ings became more acrimo- nious.

  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi- vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.

  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship ser- vice. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.

  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.




Jason Micheli


9 responses to Autopsy of a Dying Church

  1. I must say the idea that evangelism reaches “the lost” is a tad lame. Maybe….just maybe it is OK that churches will die. Maybe traditional Christianity is loosing relevance. Things change.

    • Jason Micheli July 2, 2013 at 5:01 PM

      I hate the term ‘lost.’ It’s outdated Evangelical speak that I’ve never used nor really heard in a mainline church. And I agree with your other post too.
      Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that the Church in America is dying because God is punishing her for subordinating the radical witness of Jesus to America.

      • Ha. I’ll have to look into Hauerwas.

      • I like Hauerwas but disagree with the statement that “the church in America is dying because God is punishing her for subordinating the radical witness of Jesus in America.” I think a better way to describe it might be Dallas Willard’s statement that “in some churches, God simply stands aside while we pursue our interests, our agenda’s, our lives.” Jesus is present where he is welcome, like in Bethany in Israel. Other times Jesus was present but was not received. In Bethany, Jesus was lavished upon and we see Jesus returning there over and over again because the people loved his presence with them. Miracles happened, people’s hearts were opened, and we can see genuine warmth and love in Bethany. I think Jesus traveling around in Israel should be seen as a “representation” of some our churches. In certain places, the people simply did not believe. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “the church grows through witness and conversion”. When people do not know Jesus and experience his grace and forgiveness, this ignited a passion and we should ALL say, “Yes! That’s what this is about!” Just a thought. good article.

  2. I should add that church can be a beautiful thing though there are many that are destructive. Where I live there is 1 of about 20 churches that does not tell people that their traditional practices are demonic. As far as I’m concerned, those 19 could go away and the community would be less split and better for it.

  3. This is sad! I am very thankful that I attend a church that is alive and growing. Our pastor preaches the Word and has a vision for ministry to others. We regularly give to mission programs overseas and in our local community. We have “adopted” a local apartment complex that is comprised mostly of families headed by single mothers. We believe that the light that shines the farthest shines the brightest at home so local ministry is not forgotten.

    The saving grace of our Lord Jesus will never grow stale or out of date. He sets the captives free and breaks the chains of bondage. Our world needs this now more than ever.

  4. Great points by Tom. Ed Stezer’s book on Come Back Churches says similar things.

  5. I think most churches are already dead, and just don’t know it. They are in communities that do not find them relevant. The younger generation doesn’t want anything to do with the picture of christianity that the church has painted. A big turn off is the delusion of superiority that many christians have, even though they are unaware of it.

  6. Good points made here. What deterred me from Churches in the past was hard seats, theological sermons that went for 2 hours, freezing buildings, stoned-faced 75 year old attendees, no youth present at services, old old songs from the 1800’s, silly gowns and hats and nothing real in terms of helping people like me (at the time, unsaved) cope with the stresses of life in the real world.

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