"Autopsy of a Deceased Church" by Thom S. Rainer. A Review
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In so many different ways death is a grievous event to be part of, whether it’s a pet, a parent, a companion or a congregation. But it is even graver when it is a death that might have been avoided. Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, describes the postmortem he performed on fourteen congregational corpses in his 112 page hardback, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive”. This little work moves quickly through fifteen concise chapters, keeping a reader engaged and deliberating. The book comes out in two uneven parts, the first eleven chapters cover the autopsy and the final three encompass hope.
In the first section of “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” Rainer takes the reader through the trademarks of decline that he has culled from interviews with previous church members. The pattern becomes speedily obvious: slow, almost imperceptible ingrownness among the members that stiffened into a rigidity and recalcitrance to adjustment, outreach or purposefulness. This showed up in how the members glamorized the past, responded in fear when the surrounding neighborhood changed, and engineering their budget around bolstering the inwardness of the congregation. Other items that evidenced the looming demise of a congregation had to do with shortened pastoral tenures, a lack of enthusiasm in corporate prayer, and infighting over some aspect of the church building. All of these items would capture a congregation over a series of years, but the results would be deadly, to the point that even “if the church began to grow on its own, the members of a dying church would only accept the growth if the new members were like them and if the church would continue to “do church” the way they wanted it” (44). Each of these chapters involves the reader in some written prayers, all of which reflect on the lesson of that particular chapter. Many of these prayers are priceless!
In the second, and final, section of “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” the author divides his 12 prescriptions between churches that show symptoms of sickness, congregations that are very sick, and those that are at death’s door. Rainer attempts to shine some hope into this mix, but the only real hope is for those parishes that show symptoms of being sick. Death at this point is avoidable, what a shame if those churches refuse to take remedial steps now!
As I have stated elsewhere, renewal programs come out of a specific ecclesial and sacramental framework. “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” is no different. The author’s diagnosis is processed through a Baptist grid, which is not meant as a slight in anyway. What it means is that the author identifies a dying congregation through a low-church and Zwinglian sacramental lens. For example, according to Rainer, a congregation’s liturgy (way of worship) must be subject to change to attract outsiders, and inflexibility in the area of worship ritual can be deadly; so change or die; “We are to do whatever it takes to seek the best for others and our church” (50). There is no wiggle room in the book’s analysis for those traditions that have deep theological reasons, hammered out over multiple centuries, for their set liturgy and way of worship.
At the end of the day “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” is a decent, though depressing book. From my experience with churches and pastors over the years, the various diagnoses seem right. If an elder board or leadership council is careful to read the book through their own distinctive theological matrix, then this book could be seriously profitable. And if the prayers at the end of all fifteen chapters are possessed and prayed at the heart-level, I imagine good things may well begin to take shape for a church. Pastors, heads of parish councils, and senior elders should head out this week and purchase copies for themselves and the other leaders in their church!
Many thanks to B & H Publishing and Net Galley for the free temporary e-copy of this book used for this review.
Feel free to publish, post or print this review; but as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike
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