Autopsy of a Deceased Church, by Thom S Rainer

Autopsy of a deceased church resizedWhen evangelical churches are often seen as the hope for Protestant Christianity, a Southern Baptist writing about dying congregations is sobering.

Rainer is a church consultant with broad experience of working with congregations. He was previously founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth and member of the Faculty of (Southern Baptist) Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has good, solid, evangelical credentials.

In this review, I outline, and (occasionally) rephrase his ideas, and make a few comments of my own.

Starting with a story about a patient he had known, Rainer talks of her autopsy. He notes how autopsies can help us to learn exactly why death occurred, can teach us about what the still living ought to avoid and give the living motivation to make changes to promote their quality of life and avoid the causes of death identified in the autopsy. Only then does he reveal that the patient he spoke of was a congregation.

Part 1 identifies and notes ten causes of death in congregations.

  1. Slow erosion. In these cases, those involved hardly perceive the imperceptible decline.
  2. The past is the ‘hero’. Such congregations tend to be slowly eroding and are not very good a remembering the future (to use Robert Schnase’s term). They tend to focus on their own needs and have to learn how to let go and where to let go.
  3. Refusing to look like the community. These congregations expect people coming along to like what they like, are usually subject to a slow erosion and become fortresses. He notes a formula: putting others first = life; putting ourselves first = death. Such congregations are pre-occupied with self-preservation.
  4. Inwardly-focussed budget. Rainer says “where the money goes, there goes the heart.” Clergy and staff tend to be seen as the congregation’s care-takers. His question is, what do you do with the money?
  5. The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission. Nostalgia is fine, in itself. It is not fine when we act as if the past is still here. Rainer points to the key need to make disciples. If this is not in place, then there are consequences. Unfortunately, there is often a desire that the disciples made will be like us and will keep things the way we like them to be.
  6. The church becomes preference-driven. In this case, “my, my, my” is always there, even if not consciously noted: my music style, my length and type of service, for instance. This is characterised by the formula noted above: putting others first = life; putting ourselves first = death.
  7. Pastoral tenure decreases. Under this heading, Rainer talks of the pattern of increasing disillusionment of pastors (the usual American term for Protestant clergy). Where pastors stay for longer periods, the pastors usually adopt the position of the people, take the path of least resistance and the ministry often ends with their retirement.
  8. The church rarely prayed together. Rainer says that meaningful group prayer and health of a congregation go hand in hand. He says, “No prayer, no hope.”
  9. The church had no clear purpose. There is a need to answer the question, “Why are we here?” People from dead churches noted when they looked back they saw themselves as “going through the motions.” In the U.S.A. last year, one of my United Methodist friends quoted a speaker who said, you need to be able to answer three questions for yourself, “Why Jesus? Why the church? Why this church?”
  10. The church became obsessed with facilities.

In Part 2, Rainer asks the question, “Is there any hope for a dying church?”

He emphasises that there are no easy fixes or fail-safe recipes. He says the responses are more of a cry to God for help and for God to create a willingness on the part of members to be obedient.

He names four categories of churches. I find it very sobering that an evangelical Southern Baptist should estimate that about 10% of churches are healthy; 40% have symptoms; 40% are very sick; and 10% are dying. These are his figures for the USA; however, they are striking nonetheless and I doubt they differ much in Australia.

Given his emphasis in the book, Rainer pays attention to the last three.

Churches with Symptoms of Sickness.

Examples of these symptoms are:

  • • The best days are in the past,
  • • A decline in worship attendance,
  • • Leaders stop looking at numbers,
  • • Ministry focuses on existing members,
  • • There is a lot of busyness, not all with a clear purpose,
  • • The pattern is: doing what has always been done.

Rainer identifies four life-promoting responses.

  1. Pray that God will open the leadership and members to see opportunities to reach into the community. This avoids becoming inwardly-focussed.
  2. Take an honest audit of how members spend their time. If every ounce of energy is spent in keeping things going at the church, there will be little energy for community outreach.
  3. Take an audit of how the church spends its money. There needs to be a balance of one’s own and others’ needs.
  4. Make specific plans to minister to and evangelise in the community.

Those churches that are very sick

Like people, churches that ignore their symptoms risk becoming dangerously sick.

Usually, these churches exhibit at least three of:

  • Significant numerical decline
  • Prolonged apathy
  • The church is not known in the community
  • New members are rare
  • There is a revolving door of pastors
  • The good old days are usually twenty years or more ago.

Again, Rainer identifies four responses, if the hope held is not to be false hope.

  1. Admit and confess the dire need.
  2. Pray for wisdom and strength to do whatever is necessary.
  3. A willingness to change radically.
  4. Change must lead to action and an outward focus.

Dying churches

Also like people, churches facing death often deny the reality. Then often comes resentment.

The church God established will not die and no-one wants churches to die, but they do – or, at least, individual congregations do. There are examples from Christian history. We have had them in WA.

Rainer points to four responses for death with dignity. Here, he refers to a system where each congregation owns the church building, unlike in the Uniting Church WA, where all property is in the hands of the Property Trust.

  1. Sell and give the funds to another church.
  2. Give the building to another church.
  3. If in a transitional neighbourhood, give the building to local residents.
  4. Merge with another church.

In the Uniting Church, we would have to re-frame these options. However, the need to let go and allow for change is still there in the case of congregations that simply cannot go on as independent entities.

Each chapter has a prayer commitment and questions for further thought.

This is a short, though very challenging book, whatever theological perspective is brought to it. However, by the grace of God, it offers congregations ways to look at themselves that allows for insight and offers motivation for them to make decisions about the future rather than just letting the future happen.

It fascinates me that when I have raised some of these issues, I am seen as a pessimist. I found a surprising reluctance to engage deeply with the work of Keith Suter for example, as well (see Rainer does not enter into that discussion: his aim is to encourage churches to face reality and to seek life.

Rainer’s book raises questions in my mind about denominations and their responses to change – perhaps we can learn things at a wider level than just the congregational.

Perhaps a work like Rainer’s will help some of us – whatever our theological perspective – to re-think the future, to depend on God, and to be open to what God is doing and waiting for us to join in, to paraphrase Rowan Williams.

Ian Tozer


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