Earlier this week, I began reading Thom Rainer’s newest little book called “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.” The book is based on a blog post that he wrote last year where he found several common traits of churches that had died. It does not surprise it that individual people come to the end of their life, for we know that death is a part of life. But seldom do we think of a church coming to the end of its life. To the church at Sardis, Jesus said they had a name that there were alive, but they were really dead. More and more in the days to come, we are going to see this as a common occurrence. Churches that were once vibrant and making a difference in the community for the cause of Christ began to decline, and unless the decline was met with prayer and revival, the church died. Empty church buildings that once were full of believers now dot our landscape. What are we to do? In the book, Rainer studied fourteen churches that had closed their doors, and the traits that they had in common are worth paying close attention to.
First of all, Rainer points out how erosion is always a slow process. He writes, “It is rare for a long-term church member to see erosion in his or her church. Growth may come rapidly, but decline is usually slow, imperceptibly slow. This slow erosion is the worst type of decline for churches, because the members have no sense of urgency to change. They see a church on a regular basis; they don’t see the gradual decline that is taking place before their eyes.” Over time, a church dies because it began to slowly decline years before. What began to decline? The prayer lives of the members began to decline. The ministry of the church began to decline. The outward focus of the church began to decline and all they focused on were themselves. There was a decline in passion and fervency for the spread of the gospel. Sunday became routine and casual. The leadership became unmotivated and stagnant. The decline was everywhere, but because it became the norm, no one noticed and no one cared. Vance Havner once said, “The church today has become so subnormal that if it were to look normal, one would think it were abnormal.” Decline is a slow fade, and it always leads to death.
Second, Rainer explains how each of the churches that died made a hero out of the past. He says, “Here me clearly: these churches were not hanging on to biblical truths. They were not clinging to clear Christian morality. They were not fighting for primary doctrines, or secondary doctrines, or even tertiary doctrines. As a matter of fact, they were not fighting for doctrines at all. They were fighting for the past. The good old days. The way it used to be.” While we should be grateful for the past and respect the past, in no way can we live in the past. A church will die if it holds on to the past and neglects the present.
Third, Rainer mentioned how the church refused to look like the community that surrounded it. Each of the churches that died became disconnected from the community and stagnant. As the community began to change, whether ethic or racial or even social class, the church did not. The church failed to minister and reach out to those in its own neighborhood. “Essentially, on those rare occasions they tried to reach out, 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.” The focus of the church became inward and self-centered. People in the community did not feel welcome, and those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than they were about reaching those on the outside. Rather than being a hospital for sinners, the church became a fortress that was inaccessible. Unfortunately, the church communicated the message that others were not welcome. In the New Testament, the church is always commanded to be others-centered rather than being self-centered.
In the churches that God has allowed me to serve, I have found this to be a constant battle. The enemy wants us to focus on the minutia so that we will be distracted in our mission. Churches that become inwardly focused eventually bite and devour one another until nothing is left but an empty shell. A church that neglects the Great Commission and focuses only on itself will die a slow death. It is not a matter of “if.” It is a matter of “when.”