Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer (B&H Books, May 2014)
An autopsy is an unpleasant thing. It is most often a sign that someone’s life did not end in a natural way. The necessity of an autopsy is an indication that there are questions that remain unanswered.
Christ did not intend for His churches to die. The death of the church is the result of sin and neglect. In his book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer serves as a pathologist, conducting a post-mortem on churches that have died in unnatural ways.
Rainer’s dissection reveals 10 symptoms which led to the untimely demise of the houses of worship studied on his examination table. I found these observations to be beyond sobering. Toxic poisons are present at different stages of their terminal work in many of the churches I have observed. Rainer has analyzed these cancerous conditions and the disastrous effects they leave behind.
Most disturbing is how many of these ailments are silent killers. They often lie dormant for years. When they do surface, they often fester slowly, eating away the health of the church. Those who comprise the church are under attack from foreign invaders, and yet go through the motions with no knowledge that they are rapidly dying.
Rainer conducted his research with churches who have already succumbed to the poisons that infiltrated their body. The members, now separated from the body, are left to consider what tore them apart. Many of their symptoms are easy to recognize as the autopsy progresses.
For example, in churches that have met their doom the past was celebrated as a hero. The church’s identity was tied to the things that had once given cause for celebration. However, the fixation on the past resulted in neglect of things important for the future.
Dead churches refuse to adapt to the world around them. Many were located in communities that changed. The people who lived near the churches were different from those in the church. At the same time, church members moved away from the church to get away from the changing neighborhood. Over time, the church became deserted.
As the demographics around them changed, their budgets focused more and more away from their community. Seeing no reason to invite those in their community into the church, the congregations invested more in themselves. Their needs reigned supreme and, therefore, the work of the Great Commission was nowhere to be found. Instead of striving to live by the commission given by the Savior, the church set their sights on their own preferences. They were not focused on the work of the Kingdom.
With this mindset in place, leadership was hard to maintain and pastoral turnover was frequent. The church that died rarely prayed together. It was simply not important. Without prayer and with short-term leadership, churches who were once alive had no vision.
There was no purpose in their decisions as they simply went through the motions. While there were no wise plans for ministry, the facilities of these churches became their obsession. Some even split over minor disputes involving their facilities.
The autopsy report is definitive. Neglect and poor priorities are lethal to a church. With the examination complete, Rainer poses a question: Is there hope for dying churches? Not every church is at the same place in their decay. Therefore, Rainer offers four responses for each stage of the decline of a church. He encourages his readers with responses based on whether a church is showing signs of sickness, deeply in the throes of illness or audibly exhaling a death rattle. These responses are helpful, serving as good medicine for ill churches. I will let you read the book to discover your diagnosis and consider Rainer’s prescription.
Autopsy of a Deceased Church is a brief but terribly solemn read. My thoughts were drawn to the church I pastor. Could there be places where we are allowing a terrible poison to seep into our body? Are there areas that we have neglected and by doing so exposed ourselves to an infection that could one day cause our body to fail? Christ’s church is a living thing designed to grow and be vibrant. Autopsy of a Deceased Church serves as a good reminder that we must guard ourselves, watch our priorities and be about the work of the Kingdom. If we are not, our church may find itself on the cold slab of the autopsy table.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard, Connelly Springs.)