Autopsy of a Deceased church

12 Ways To Keep Yours alive

By Thom S. Rainer


 Thom S. Rainer

 No one wants to see a church die.  And yet, far too many churches are dying.  For more than 25 years, Dr. Thom Rainer has helped churches grow, reverse the trends of decline, and has autopsied those that have died.  Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the largest Christian resource companies in the world.  Also a respected researcher and former pastor, he has written more than 20 books.  Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons and several grandchildren.  They live in Nashville, Tennessee.

Part 1:  The Autopsy

 Chapter 1 Introduction

I knew the patient before she died.  She was very sick at the time, but she did not want to admit it. • There was a glimmer of hope that would require a radical change.  She was highly resistant to any change, even though she was very sick. • I told her the bad news bluntly:  You are dying!

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  • I would not have been surprised if she died within the year. • She was not only in denial, she was in angry denial. • During her last decade, she was technically alive, but she was filled with pain, sickness, and despair. • She slowly and painfully deteriorated. • And then she died.

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The Autopsy

  • She, of course, is a church. A church that was probably born out of a vision, but she no longer had a vision. • The worship attendance was around 750 during “the good old days,” but the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. • The church lasted 10 years after the terminal diagnosis. • An autopsy was performed to see why the church died.

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  • Autopsies are performed on humans to see why they died. Results may give surviving family members information that will help them avoid the same path. • Autopsies are not pleasant. The author will conduct 14 church autopsies. • The churches are diverse in many ways:

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  • Denominational or non-denominational backgrounds • Locations • Local and regional demographics • But they were all similar in one significant way: they followed paths that caused them to die. • Jesus told Peter that the church will not be overpowered by Hades (Matt. 16:18), but many churches have and are dying. As many as 100,000 churches are dying now. 

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Questions for Further Discussion

  • If your church was given a physical exam, what would be the diagnosis? Healthy, slightly sick, very sick, on death’s bed?  Why? • Why are many church members in denial about the declining health of their church? • Explain how churches can die in the context of Matthew 16:18, which says Hades will not prevail.

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Chapter 2 Slow Erosion

  • Has anyone ever returned to a town or place after leaving for many years, only to find it had drastically changed? Things had deteriorated. • People who lived there and never left, may not have even noticed the deterioration. • It’s hard to see change day by day!

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The Slow Erosion of Churches

  • It is difficult for a long-term church member to see erosion in the church. • Slow erosion is the worst kind, because it is barely noticeable and members have no sense of urgency to change. • Sometimes the decline is in physical facilities, but it is much more than that.

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  • The decline can impact ministries that were once vibrant. • The decline can be in the prayer lives of members. • The decline can be in missionary efforts of the church.
  • The decline can be in the connection with the community. • The decline can be in the participation and involvement of youth. • The decline can be in the hopes and dreams of members who remain.

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Decline Back in Time

  • The decline can be everywhere in the church, but members don’t see it. • The Book of Haggai tells of how Jews after a long exile, returned to Jerusalem to find it devastated. They began to rebuild.  The first order of business was to rebuild the temple, the house of God.  • After laying the foundation, they stopped to begin working on their own homes. 

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  • For 10 years, no work was done on the House of God. Can you imagine the decline? • God speaks through His prophet to ask why they had stopped building the temple (see Haggai 1:2-4). • Over 2,500 years ago, the people of Israel had neglected building the House of God. It seems like slow erosion was a problem for them as well.  God didn’t like it then, and He doesn’t like slow erosion now.

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Questions for Further Thought

  • What was Oak City like 20 years ago vs. today? Do you see signs of gradual erosion? • How is neglect of building the temple in the Book of Haggai, like gradual erosion today? • What do you think God meant in Haggai 1:9, by the phrase “while each of you is busy with his own house?”

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Chapter 3 The Past Is the Hero

  • Before we begin to look at the results of the autopsy, keep in mind that there were several points where churches could have reversed the decline they were experiencing. However, the remaining members refused to see reality. • Most churches in America don’t close their doors over a single event. In most cases, the issue was slow erosion.

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The Autopsy:  The Common Thread

  • The most pervasive and common thread of the autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. • 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!

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  • These churches were not hanging on to biblical truths. • They were not clinging to sound doctrine or Christian morality. • The were fighting for the past. The good old days. • There were some prophets and dissenters who warned that if the church did not change, it would die. But the diehards would not listen.  They fiercely resisted.  • The dissenters left.  The diehards remained and death came closer and closer, until they finally died.

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Everyone Loves A Hero

  • The word “Hero,” speaks of a man or woman who has done something remarkable, something courageous, or something note-worthy. • Hebrews, chapter 11, talks about “Heroes of Faith.” According to the writer of Hebrews, all of these men and women were heroes of faith because they obeyed God even though they did not know the consequences of that obedience (see Hebrews 11:13).

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  • These heroes and sheroes of faith sacrificed their comfort, their homes, their ways of life, and their possessions because they knew that this life was only temporary. They knew that a better and an eternal life awaited them. • The “good old days” did not exist in their minds.

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When the Past Is Hero

  • For some people, the past is their hero. They cling to it and they hang on to it. • When they see the past slipping away, some people become angry, hurt, and even fearful. • There is much to respect, revere, and remember about the past, but we can’t live in the past.

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Signs of Past Heroes

  • Do you know the name, Harry Truman? Harry Randall Truman?  No, not the former president.  • He was a homeowner at the foot of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.  In 1980, Mt. St. Helens was showing signs of a major eruption. • Truman’s home was located at the south end of the mountain.  He was living in the most likely path of the volcanic flow.  Officials implored him to leave. 

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  • Truman would not leave his much loved home. • On May 18, 1980, the massive eruption took place. Harry Truman perished on May 18, 1980, because his home was in the direct path of the lava flow. • So what did the deceased churches cling to? ➢Worship styles ➢Fixed order of worship services ➢Times of worship services ➢Memorials in certain rooms or buildings

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  • But more than any other one item, these dying churches focused on their own needs, rather than the needs of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. • Their highest priorities were the way they had always done things, and those things which made them the most comfortable. • So unlike the heroes of Hebrews, chapter 11, who held onto nothing of this life, these dying churches held onto everything that made them comfortable and happy.

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Questions for Further Discussion

  • Are there any areas at Oak City where we are resisting change simply because of our own preferences? • What is the common theme among the heroes of Hebrews, chapter 11? • Look at Hebrews 11:13-16 and discuss it in light of churches that die holding onto the past.
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Chapter 4     The Church Refused to Look Like the Community

  • The author’s autopsy revealed the condition above in several of the fourteen churches.
  • In the “Good old days” the church was booming as residents in the community flocked to the church. The church was a part of the community and it reflected the community.  Then the community began to change.


  • The response to the changing community was often subtle.
  • The migration of people in and out of the church was often slow and almost imperceptible. But it was very real.
  • For two to three decades the church held its own. Members were not leaving in mass.  They were willing to drive into the community where they once lived because, after all, it was their church.  But their children and especially their grandchildren, did not respond accordingly.
  • Some of the younger generations left town completely. Others found churches in their new communities. 
  • Many of the younger generations did not see the point in driving to a transitioned community that had no identity with the church. So the church began its death march.
  • There was an occasional, but faint attempt to reach the community. On those rare occasions, the church members asked the community residents to come to them, to the church.  There was almost never any effort to go into the community.
  • And no one ever mentioned the possibility of a willingness to turn over leadership of the church to the residents of the community.


The Church Becomes A Fortress

  • If you talk to members in a dying church, most will deny that their church is a fortress. But in the autopsy, people in the community did not feel welcome in the church.
  • Those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than reaching residents of the community.
  • To suggest that the church members begin to transition leadership to residents of the community seems absurd. It is our fortress, they say!  Outsiders are not welcome.  We will fight to keep the church just as it is until we die.  And that day is not too far away.

Others First = Life!  Me First = Death!

  • When a church ceases to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death.
  • Paul told the church at Philippi to look after the interests of others even as it considered its own interests. See Philippians 2:1-4.
  • Vibrant and living churches look after the interests of others. They are concerned for their communities.
  • Dying churches however, are concerned with self-preservation.
  • The autopsy revealed that at some point in its history, the church stopped reaching and caring for the community. How could we tell?  The church did not look like or reflect the community in which it was located.


Questions for Further Thought

  • Does Oak City try to reach and minister to its community, even to the point of giving up authority to better reach the people?
  • When does a church act like a fortress?
  • How does Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian Church relate to churches today impacting their communities?


Chapter 5 The Budget Moved Inwardly

  • When you conduct the autopsy of a church, you must follow the money. For where the money of the church goes, so goes its heart.
  • Wellington R. Burt died in 1919. He was listed at number eight among America’s richest persons.  Wellington Burt was a powerful politician and he was greedy.  Very greedy!

Churches Too!

  • Dying churches never think of themselves as being greedy.
  • Greed may not be the best description for them. Perhaps it is better to say that their funds were inwardly focused.
  • In many of the deceased churches, the personnel portion of the budget steadily increased over the years.
  • The churches had less to spend, but personnel costs were often the last to be cut. Why? 
  • Because the church members viewed the church staff as their personal caretakers.
  • In dying and vibrant churches, the church staff often meets the needs of the members. That is part of their God-given calling.  But in dying churches, the staff is expected to almost exclusively be on call for church members.
  • Church staff are mostly hired hands for church members.
  • Building and facility costs are reduced only as a last resort.
  • In dying churches, the last expenditures to be reduced are those that keep the members most comfortable.


Where Are the Cuts Made?

  • The autopsy results revealed in most cases, cuts were made to ministries and programs with an outward focus.
  • With budget cuts, outreach and community ministries were the first to go.
  • Ministries for church members were the last to


The Rich Young Ruler and Deceased Churches

  • See Mark 10:17-22.
  • The man could not let go. He was not merely sad, he was grieved at the thought of giving up his possessions.
  • We also hold on to things because we want our way of life. Our comfort!  Our possessions!
  • That’s what happens to churches that die.
  • Their budgets reflect their way of doing church. Their comfort!  Their possessions!
  • Follow the money. You will learn much about a church.
  • By the way, not all the deceased churches died broke. A few of them had quite a treasure chest when they died.  Some of them had inherited money.
  • You don’t have to be broke to be dying. It’s not a matter of how much you have.  It’s what you do with your money that matters.  It’s also your attitude about money.
  • With some churches, money becomes the focus, not ministry.


The Autopsy Was Clear and Revealing


  • In all churches where an autopsy was performed, a financial pattern developed over time. The pattern was one where funds were used more to keep the machinery of the church moving and to keep members happy, rather than funding the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  The church cared more for its own needs rather than the needs of the community and world.

Questions for Further Thought

  • How would the budget and use of funds of a healthy church differ from that of a dying church?
  • How does the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10, inform us about how a church might view the money it has?
  • What are some ways churches can move their use of funds from predominantly an inward focus to an outward focus?