Autopsy of a Dying Church

I lifted this from my friend, Charles Wood’s “The Woodchuck’s Den” from today.  It is a review of a new Thom Ranier book on churches that are dying.  I thought his main points were SPOT ON.  I’ve seen this up close and personally in more cases that I want to remember.  Well worth the few moments it takes to read it:


Thom Ranier, is now CEO of Lifeway, the publication arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He formerly taught at Southern Seminary at Louisville and is highly regarded as both a leader and thinker. The introduction and main points are his. All that is added in italics after the main points must be blamed on me. It’s long, but many pastors of smaller or traditional churches really need to read it.
“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 relatively 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 grudgingly agree to retain me.

    “I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult. 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 expression, 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 transition 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. They should have either moved or committed to reaching the community as it was becoming – in reality they became what many smaller churches actually are – a commuter church.
2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community. Probably because many of the members showed the shallowness of their Christianity by holding themselves to be “better” than the riff-raff among whom they were located.
3. Members became more focused on memorials. And memories. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past. The people were focused on a past that really never was and could never be again even if it actually was what they dream of. When the older people were in the prime of life, it was wonderful so the real desire was to go back to having a church like that.
4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent. Well, we have to take care of our own, don’t we?
5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die. An annual “evangelistic meeting (where almost all those who attend are saved folks who don’t even know any unsaved person to invite).
6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. Oops, no one read even the first line of The Purpose -driven Life – it’s not all about you. In reality it did become all about them, and you can find this attitude among the older element of many other churches., Don’t bother me with what I can do for the church; concentrate on what the church can do for me – after all I am retired. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
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. It became what we sometimes call a “pastoral grave-yard” or a good place to “run out the string until eligible for Social Security.
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 service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs. It became more important to pray people out of heaven than to pray sinners out of hell.
9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose. Don’t bother asking some traditional churches to see their vision or purpose statement; they don’t have one. One of the nice things about having no goals is that you never miss meeting a goal you don’t have.
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. I mentioned this above, but I am convinced that a lot of the problems churches have with older members when they try to move into the present Century revolves around this point.
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.’ You don’t have to tell me when a church was built or last renovated; I can see it with my own eyes on just a single visit. The old cry of, ‘We don’t need an architect,’ was not only wrong but also created some jumbled monstrosities that are almost impossible to correct. Let’s face it, the unsaved, especially the younger ones, are not attracted to a church that looks like June Cleaver’s kitchen.

“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.”

3 thoughts on “Autopsy of a Dying Church

  1. John S.

    Mr. B., once again your far leftist views are showing. Right off the bat this article is way off base. The church refused to look like the community?!? Is this some kind of joke? We are to be separated and want to do all we can to NOT look like the community! Actually trying to be like the community!???! I can’t take anything else in this article seriously when the first point is so off-kilter that I can’t begin to wrap my head around it.

  2. Dan Burrell Post author


    Seriously. This is your one and only warning. Quit trolling my blog or I will block you from it. If you have something reasonable to share, then share it. Otherwise, go away. You are ridiculous and no one finds you either amusing or rational. You are embarrassing yourself. No one is THIS stupid.


  3. Jimmy B

    Dr. Burrell,
    Right off the bat John S uninformed views are showing…anyone who calls you, Dr. Rainer, or Charles Wood “leftist” shows that I can’t take anything else they say serious!

    I read this on Dr. Rainer’s blog and think it should be posted on the walls of most of our churches!


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