THE JOURNEY....

                                                   THE FUTURE....


A True Story – Autopsy Of A Deceased Church

By Thom S. Rainer

I was the 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.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car.  “What do you think, Thom?” he asked.  He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified.  “How long can our church survive?”  I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news.  “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong.  The church closed just a few weeks ago.  Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously.  This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.  My friend from the church called to tell me the news.  I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church.  Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years.  I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy.  Here are eleven things I learned.

  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.

  1. 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.

  1. Members became more focused on memorials.  Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials.  Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson.  The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed.  The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church.  More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

  1. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing.  At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

  1. There were no evangelistic emphases.  When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

  1. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted.  As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic.  Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.

  1. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter.  The church had seven pastors in its final ten years.  The last three pastors were bi-vocational.  All of the seven pastors left discouraged.

  1. The church rarely prayed together.  In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service.  Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

  1. The church had no clarity as to why it existed.  There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

  1. The members idolized another era.  All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church.  And they all remembered fondly, to the point of  idolatry, was the era of the 1970s.  They saw their future to be returning to the past.

  1. The facilities continued to deteriorate.  It wasn’t really a financial issue.  Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building.  Simply stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples.  As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying.  Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

Where is our church headed?

What can we do to reverse these trends?

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church

Our Primary Commitments

  • Are we going to commit ourselves to worship as the central act of the church, attending as regularly as possible and providing the resources needed to provide joyful, uplifting, and meaningful services?

  • Are we going to commit to reaching out to our community and, if we do so successfully, becoming a church with a strong African American heritage but modernly multi-cultural?

  • Are we going to commit ourselves to do mission and service projects as a first priority and routine church business (more institutional items) second?

  • Are we going to commit to having a basic Christian Education program for our children (support for regular Sunday morning classes and a Nursery)?

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church

Our Preamble

A special task force for strategic planning was established by Session to study the present and future challenges of our Church and how we can best respond to  God’s call and great commission to love and serve others in the years ahead.  Over many months, much powerful study was done and various meetings and forums were held with the entire congregation.  We feel that “our plan” has to be “God’s plan” for Fifteenth Street as best we can prayerfully determine.  Who we are as a Church is determined and driven by Christ’s presence among us as we seek Him “in community.”

We believe that outreach to our surrounding community and mission – service to those most in need – comes before the conventional business of the Church.  In following Him, we have developed four major strategic objectives along with two administrative objectives.  We see our main challenges in the year ahead as:

  • deciding on our primary missions (how best to serve Christ in this time and place);

  • being open and inclusive to our rapidly changing community in a radical welcoming way;

  • fostering participation of the entire congregation in worship and service;

  • emphasizing the joy of discipleship and fellowship; and

  • uniting around a limited number of initiatives for each objective which reflect our gifts and size.

Following a time of congregational prayer, we see the next several years as a transformational period for our Church.  A time not only of hard work and concerted effort, but a time of joyful openness to God’s guiding spirit and creativity reshaping our lives in His image and for His passion.

We realize that strategic planning is a process which intends to combine spirituality and pragmatism – like the Holy Scriptures – on which it is grounded.  It calls for the growth of the church and community not only in numbers but in spirit, imagination, and strength.  There is no neutral space – every space must be transformed and renewed to achieve growth.

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church

Our Vision and Mission

Our vision is to bring people together for worship, social action, and spiritual growth.  We celebrate God’s presence in everyday life and inclusive love for all humanity.

Our mission is to be disciples of Jesus Christ, responding to God’s unique call at this time and place, and in worship, love and service.  In word and deed, we seek to be a community of acceptance and faith showing forth God’s great compassion to others in need.

Our strategic themes center on:

  • transformation
  • renewal
  • growth

Our core biblical scriptures to guide us along our new journey are:

  • Romans 12: 1-21 (Be transformed by the renewing of your mind))

  • Luke 10: 29-37 (Who is my neighbor?)

  • Matthew 25:31-46 (Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and did for me)

  • Micah 6:8 (And what does the Lord require of you?)

  • Acts 2:42-47 (And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved)

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church

Our Strategic Goals

1.        Engaging in Joyful Meaningful Worship – with diverse elements appealing to present members and visitors; bringing people together, encouraging participation; worship that reveals and renews faith.

2.        Actively Reaching Out to Communities – in a radically welcoming manner; including all; reflecting our changing neighborhood.

3.        Becoming Mission Centered – being Christ for others and demonstrating the love of Christ with several unifying ministries in our community and around the world; reaching out to include others in acts of kindness, justice, and healing.

4.        Caring for Children, and Providing Spiritual Growth and Nurture – providing Christian Education and nurture for children and opportunities for all to grow into God, as we grow together in spirit.

There are two other administrative planning mission objectives which involve internal church care:

5.        Being Good Stewards of our Structural and Financial Assets – upkeeping our buildings and ensuring future financial stability.

6.        Becoming Organizationally Efficient – evaluating our governing boards and committees so that we are spending our time and energy focused on Christ’s mission in the most efficient ways possible.  These secondary strategic mission objectives are important to our future and will also be addressed with initiatives and projects.

The “F” Word (FEAR)

But I come here to feel good and safe.  Is that so wrong?

The fear of losing our comfort zone

I hope they don’t expect us to change our liturgy.

The fear of losing a venerable tradition

It’s not a judgment – they’re just not like us.

The fear of losing a community’s cultural, social identity

But shouldn’t we study it a little more?  We’ve never done this before.

The fear of looking or being judged ignorant, unprepared or otherwise less than “together”

What if we mess it up?

The fear of failing and being judged

We’ve tried this before.  These things never work.

The fear of raising hope and then being disappointed

What will our neighbors and ministry partners think if we do this?

The fear of incurring a backlash

What if we lost the Rogers family and their pledge?

The fear of scarcity

If we do this, won’t some people leave?

The fear of disappearing

I find their music loud and theologically simple.  Let’s not dumb things down.

The fear of foreign cultures

I’d like to see them in leadership, but can we really trust them to do it right?  Will they try to take over our church?

The fear of letting go of control

Wouldn’t they be more comfortable with their own people?

The fear of facing our own prejudice




Brown Bag Lunch Program requests your participation thru the donation of time (making sandwiches for homeless persons monthly) and/or a monthly contribution of $1, $5, or $10.

Garden Ministry
 - Working with the church/community garden growing vegetables for area meal programs for those in need. Can you help us grow some starter plants? Please stop by after worship in the back of the church and pick up a cup with a seedling; take it home with instructions, and bring it back to worship in a couple of weeks for planting. Thank you.  

 Zambia Water Project - A new initiative of building a clean safe water project for rural Zambians. We need your help.  

Anti-Gun Violence Ministry Team - Can you help organize our T-shirt display this year and work on educational and advocacy events to prevent hand gun violence?

Clothing Ministry - Sponsors several major clothes drives annually and a "Community Shop" providing a free shopping experience and lunch for families in need.

Contact if you can help.