As a pastor, I know the successes and frustrations of leading a church.

North Side has had its share of challenges over the years.  I have yet to regret when we have followed the Bible on how to do church.  It’s been amazing to watch God’s grace over our congregation.

In the social media world, I also will get questions concerning other congregations.

In recent years, my heart has been broken by hearing stories of great people who are hanging on in a local church praying that something will change.  The story is often similar.  They love the people in the church but they are watching the church drift away from biblical mandates and becoming consumed with petty bickering.  They approach the pastor yet he is too fearful to challenge the powers that be.

And I am trying to encourage these people as I watch their churches die in front of them.

I encourage them to try to be change agents but oftentimes, it never happens.

I thoroughly resonated with Thom Rainer’s book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church.  I was given the book by the publisher and loved the brutal truths presented.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but think of so many conversations I have had with people truly broken over the state of their church.

Here’s the book description:

No one wants to see a church die. And yet, far too many churches are dying. For more than twenty-five years, Dr. Thom Rainer has helped churches grow, reverse the trends of decline, and has autopsied those that have died. From this experience, he has discovered twelve consistent themes among those churches that have died. Yet, it’s not gloom and doom because from those twelve themes, lessons on how to keep your church alive have emerged.

Whether your church is vibrant or dying, whether you are a pastor or a church member, Autopsy of a Deceased Church will walk you through the radical paths necessary to keep your church alive to the glory of God and advancement of Christ’s Kingdom!

So many great insights, but here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • “The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero…Hear me clearly: these churches were not hanging on to biblical truths.  They were fighting for the past.  The good old days” (18).
  • “When a church ceases to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death…Vibrant and living churches look after the interests of others…But dying churches are concerned with self-preservation.  They are concerned with a certain way of doing church” (29).
  • “And I’m not even sure if greed is the best descriptor of these churches.  Perhaps it is better to say that their funds are inwardly focused” (32).
  • “Instead the decline in the outward focus was gradual, almost imperceptibly gradual…The efforts at obedience to the Great Commission faded gradually, so that no one noticed.  Or if someone did notice, he or she was largely ignored.  The more vocal members usually left the church.  The comfortable members remained behind for the deathwatch” (42).
  • “They just wanted it [growth] to happen.  Without prayer.  Without sacrifice.  Without hard work.  But here’s the bigger issue.  Even if the church began to grow on its own, the members of the dying church would only accept the growth if the new members were like them and if the church would continue to ‘do church’ the way they wanted it” (44).
  • “A church cannot survive long-term where members are focused on their own preference: My music style, my desired length and order of worship services, my desired color and design of buildings and rooms, my activities and programs, my need of ministers and staff, my, my, my” (49).
  • “Membership in the church is not country club membership.  It’s not about paying your dues and getting perks” (51).
  • “For the majority of the churches, pastors came and went at a pace of every two to three years, especially in the two decades leading to the deaths of the churches” (55).
  • Concerning dying churches with long-term pastors, here was the common factor: “The pastor made the decision to adopt the attitude of the recalcitrant* members…These pastors took the paths of least resistance…They became caretakers of members only” (60-61).  *Great word that means: having an obstinately uncooperative attitude toward authority or discipline.
  • Prayer had become “more like a routine or ritual” (66).
  • “Attitudes shifted from gospel-centered and other-centered to self-centered.  An outward focus became an inward obsession” (75).
  • “Dying churches, more often than not, experience severe battles over facility obsession before their demise…Being a good steward of those material things that God has given our churches is good.  Becoming obsessed with any one item to the neglect of His mission is idolatry” (80).

Rainer makes the point in the book that he believes that 10% of churches are healthy, 40% have symptoms of sickness, 40% are very sick, and 10% are dying.  He offers some very helpful and practical steps for the last 3 categories of churches.

The steps aren’t revolutionary.  They are very simple.  Pray.  Lead.  Submit.  Stop making it about you.  The steps are simple, practical, and effective.  The question is not in the theory but in the application.

I am thankful that while “individual congregations die,” “certainly the universal Church will never die” (99).  Pray that your individual congregation will focus upon God’s Word and not give up on what Jesus is calling your specific congregation to do.

Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.