Churches were once the anchor of many communities. Today, things have changed and many churches are languishing and on the verge of dying. Often, older churches are close to dying and ignore many of the symptoms associated with their illness. Thom Rainer in his book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, discusses several factors or symptoms which lead to the death of a church. Some of these symptoms include slow erosion: ministries that once had an impact are no longer impactful; this is linked to the lack of prayer life of the members (Rainer 2014, 12). Another symptom is, the past is the hero: in this factor, the dying church turns a blind eye to its decline and clings to outdated worship styles, pastors of the past, and the members own needs rather than the needs of those outside the church who need Christ (Rainer 2014, 18-22). Refusing to look like the community is another symptom: here the church asks the community to come to them rather than going to the community and the church becomes a fortress (Rainer 2014, 26-28). Next is the budget moves inwardly: the pastor and staff are expected to cater and care for those already in the church; the last expenditures to be cut are those which keep the people comfortable (Rainer 2014, 35-36).
These are just a few of the symptoms of a dying church which leads to churches which resemble clubs more than a body of believers focused on the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. However, although these symptoms and behaviors are predictable for churches which are dying, perhaps someone should look at the problem of dying churches from another perspective, learning to ask different questions. Berger in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, encourages us to ask different questions and not get locked into a particular perspective or even a particular set of hopes of how things will go (Berger and Johnston 2015, 170). It is easy to see how churches die, but perhaps there are ways that the current members can be reactivated into finding their purpose without focusing on what they are not doing. Churches that are dying know they are dying, although they may not want to admit it, and do not know how to get unstuck. The symptoms of a disease are not the disease itself. While we may treat symptoms, it is helpful to find the root causes of the symptoms to properly treat the patient before death occurs.
The problem of dying churches may be more complex than the symptoms reveal. The symptoms of dying are obvious, but what does health look like? Have the members of this community of faith ever truly seen a healthy church in action? It is only by asking different questions and gaining new perspectives on the problem, that new light will be shed on an old problem. After all, for the Christian church, death is not the problem because for the Christian there is always a promise of new life in the resurrection.
Berger, Jennifer Garvey, and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.