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Book Review: Autopsy of a Deceased Church

"Autopsy of a Deceased Church": It’s just a little book — only 96 small pages. You can read it in one sitting. But it has an extra-large message. Churches in America are dying, losing members and closing their doors. Why? Is there a set of common characteristics of these dying institutions?
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It’s just a little book — only 96 small pages. You can read it in one sitting. But it has an extra-large message. Churches in America are dying, losing members and closing their doors. Why? Is there a set of common characteristics of these dying institutions?

This question intrigued Thom Rainer1Thom Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among LifeWay’s products is WordSearch, a Bible study software program we have used for years. and he set out to research it. To write the book, he spent several years interviewing people formerly associated with churches that had died. He found some predictable patterns.

One of the author’s most disquieting observations is that many of the dying churches did not think they had a problem.Dying, death, autopsy. These are not uplifting words that we choose to dwell on willingly. Medical science employs autopsies to determine why something died, with an eye toward preventing future deaths. Should we do the same to prevent our ecclesias from suffering similar fates? Is it possible that parallels can be drawn between the churches of other denominations and Christadelphians? Is it time for us to sit up and notice the health of our ecclesias? Perhaps.

One of the author’s most disquieting observations is that many of the dying churches did not think they had a problem. Maybe they just hadn’t taken the time and effort to assess the wellbeing of their organizations. But if they didn’t know they were sick, no one could prescribe medication. Without a checkup, a treatment plan couldn’t be formulated.

Not all situations discussed in the book are relevant to Christadelphians, but there are enough intersections to cause us to ponder. We could also extend the applicability of the book’s findings beyond just the single ecclesial level. The same principles are just as applicable to groups in our community at large: a Bible School board, a reunion committee or even a magazine publishing association. What follows are the take-aways from the book we found most useful.

Dying or dead churches resist change. Rather than merely respecting the past, they revere it. They respond to forces that attempt to implement change (even in small matters) with fear and determination to maintain the status quo. Sure, there are plenty of memories of good times appropriate to recollect. And, particularly for Christadelphians, there are doctrines and First Principles that must be left unchanged. But what about worship rituals, dress codes, fixed dates and times, music selections, who does what jobs, or even non-essential Biblical interpretations? Many a new idea has been squashed by the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way committee (AKA the “wet-blanket faction”). In these situations, we should consider what happens to the morale of the folks making the suggestions.

Deceased churches often put the comfort needs of their members first. They looked inwardly rather than outwardly. A suggestion to “follow the money” sheds light on a group’s first priority. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:21 NASB). When the bulk of the budget concerns provision for the physical ease of the congregation, it’s an indication of a sick or dying church. Comfy pew cushions, state of the art audio-visual equipment, elevators, fancy kitchens — these are all lovely fixtures to have, but not at the expense of other activities.

This brings us to a third point. Providing for the comfort of church members often crowds out other works, such as concern for the surrounding community or implementing the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15 NASB). Is there no money left over for assistance to the neighbors? Or for preaching efforts? Have we gotten our name out to the people of the community? Some of the subject churches actually made themselves like a fortress against the outside community. They projected a very unwelcoming image. Can the philosophy of “Be not of the world” be carried to the extent that we no longer care for our fellow man?

The final relevant (and again, surprising) issue the book uncovered concerned the prayer life of the church. Prayers in the dead churches had become perfunctory and clichéd. We hope that the public prayers we give are always powerful and intentional. Do we ever have communal prayers? A Prayer Day? Do we pray for the health of our ecclesia? What about the community we live in or our political leaders? Are our prayers specific to the needs of an individual member? Are there prayers for membership growth in our community? Do we passionately praise God for all the blessings he extends to us? “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (Jas 5:16 NASB). Or do we say ritualistic words in habitual situations?

It’s been five years since Thom Rainer published his little book. He writes in his blog (ThomRainer.com) that he was “stunned” at the response to his work. In time, with so many comments from readers, he drew an additional conclusion. Far from being a depressing analysis of church demise, his book became a challenge to readers to keep their churches alive. A church (ecclesia, Bible School, reunion effort) doesn’t have to die.

Change is hard for institutions. It’s not easy to move the fixed habits and ideas of a group. But change happens, whether we like it or not. We can choose to stick with the evolutionary type of change, the one universally associated with decline. Or we can control the change and deliberately implement strategic plans to benefit our spiritual health. As we sing in our beloved Hymn 405, “We make the answer now.”

Melinda and Kevin Flatley,
(Pittsburgh, PA)

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