Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been cycles of life and death. Cycles of revival and decline are evident by their impact upon the culture around them—both good and bad.
What about individual churches? You can find similar cycles of revival and decline. Some churches seem to thrive, while others struggle to survive.
Is death and decline an inevitable destination for every church? Not if we're willing to learn from history.
Thom S Rainer's book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, doesn't sound like a fun read. I wouldn't call it fun, but it is enlightening, and in the end, encouraging.
I could easily see various churches I've known or been involved with that identified with Rainer's post-life church assessment. These are actual churches Dr Rainer worked with and knew.
He begins with a story of a church as if it had been a patient, in denial of her real condition. She no longer had vision and followed a familiar path to death. It's a sobering look at fourteen different churches who died. The author provides insights as to why, and later gives twelve responses to the question, "Is There Hope...?"
What is learned from the autopsy
All the insights Rainer writes about are helpful, but a few struck home in a sad way. He speaks of the Slow Erosion (Chap 2) that takes place, and of the inward and rigid focus a church develops.
In the The Past Is the Hero (Chap 3), a fixation develops on the "good old days." I've seen this too often in churches who experienced high points during the Jesus Movement, but this applies to other churches also. Rainer says this was the "most pervasive and common thread" in all of the autopsies, which created a backwards-looking vision.
This nostalgic, inward focus eventually leads to a church with ...No Clear Purpose (Chap 10). I've seen this way too often, churches that "do church," but have no clear direction or purpose except to exist.
Out of place and out of sorts
Rainer's small, succinct chapters yield insights into churches who didn't change, though the community around them did (Chap 4). Other churches rarely prayed together (Chap 9), and others became ...Obsessed Over the Facilities (Chap 11).
A chapter that struck a sad, familiar chord is where, The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission (Chap 6). As a missionary and pastor, this one grieves me the most. The focus of the church becomes so inward that the command to "Go!" is set aside and forgotten.
I see this in both a lack of local evangelistic outreach and disinterest in world missions. This is pervasive throughout America today, along with a diminished focus on discipleship and equipping God's people.
Another great insight looked at the life stages and decrease in pastoral tenure (Chap 8). Rainer lays out five general stages of relationship between a pastor and the church. From my own experience, I found these to be accurate and remember going through or seeing each stage.
Is there hope?
An autopsy isn't fun, unless you're a forensic doctor I guess. So the book doesn't end on a down note but with hope.
Rainer lays out twelve responses to give hope. These are laid out in three categories of churches— those with sick symptoms, very sick, and dying.
You might think the last category isn't going to have much hope, but you'd be wrong. It's all a matter of focus and perspective, which is lost in a sick or dying church.
I was sent this book by my friend, Pastor Bill Holdridge, who established Poimen Ministries, and graciously allows me to be part of this ministry to pastors and churches. He's seen all of this more than I have. If you're a pastor and concerned about the health of your church, I encourage you to contact Bill or any of us with Poimen Ministries.
So I recommend Dr Rainer's book for any pastor, no matter what your current role may be in church. It is well worth the read.
Here's a blog post of Dr Rainer's that echoes much of the same issues in his book– 8 Reasons Many Churches Are Living in the 1980's
Another resource I recommend is the blog of Pastor Karl Vaters, especially for pastors of small churches– New Small Church. Karl has a clear focus and purpose that is healthy and outward, and is a great encouragement to many.
If any of this post encourages you, or you see its value for someone else, please feel free to share it! Thanks for reading!