Autopsy of a Deceased Church
Rainer, Thom S., Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 ways to Keep Yours Alive. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.
Biographical Sketch of the Author
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. Dr. Rainer graduated from the University of Alabama in 1977. He also earned a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the father of three adult sons and grandfather to 10. After graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he served at that seminary for twelve years as the dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. He then founded a consulting firm that provided insights to over 500 churches during the 20-year history of the Rainer Group. In addition to Autopsy of a Dead Church, Dr. Rainer has written more than a dozen books.1
Summary of the Contents
The first two chapters set the tone of the book. Jesus told Peter that the gates of Hades will not overpower Christ’s church, local churches do die while the universal church always lives. Dr. Rainer says that a church’s growth may be rapid, but its decline is usually very slow, therefore it may be imperceptible to those in the church.
In the next nine chapters he describes the symptoms that dead churches have prior to their death. The most common of these is that these dead churches lived for a long time with the past days being the hero. The second is that the church refused to look like the community. This is not referring to looking like the world in sin, but in the makeup of the persons in the community: race, age, sex, socially and economically. Everything began to move inwardly in these churches. This comes to the forefront in the budget of these churches, spending that goes outward is eliminated. This is also seen in the great commission mindedness of the church’s members. They wall themselves off from the community that the church is in, the spending money outside the church is eliminated, and all evangelism ceases.
These churches become about me, myself and I. Individuals fight over personal preferences and would rather see the church cease than give in to the preferences of another. So, first wall yourself off from the community, then wall yourself off from those who are in the church. With this the tenure of the Pastors begins to decrease. The congregation is unwilling or unable to change; therefore, the pastor either leaves or is fired after a couple of years.
The people in the church rarely if ever prayed together which also reveals the fact that they had no clear purpose for even existing as a church. Oh, they would pray before a meal, but would not pray for the mission of the church, the community or even for those in the church. Lastly, they became obsessed with the facilities. They memorialize the past; certain facilities that where associated with the past are held in high esteem while others go to rot.
The second section of the book deals with what to do if your church is showing symptoms of sickness, is very sick or is dying. Dr. Rainer says that 10% of churches are healthy, 40% have symptoms of sickness, 40% are very sick and 10% are terminal.
The church showing symptoms of sickness has the best chance of not dying with the right treatment. Pray that the Lord opens the eyes of the leadership and the members to reach into the community. Notice how the church members spend their time. Notice how the church spends its money. Make plans to evangelize the community taking others along with you.
The next advice is for the very sick church. The church must admit that it is in dire need. The church must pray for wisdom. The church must be willing to change. The change must be great commission and great commandment focused. If these do not happen a very sick church will become a terminal church.
The last advice is for the terminally ill church. Sell the property and give the funds to another church or give the building to a startup church that consist of people who actually live in the community. You could also merge with another growing church giving their leadership full authority over your persons and property. In other words, die graciously.
While I very much enjoyed this book and think that there are many insights written into it that we should pay attention too, there are a few things that concern me. Dr. Rainer is a wonderful brother in Christ, but his consulting mindset seems to be a little like an American businessman. A church is not a business no matter how businessmen try to make it out to be one. Businesses are in business to make money and grow. The Lord may cause a local church to grow for a time, but this is not the purpose of the local church. All local churches are temporal. The church of Jesus Christ is universal and eternal. The purpose of the local church is to grow the universal church.
If we want to study the church, we must always begin with Jesus words to Peter in Matthew 16:13-20. Who is Jesus? Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. (vs. 16) Jesus told Peter that this was revealed to him by the Father, not by flesh and blood. On this confession Jesus told Peter that he would build his church and nothing, not even the gates of death would overtake it; (vss. 17-20) in other words, the church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God would never die. I will not go in to the Catholic understand of this passage; however, even from their perspective it is understood that the church would never die.
Before his ascension Jesus promised the disciples the baptism of the Holy Spirit. From this we turn to Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost, the birth of the Christian church. Those who believed were baptized and added to the church. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NASB95) This is the picture of all healthy local churches; devoting themselves to scriptural teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
In conclusion, the point that I would like to make is that the church that was established on the day of Pentecost continues to live to this day, but the local church in Acts 2:42 that was devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer is no more; they are, however, memorialized for us in the book of Acts as an example.
Local churches from the first established church in Acts 2 to the local churches today were never intended to be eternal, it is the universal church that is eternal. The purpose of the local church is to make disciples, baptize them and teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded the first disciples; then they are to go out and do the same which means at some point that local congregation will be no more, but many new congregations will take its place.
1 About Thom S Rainer, cdli:wiki, https://thomrainer.com/about/.