In “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”, Thom Rainer seeks to warn churches about the signs of a church that is in danger of dying. To discern the marks of an unhealthy church, Rainer studies a multitude of deceased churches to find out why they died and use that research to help the many churches that have plateaued. Even healthy churches must be on the lookout for these signs of stagnation lest they be deceived into thinking everything is going fine when they are slowing declining. The author uses the story of how he returned to his hometown and was struck by how much the town had changed while those who lived there didn’t notice as a warning of how slow incremental change can blind us to the truth (12). Many plateaued churches do not realize the danger they are in or that they are showing signs of trouble. As many as 100,000 churches are showing signs of decline and are in danger of dying (7). Churches decline because they become inwardly focused instead of outwardly focused on reaching the community for Christ (22). Prayer and evangelism are not prioritized and selfish division divides and prevents the church from carrying out her God-given task.
The past becomes the hero as the members look to the “good old days” through nostalgia-tinted glasses rather than focusing on the present mission of the church and our responsibility to reach the lost for Christ. The community around the church changed while they remained the same. The church became “a fortress” where any change was strongly resisted (27). The budget moved inwardly rather than using church funds to help the community. These churches were not involved in local or world missions, and in dong so, forgot the great commission entirely (39). They were not willing to do the hard work of evangelism and so they died protecting their comfort (44).
The membership roles were filled with people who rarely ever came to church, but they made sure to come to the business meeting so that no changes could take place (48). Pastors came and went rather than having someone who the members could rely on. The Wednesday night prayer meeting was not emphasized and personal prayer was neglected. Rainer writes that “a failure to pray was tantamount to a failure to breath” (67). These churches had lost their way because they had lost their vision. They made the focus their facilities instead of the lostness of their community. They fought in church business meetings over the smallest changes and resisted moving toward changes that could have saved their life. They were collecting treasures on earth instead of laying up treasures in heaven (81).
But fortunately, Christ offers hope for dying churches and Rainer lays out twelve ways a church can recover and reach the lost for Christ. The church must dedicate itself to self-examination to discover what needs to be changed and pray for the courage to do it. They must evangelize their community and reach out to those in need. They must be willing to make hard decisions and pray for the strength to put that plan into action. They must be outwardly focused instead of inwardly focused and that takes the whole church working together for a common goal.
Rainer’s work is a reminder that churches die when they are not living in light of eternity. Churches need visionary leaders who can cast a vision and help the church trust in the Lord again (Prov 3:5). They must recover their first love (Rev 2:4). Pastors and teachers can be instruments of change in the hand of God by setting an example of what it looks like to witness about Christ to the community around them and by leading the people of God to embrace the vital importance of personal prayer. They must lead the church in works of service, evangelism, counseling, and model Christlikeness in their life and preaching. When the pastor gives sacrificially, the congregation is much more likely to respond to the call for change and outreach to see their friends and neighbors find the forgiveness that Christ offers in the gospel. May God use this book to give boldness and courage to his church for their good and Christ’s glory.