Five Common Characteristics of Churches That Survived a Near Death Experience

My latest book is about churches that died. In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, I wrote about issues that led to the demise of several congregations. Recently, however, I wrote a blog post about churches that have dreamed again. These congregations experienced dramatic reversals, from decline to vibrant health. In that post, I asked leaders of churches to share with me stories about churches that have dreamed again. I was amazed and overwhelmed at the responses.

From Near Death to Health

As I read about these churches, and even watched some videos about their stories, I was reminded again of how God often does a great work of revitalization. Among the most amazing stories were those of churches that were truly near death. The members were on the precipice of deciding to close the doors.

Instead of closing the doors, however, the churches went in the opposite direction. They became vibrant congregations of hope and growth.

Looking for Patterns

I isolated those stories of “near death” churches to see if I could discover common patterns. Although no two churches were identical, they did take similar paths.

Keep in mind that these are not just churches that moved from slight decline or steady decline to growth. These are the churches that were just a few months away from closing their doors. Today they are alive and well.

What are the common paths they followed? I found at least five.

  1. All of these churches had sudden negative events that exacerbated their declines. That event was often connected with a pastor. In some of the churches the pastor had a moral failure. In other churches, the pastor left suddenly and unexpectedly, often at a critical time in the life of the church.
  2. Each of the “near death” churches had a significant exodus of members who resisted change. At the time of their departures, the exodus was seen as a very negative occurrence. In hindsight, it became viewed as a blessing.
  3. A remnant of the membership began gathering together for fervent prayer. One church member noted, “We were so desperate that all we had left was prayer.” That prayer gathering became the beginning of a new dream in the congregation.
  4. The membership remnant made a commitment to God to sacrifice whatever He asked and to do whatever He asked. The members thus let go of the idols of their perception of “how we do church” and became open to new directions and new ideas.
  5. The church became outwardly obsessed to reach and minister to their community. One member said it well: “We became determined in the power of God to discover what it would take to be Christ in the community. We had never asked that question before.”

Not the Typical Path

Remember that these churches represented a subset of churches that dreamed again. These congregations were among those that almost died. Their future longevity could be measured in months rather than years.

Most of the “dream again” churches did not get that close to the death. They began to experience renewal long before their demise became a foregone conclusion.

Most churches that die experience gradual erosion. The congregation thus rarely sees the need to change. And so the congregation slowly moves toward death.

The irony of the “near death” churches is that the sudden negative event actually was used by God to give the congregation a sorely needed wake up call.

Sometimes we all need a wakeup call. Churches too.

Please keep sharing your stories and comments with me. I am inspired. And as a result, other congregations are inspired as well.


  1. says

    This is a great article. Its encouraging that the churches turned to prayer and not simply to pragmatic principles. Prayer in the Spirit through Christ is the only thing that can bring lasting spiritual change in the hearts and minds of people. If a church is a praying church, the rest will fall into place. Not easily, but easier than without prayer. It’s still a lot of work!

  2. Isaac says

    Seems like the common thread is a collective movement towards being outward focused and ceasing habits grounded in selfish behavior (i.e. “What can church do for me?”

    As always, I appreciate your posts! Thanks for taking your time to help keep us looking forward in our churches! :)

  3. Mark Lindsay says

    Dr. Rainer,

    Wow! Excellent summary! I have been in a near death church once before, and God restored that church in a manner very similar to your description.

    In you summary I see classic marks of what I call horizontal leadership (formally known as complex systems leadership) – 1) some event in the church context sparks disequilibrium, 2) in response, change occurs, bottom-up, in a small way, 3) the change is amplified, and 4) the change is accepted and equilibrium returns. The church has adapted to the initial context change! It is awesome to see… but we need to be seeing this happen in all our churches before the threshold of death!

    Thank you once again for your excellent insight into ministry. Really enjoying your blog.


  4. Jamie Watts says

    Where may I find a copy of the book mentioned in the above article? (The Autopsy of a Deceased Church)….


  5. Matthew says

    Good wisdom here, but I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit is involved. These are common characteristics of a struggling business going through a “rebirth”- just take out the church language. Christian leaders not necessarily needed.

  6. Ken says

    This article reminds me of something I once heard from Henry Blackaby. He said that great revival movement often begin when things are at their worst. That’s because the church has nowhere to turn except to God. When we humble ourselves before Him, then He lifts us up.

  7. TJ says

    My question is, were any of these churches struggling with and resisting revitalization before the negative event came? I’m currently pastor of a church in need of revitalization and am starting to encounter a lot of resistance to change (which I expected). But it is coinciding with the long-coming unravelling of some of our ministries that could lead to a very real crisis. So I’m wondering now if the crisis can be averted and revitalization can truly begin or if the crisis will be necessary for revitalization to come.

  8. Kenny says

    Thank you for this article. Six months ago, I became the pastor at a church that was similarly struggling. It’s really encouraging to see congregations turning back to what is most important.

  9. says

    This described my church before I came. One issue was racism in the pew, especially since it’s located in a largely-African-American neighborhood and a then-new pastor recognized it as a spiritual stronghold, so once that barrier fell the church began to explode — not only in spiritual commitment but also in numbers.

  10. says

    God often uses a church wide crisis to get a church’s attention. We’ve seen it over and over in our ministry to hurting churches ( Unfortunately, in many cases unless churches deal with underlying spiritual dysfunction, the old DNA of the church follows them into the restart. There may be an element of repentance that is missing from the article, or it may be hinted at when the church finally gives up its idols (4th point).

  11. John Spring says

    These features are interesting but I suspect there is one or more layer of connectedness below these. For example, the way prayer is understood and practised down the years preceding surely impacts how a church prays in crisis. Did these churches share a similar understanding and practise of prayer?
    A similar question can be asked concerning the ways churches who survive reach out to and ministers to a community. Were there already foundations laid? Or did these churches, in crisis, discover how to reach out in ministry?

  12. anonymous pastor says

    I cannot say how timely this article is! Bless the Lord!

    Our church and deacons need these words. I shared it with all the deacons. I thank you Dr. Rainer because you have given assurance to the words I’ve already been saying.

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