Book Review: Autopsy of a Deceased Church, by Thom Rainer
Thom S. Rainer. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2014. 102 pp. $12.99, Hardback.
Churches across North America are dying at an alarming rate. Approximately 100,000 churches are in a downward spiral that will likely result in death unless something drastic changes. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, approximately 70-75% of churches are plateaued or declining while another 10-15% are at risk of shutting their doors permanently. For Christians, these aren’t merely statistics; these are congregations that are failing to display the transforming power of the gospel, as well as reach their communities with the good news of Jesus.
In an effort to reverse this trend, Thom Rainer, the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, has written a short and accessible book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. His aim is to help pastors and members of these ailing churches to recognize their need for revitalization and implement the necessary changes to avoid death.
While autopsies are never pleasant, they can reveal vital information that benefits those still living. This is the premise of Rainer’s book. He examined fourteen churches that are deceased in order to determine their cause of death. These examinations, then, function like an autopsy. They reveal the factors that contributed to these churches’ deaths in hopes that they will serve as a warning to others following the same trajectory.
Autopsy of a Deceased Church is divided into two main parts. The first part, “The Autopsy,” outlines the misplaced priorities of these deceased churches. This section comprises the majority of the book and lists ten common factors that these former churches exhibited. The second part, “Is There Hope for the Dying Church,” lists some solutions that might revitalize a declining church. Each chapter ends with a prayerful commitment, which specifically states how the reader can pray for his or her church. Each also includes some discussion questions that provoke the church member to honestly evaluate the condition of his or her church.
Rainer’s book has many strengths. Perhaps the most beneficial was his emphasis on the necessity of prayer. In fact, Rainer devotes chapter 9, “The Church Rarely Prayed Together,” exclusively to this subject. He correctly pointed out that, “a failure to pray [is] tantamount to a failure to breathe” (67). Churches must pray together regularly if they’re going to experience health and vitality. And they must pray according to the New Testament paradigm. Many churches fail to do this and instead fall into a ritualistic pattern of prayer, which lacks the fervency of the early church. Consequently, they experience the negative repercussions for neglecting such an important duty. This emphasis on prayer demonstrates that church revitalization is ultimately a work of the Spirit, and not an entrepreneurial endeavor.
While much of the book was negative (after all, it’s difficult to be positive when describing why churches die), Rainer does provide hope in the second part of his book. It’s possible for a church, by the grace of God, to avoid death. Though not exhaustive or easy to implement, Rainer offers practical steps a struggling church can take to move in a more biblical direction.
Another strength of this book is its accessibility and concision. Additionally, Rainer’s tone is pastoral throughout. He is careful to present this difficult information in a way that’s unlikely to offend. Put another way, it’s clear Rainer takes no pleasure in conducting these autopsies, but only does so in order that dysfunctional churches might be reclaimed for the glory of God.
While there’s much to commend in this book, a couple criticisms are in order. However, before doing so, I would like to say that I deeply respect Dr. Rainer and appreciate his contributions to helping pastors and the local church. My church and I have benefitted from reading both his books and his blog.
On a couple of occasions, Rainer’s exegesis seemed questionable. It seems he used a biblical account as anecdotal evidence to support his point, rather than uncovering the original meaning of the text. For example, in Chapter 2, Rainer explains that one factor contributing to the death of many churches is “slow erosion,” phrase that describes a church that’s unaware of its decline because the change is so gradual. He argues this tendency is also found in the first chapter of Haggai. However, in that account, the reason God’s people failed to rebuild the temple was because of their selfish interests, not their lack of perception (see Hag. 1:4, 9). While some might see this reading as harmless, this approach to Scripture muddies the way a church member should read and understand the Bible.
The goal of examining these deceased churches was to discover why they died. However, I’m not convinced the real reason was uncovered. Most, if not all, of the tendencies described in the first part of the book are characteristics of unregenerate church members. Selfishness, fear, idolatry, and refusing to serve and love others describe those who do not know God. These factors are merely symptomatic of a much deeper problem. If so, then the solution is not merely a change in external behavior, but rather a heart that is twice-born. Declining churches need to recover the gospel message afresh and reinstate regenerate church membership, if they are ever going to thrive.
In conclusion, Autopsy of a Deceased Church is a practical book written for the average church member in a struggling church. Though other books may present more theological and comprehensive plans for helping a pastor move a congregation toward health, this book could be used to help a congregation identify patterns of sin and provoke them to repentance.
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 Rainer cites this statistic on page 7 as well as in his book, Breakout Churches.
 North American Mission Board, “Replant,” http://www.namb.net/replant/.