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Signs of a dying church

Churches that are dying portray specific characteristics. Thom S. Rainer, in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, shows us nine signs of a dying church.

Guillermo Gonzalez
Guillermo Gonzalez
3 min read
Signs of a dying church
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I recently finished reading the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom S. Rainer. After years of research interviewing churches that had closed their doors, Rainer describes what a deceased church looks like and what led to the closure of those churches.

Here are the notes I took from the book. These are the signs of a dying church:

  1. Cling to the past
    Churches that died continued to talk about the "good old days" without realizing what they needed to do to keep their door open. To quote the author:

    "The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: "We will die before we change." And they did."

  2. They refused to look like the community
    Churches that closed their doors did not reflect the community God had placed them in. These churches do not make an effort to reach the community. There is an expectation that the community will come to the church. Even when the community comes to church, people in the community do not feel welcomed in the church. To quote the author:

    "Those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than reaching residents of the community."

  3. The budget is inward focused
    Churches that died spent all their money on themselves, not the overall mission. To quote the author:

    "... in many of the churches, the personnel portion of the budget steadily increased over the years. It was not that the churches were paying their staff more; rather the personnel portion of the budget increased proportionally to the declining total each year. The churches had less to spend, but personnel costs were often the last to be cut. Why? Because the church members viewed the staff as their personal caretakers."

  4. They forgot about the great commission & evangelism
    Churches that died had no urgency for evangelism. They forget about evangelism. When clinging to the past is more important, there is no time to evangelize since reminiscing about the "good old days" is preferable to obeying Jesus' commands about the Great Commission. To quote the author:

    "The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission."

  5. The church became selfish
    People in these churches would say something like; my preferences are more important than the needs of the people. Members of the churches that died suffered from the "my" factor:

    "My music style is important. My desired length and order of worship services. My desired color and design of buildings and rooms. My activities and programs. My need of ministries and staff. My, my, my."

  6. Pastoral tenure
    From the analysis that Rainer conducted, 10 out of 14 churches, their pastors had a shorter tenure. And from those churches that had long-term pastors adopted the recalcitrant attitude. They knew their churches were heading to closing their doors, but these pastors chose to let the church die rather than go through the conflict of change and possibly restore it.

  7. The church didn't pray
    The churches that died paid little attention to meaningful collective prayer. To quote the author:

    "Not coincidentally, prayer and the health of the church went hand in hand. When the church is engaged in meaningful prayer, it becomes both the cause and the result of greater church health."

  8. No clear purpose, gospel-centered church muddy
    The churches that died exemplified a dim and lifeless view of the gospel. None of the members talked about fulfilling the Great Commission. The church members didn't seem interested in caring for the Great Commandment. "None ever came close to speaking with a burning passion about making a difference in the community." The churches were purposeless.

  9. Obsession over buildings
    To quote the author:

    "Church fights have erupted over stained glass windows, draperies, paint color, carpet color, and on and on and on. Dying churches, more often than not, experience severe battles over facility obsession before their demise."

I love learning about what makes a great church. A good way to know what makes a good church is to learn what doesn't make a good church as well. This book is useful in this. I highly recommend it.

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Computer Science graduate. Served in many churches as a Youth Pastor and Executive Pastor. Now I am the Lead Pastor of Mariners Church in Santa Ana, CA.