Five things that masked the death of a church

As we look at the incredible response to the book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, on its fifth anniversary, I think it’s worth noting why some members were really surprised when their church closed its doors.

“I didn’t see it coming,” commented a member of a deceased church. She knew the church had declined, but she was not prepared for the demise of her congregation. In her church, and in many others, there are at least five things that can trick members into believing their church is doing okay. Here are five things that masked the death of these congregations.

  1. The church had money. In some cases, the church had a lot of money in the bank. Accumulated dollars do not equate to congregational health. In fact, it often points to sickness, even sickness to the point of death. A vibrant bank account is not the same as a vibrant church.
  2. Members still had their friends in the church. This issue masked the death of the church quite often. As long as the members had their holy huddle around them, they were oblivious to the deteriorating conditions around them. The stench of dying and death was masked by the perfume and cologne of friends.
  3. Guests still came to the church. We interviewed one member of a deceased church who was shocked the church had to close because guests came almost every week. If she had looked carefully, though, she would have noted those guests never came back.
  4. Mission giving was still good. Many churches have specific mission funds and missionaries they support with zeal. That’s good. But if the church is reaching no one in the community, that’s bad. You can’t conveniently excise “Jerusalem” from Acts 1:8.
  5. Meetings were well attended. Sadly, most of these meetings served little purpose. They were fixtures from “the way we’ve always done it.” The same people came to the same meetings and accomplished the same thing: nothing.

Sometimes it is better for a church to have obvious conditions of decline and decay; members are most likely to notice. But, in some of these now deceased churches, the depth of decline would never have been noticed. These and perhaps other factors masked the impending death well.

On a positive note, thank you for your great response to Autopsy of a Deceased Church the past five years. Because of you, it is the all-time bestseller in church leadership. We are celebrating by providing our first-ever video study course to accompany the book. Perhaps it’s time to take your leaders and members through this study.

It is my prayer the book will be used to prevent yet the death of another church.

One autopsy is one too many.

This article was originally published at on April 17, 2019. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and ten grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at