Book Review: Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.  Hb. 112 pages, $12.99   Link

Thom Rainer is a well-known Church Growth and Sunday School expert with years of experience in ministry and a number of books to his credit. This short book deals with an very important issue for American churches, why are many Churches dying? Rainer offers a series of reasons and some proposals for how to deal with seriously ill and dying churches. Each chapter concludes with a short “prayerful commitment” and a few questions for further thought. These questions frequently return to the text of the New Testament and ask how the Bible can be used to evaluate the present church.

Autopsy Thom RanierThe first two chapters make a simple point: many churches in America are dying. Rainer claims this number to be as high as 100,000. A Google search will turn up a number of similar estimates for how many churches close each year. Despite a large number of new churches planted each year, few observers of the American church landscape will dispute Rainer’s point. The main theme of this book is “Decline is not an event, it is a process.” Rarely does a church have something so traumatic happen that is suddenly shuts its doors. The process is so slow it is usually not noticed until it is too late.

The bulk of the book is a series of nine indications that something is wrong. Some of these are very obvious – churches that live in the past are usually churches in decline. Ralph Neighbour wrote a little paperback in 1979 with a similar theme: The Seven Last Words of the Church. Those words were “we never did it that way before.” When a church idolizes the past and ceases to reach out to their community, the church marginalizes itself and risks decline and death. Several of Rainer’s chapters deal with this inward focus. First, there is no evangelism, so there are no new members. Churches without active evangelism tend to remember the “good old days” when the church did have evangelistic crusades. Second, a church in decline has an inward-focused budget. Rather than investing in ministry and evangelism, the church cuts money for outreach. Often budget decisions support the church facility rather than the ministry of the church. When the church building becomes more important than the church mission, the church is most likely already dead.

Three of Rainer’s chapters concern spiritual matters. First, a church that does not pray is in grave danger. Here he has a good scriptural foundation, since there are many examples of churches fasting and praying in the New Testament. Second, a church that has no clear purpose is likely in decline but does not know it yet. A church that does not have a clear purpose has no way to know they are not meeting their objectives! A symptom of this lack of purpose is a “preference driven church.” Most people who have attended Church regularly know that any change to a program will be met with strong resistance by those who prefer things to remain the same.(Go ahead and put drums on the stage, see how people react to that!)

It is not all bad news. Rainer offers three chapters for churches that only have a few of the symptoms described in the book, for churches that are very sick, and for churches that are dying. Sadly, there are churches that are too far gone and need to die. Rainer suggests a few steps that will help the church “die with dignity.”  I realize the book is a short set of reflections on the decline of churches, but I think that each of the last three chapters deserve much more attention. Perhaps there is a need for the American church to have a manual on how to let a church die in a way that provides life for another new Church.

Conclusion. This is a short, inexpensive book. I can see church boards purchasing copies for each member and working through the chapters for a few weeks, using the discussion questions to evaluate their own church. In fact, I would highly recommend to Pastors and Church Boards to read through this little book together and honestly discuss Rainer’s points, whether their church is doing well or obviously in decline.  While it is true some churches need to die, it is not too late to begin a revival.

Thom Rainer has a very active website / blog. B&H has produced a “book trailer” for Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

NB: Thanks to Broadman & Holman for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church

  1. Thanks for reviewing this book, Phillip. I like to keep up some on the “dying churches” issue. In my observation (relatively stronger re. theology than the other dynamics), the resistance-to-change issue is a big factor for both conservative and mainline (or more “liberal”) churches. It takes different forms and, theologically might have seemingly opposite directions. What I mean is that, in very broad terms, I’m convinced conservative churches need to “universalize” their theology quite a bit, especially on issues of “the Gospel” (personal and corporate “salvation”).

    At the same time, liberal churches need to “spiritualize” their theology a lot… seeking a more enlivened, spiritually-seeking-and-engaged community life and worship. The theological system enabling both “sides” of the spectrum to do what will bring new life and vitality, I believe is laid out well in Process theology. It deals particularly well with the “big picture” issues of the nature of God, Creation, the Bible, Incarnation, etc. About these issues most churches (and individuals) do not do consistent and deep thinking. What I consider the best book on practical church life growing out of this perspective in general, of which I’m aware, is “Integral Christianity” by Paul Smith, which I’ve reviewed on my blog.

    • My guess is that Rainer has in mind only conservative, probably Baptist churches rather than mainline denominations. Other than I know a bit about the guy and it was published by Broadman and Holman, the book has no sense of denominational responsibility. Most larger denominations on the left of center know where their churches are in decline and manage that decline at the denominational level, not the parish level.

      You are right, though. the more conservative the church is, the more likely they will be overly dogmatic and stuck in the past with respect to their distinctive theological views. (More or less, “we are the last faithful Christians in the world even if there are only 10 of us left!”) In my city, the more liberal churches are almost non-theological and very socially active. The opposite would be true for the conservative.

      So I suppose they could meet in the middle, but neither considers the other to be “real Christians”!

  2. Phillip

    I have a challenge with Rainer implying “Today’s Religious System” is dying because they Do NOT – “Go and Make Disciples.”

    Mat 28:19:20 NKJV
    Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…
    **teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you**

    Seems easy enough, read the four Gospels, even make a list. Observe, Teach, what Jesus Did, Taught, and Commanded His Disciples. Observe, Teach, what His Disciples Did and Taught.

    BUT – I’ve noticed, Rainer, and Most pastor/leaders, Today, *Ignore* or *Twist* what Jesus Did and Taught and Commanded His Disciples. And, What His Disciples “Observed Jesus doing” and what they Did and Taught.

    Here is some of what Jesus taught “His Disciples” that, for the most part, Rainer is NOT challenging “Today’s Religious System” to Observe, and Teach. Oy Vey!!!

    1 – NOT to be called teacher for you have “ONE” teacher, Christ. Mt 23:8 NKJV
    2 – NOT to be called leader for you have “ONE” leader, Christ, Mt 23:10 NASB
    …. And, NOT one of His Disciples called them self Leader.
    3 – ALL shall be taught of God. Jn 6:45 KJV
    …. John, the apostle, taught, “you need NO man teach you.”
    4 – ALL things, shall be taught you by the Holy Spirit, God. Jn 14:26
    …. Paul taught, the Gospel he preached was from God, NOT from man.
    5 – ALL truth, will come as the Spirit of truth guides and leads. Jn 16:13
    6 – Jesus, as man, does nothing of himself, and is taught of God. Jn 8:28
    7 – Jesus is the “ONE” Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. Jn 10:11-16.
    …. And, NOT one of His Disciples had the “Title” – shepherd/leader/reverend.
    8 – He who speaks of himself seeks his own glory. ( Titles/Position?) Jn 7:18.
    …. And, NOT one of His Disciples called themself – pastor/leader/reverend.
    9 – If I honour myself, my honour is nothing. (Titles/Position?) Jn 8:54
    10 – Peter, knowing Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God,
    …. received *the revelation* from Father *God,* and NOT from man. Mt 16:17
    …. NOT from Jesus, as man. Jesus gave “All” the glory, all the credit to God.
    11 – Jesus said, “I am among you as he that serves.”“ Lu 22:27
    12 – Jesus said, “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Mt 23:12.
    …. Humble – A modest or low opinion of one’s own importance.
    …. And, ALL His Disciples called themselves “Servants.”

    And Jesus, taught a lot in the Streets and had His Disciples DO what He DID, in the streets. “And He sent them out to preach the kingdom and Heal the sick.” Luke 9:2.

    Don’tcha think? It’s Kinda hard for those who call themselves teachers/leaders, to Make Disciples of Jesus. Because, Jesus taught His Disciples NOT to be called teacher, and NOT to be called leader.

    If someone “Ignores” what Jesus taught His Disciples? If some one “Opposes” what Jesus taught His Disciples? And, calls them self leader? And allows others to call them leader?

    Are they one of His Disciples?

    • Thanks for the comment. I will point out, however, Rainer is not talking about the death of “Today’s Religious System,” but individual churches, and given his theological context, he really only has in mind conservative churches. You should go to Rainer’s website and ask him this question directly.

  3. Phillip

    Thanks for the response…

    In your response you write…
    “Rainer is not talking about the death of
    “Today’s Religious System,” but individual churches.”

    And, in your review you write…
    “Rainer claims this number to be as high as 100,000.”
    That’s a lot – Yes? Rainer also says – Often, this death is a good thing. – Yes?

    So, Maybe – maybe NOT – this is the death of a religious system.

    The 501 (c) 3, Non-Profit, Tax $ Deductible, Religious $ Corporations,
    That the IRS calls church.

    Sould one of His Disciples call an IRS Corporation – His Church? The Church?

    But, even if we’re looking at individual IRS Corporations…

    Are these individual IRS Corporations?
    Following the instructions Jesus gave His Disciples? To make Disciples?

    How many today? – Observe? Teach? What Jesus taught His Disciples?

    Jesus taught – There is “ONE” Shepherd – “ONE” Teacher – “ONE” Leader…

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  4. Phillip

    And I have mentioned these things to Rainer…
    Seems he does NOT like to answer the questions asked… 😉
    Most who call themselves leaders today do NOT like the questions asked…

    If someone “Ignores” what Jesus taught His Diciples?
    If some one “Opposes” what Jesus taught His Diciples?

    And, calls them self leader?
    And allows others to call them leader?

    Are they one of His Disciples? – Oy Vey!!! – Let’s ignore this question…

    Why isn’t what Jesus said important? 😉

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    **THEIR shepherds** have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    I’m Blest… I’ve returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of my soul…

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

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