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.
The 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.
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.