Thom Rainer. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. Nashville: B&H Books, 2014. 112 pp. $9.61.
Even before he led Lifeway Christian Resources, Thom Rainer spent years as a pastor, seminary professor, and church consultant. In those roles, Dr. Rainer gained a great deal of experience in balancing statistical analysis with real-life, anecdotal evidence to form solid conclusions about what is happening in the church and why. In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Dr. Rainer puts these skills to good use, helping pastors and church leaders to think about the kinds of symptoms that they need to look out for in order to help their churches avoid dangerous decline or even death.
For his latest book, Dr. Rainer looked at multiple churches that died. He analyzes their stories and shares with us a set of twelve common traits that he found in nearly every one of those churches. Those 12 traits are the things that church leaders want to learn to recognize and defend against as they work to serve their churches well.
I won’t spoil the book by listing the 12 traits here, but I will give a bit of simple praise. The things that Dr. Rainer has seen in the deceased churches he studied are very real, very dangerous tendencies that can crop up in the local church. One example would be an over-fascination with nostalgia. Many now dead churches went through a period of time where the people in the body pined for some period of strength in the church’s past rather than working to improve the present or press toward the future. Longing for the “good old days” is very easy, but it can be blinding, calcifying, and deadly.
I’ll give just one more example. In many of the deceased churches that Dr. Rainer studied, members obsessed over the facilities. If you have been in ministry, it is probably not hard to imagine how a church might grow to be more concerned about keeping a building or even a special room in the building perfectly preserved than it is about honoring God through worship, discipleship, and evangelism. It is also not hard to see how a church that goes down that path will find itself declining as it loves its property more than its Savior.
In the final chapters of the book, the author offers some suggestions for churches that find themselves in decline or near death. The advice is different depending on whether a church is a little sick, a lot sick, or about to die. However, in each, Dr. Rainer has some God-honoring and sometimes hard truth for the churches to consider.
I would happily recommend this work to any pastor or church leader. Autopsy of a Deceased Church has some solid challenges and very practical advice that pastors and other leaders can and should consider. I found myself especially challenged by the chapter on prayer (it seems that dying churches stop praying together too—no surprise). This book is short, easy-to-read, and helpful.