A few weeks ago, as my wife and I were on vacation, I drove through some small, rural towns in Upstate New York. I could always tell the center of one of these small towns: there was a stop sign (the only one for miles), a restaurant or gas station, and a beautiful, old church building. Or should I say former a church building.
Some estimate that over 4,000 churches close their doors—effectively dying—each year. None of these deaths happen suddenly; rather, they are a result of years of decline. In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, author Thom Rainer does a post-mortem evaluation of 14 of these churches, identifying 10 characteristics common in most of them. The purpose is not to depress or discourage, but rather the inspire action in churches that can still be saved.
Throughout the book, Rainer highlights the gradual slide of a church: from a healthy church to a sick church, and from a sick church to a very sick church, and finally from a very sick church to a church that no longer exists. This slide took years, and was so gradual that most church leaders didn’t notice it until it was too late.
In each brief chapter, Rainer focuses on one characteristic of a deceased church. But all can be traced back to a single, deeper condition: an inward-focused church. All the churches Rainer examined had, in the declining years, turned their focus increasingly inward. They neglected the Great Commission and rejected the surrounding community, opting for keeping current members comfortable and happy.
Rainer provides a partial definition of a church, which is helpful in determining how and when a church dies:
“A church by definition is a body of believers who function for the greater good of the congregation.” (52)
This means that inward-focused churches are not only dying, they are also becoming something other than a church. Whether it looks more like a country club or a walled fortress, the dying church does not look like the bride of Christ. This also means that when a church turns it’s focus inward, it is on the path to death; it might take years before the doors are closed for good, but it is well on that path.
Several churches where I have served or worshipped have been on this spectrum, from slightly sick to dying. As I read this book, I could see exactly how several of these churches fit Rainer’s description. From an outsider’s view, the characteristics are clear; but for the members of the church, and even the leaders, this unhealthy, inward focus was a blind-spot.
The value of this book is not in helping dying churches; though Rainer writes to them directly in the last 5 pages, his advice is on how to die with dignity, passing on your building and remaining resources to another church. Instead, the value of this book is for leaders and members of sick and healthy churches. For healthy churches, leaders can use this book as a thermometer, making sure they stay healthy and not slipping into unhealthy territory. For sick churches, leaders should use this book like an outside consultant: telling you the harsh truth and giving advice on how to get healthy again.
In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer has done a service to the greater Church by drawing attention to the inward-focused tendencies that can kill a church. My prayer is that this little book will encourage church leaders to change their direction of decline, develop a renewed embrace of the Great Commission, and return the church to healthy.
- Title: Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive
- Author: Thom Rainer
- Publisher: B&H (2014)
- Format: Hardcover
- My Review: 4.5/5
Thanks to B&H for a review copy of this book!Tweet