Disclaimer: This book was provided to the reviewer and came without the obligation of a positive review or for other compensation.
Thom Rainer is a well respected observer of the American Church… at least that part which is amenable to being categorized, surveyed, and able to be statistically observed. While that subset may not be entirely representative of the Body of Christ in the United States, his insights reflect the fruit of commissioned studies brought to maturity in the matrix of a pastor’s heart. “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive” is a short but helpful survey of the ills that – by Rainer’s count – plague 90% of America’s congregations to some degree!
Were a church autopsy like a human’s, the cause of death might be listed as “self-inflicted wounds” or, perhaps, “overdose of painkillers”. The ills enumerated in these pages amount to variations on the common theme long ago termed the “incurvatus in se”, that vicious ingrown turning of the soul to it’s own ends, that self-service that seeks to smother the love of God and others as distractions in the quest to please itself alone. The death of a church, in other words, is often a failure in corporate sanctification as much as anything else.
The painkillers used to slowly kill the church were embraced – as after an auto accident – as ways to numb legitimate pain. In the end, the strategies to escape pain become the crutch that, over time, is accepted in preference to actual fitness. No matter the symptom most prominent as the congregation slinks towards death – idolizing the past, idolizing a building, failing to reach the community, or prayerlessness – each reflects a rejection of Christ’s call to make disciples in the present (Matt. 28:18-20) and not grow weary in the work of the kingdom (Gal. 6:9).
Rainer estimates (p. 86) that only 10% of America’s congregations are “healthy”. At the other extreme 10% are actively dying. 40% have “symptoms of sickness”. The final 40% are “very sick”. If Rainer’s estimates are correct, it means America’s pastors and church members are – by and large – more familiar with the spiritual dysfunction of the church than what it means to be a healthy church. No wonder our culture seems to find so little to admire in the Church as a result. The worship of personal preference over God’s will also explains the phenomenon of “call committees” loudly announcing they are ready for new “leadership”, while secretly adding the proviso “as long as they lead according to our every whim!”
After vividly describing the effects of original sin manifested as congregational self-centeredness, Rainer does offer some hope. The categories of “Symptomatic”, “Very Sick”, and “Dying” are each given appropriate counsel. Though some churches can do little more than “get their affairs in order” and die purposefully, 80% may be able to do something about their condition. That number is deceptive, however. A number as high as “eighty” seems to imply that solutions are found easily, implemented quickly, and complied with fully. They are not.
Given the book’s brevity, it serves to highlight the problem, suggest broad solutions, and provide a warning to any church that will listen. It’s “solutions” are suggestive. The congregation, once warned and pointed in the right direction, will have to find other appropriate resources for reversing the inward curvature of their corporate soul.
If 90% of the population were told they’d been exposed to, and may be affected by, some potentially deadly virus, a panic would ensue. Medical offices would be overflowing with patients wanting to know if they displayed the symptoms of impending doom, and how they might stay alive. No similar frenzy seems to characterize the sessions, councils, vestries, or deacon boards of America’s congregations despite long term “exposure” to the malady that leads to a congregation’s spiritual death. Such ambivalence is a pity to be sure!
Rainer’s book is short, easy to read, and painfully clear. If his numbers bear the slightest relation to reality, the lay leaders and pastors of every congregation should read, discuss, and implement their findings based on reading “Autopsy”. Rainer could, of course, be wrong. Unfortunately too many churches sound exactly like the dying ones he describes – and they have for at least a generation!
Note: This review was originally published at Chuck Colson’s WorldViewChurch.org which has since gone offline. It is republished by the author.