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Autopsy of a deceased church

Autopsy of a deceased church

Thomas Rainer, writing at he blog, notes 11 signs that a church is dying:

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.

Here are the first 2 signs that the church is passing away:

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.

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.

Read the rest here.


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We’re a small mission parish working on growth; as it happens we had a planning workshop today, and I brought up this article and promised to post it on the church blog.

I have to say, I was pretty relieved that we seem to be doing pretty well on points 1 and two – have some concern about point 6 (conflict, but it’s pretty trivial), and we’re actively working on point 9 (clarity as to why we exist).

Still, this is sobering. I know of another local parish that was very much like the one in the post. That church is often in the back of my mind when we’re having our planning meetings… as an example of how not to do church.

Ginny Gibbs

Donald Schell

What Thomas Rainer describes symptomatically in his diagnosis before the death also points (different choices) toward challenges congregations face that can choose health

– look to the local community and find the ways to connect and be part of that community

– develop community-focused ministries.

Each of his diagnostic points can be turned to a prescription. And staying with the health metaphor – quitting smoking or taking up a regular exercise program doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get cancer or heart disease. The hard choices increase the odds of longevity, but even without guarantees, they also make for healthier life. The hard choices the eleven symptoms pose are choices for mission and Gospel purpose. And for any congregation there’s something in these choices that can be uncomfortable. They take sustained commitment and any group of community’s inclination to protect the familiar and put significant value on knowing those already in.

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