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“Autopsy of a Deceased Church”

Thom Rainer’s book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” (2014), grew out of a popular blog post he wrote in 2013. In the book, Rainer looks at ten common traits of dying churches based on his research of deceased churches.

Rainer estimates, “As many as 100,000 churches in America are showing signs of decline toward death” (7). He estimates that only approximately 10% of churches in America are healthy, while 40% have symptoms of sickness, 40% are very sick, and 10% are dying (86).

Slow Erosion
Rainer talks about slow erosion, which “is the worst type of decline for churches, because the members have no sense of urgency or change … decline is everywhere in the church, but many don’t see it” (13).

The Past is the Hero
Rainer writes, “The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as the hero” (18). He adds, “Yes, we respect the past. At times we revere the past. But we can’t live in the past” (21).

The Church Refused to Look Like the Community
“When a church ceases to to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death” (28).

The Budget Moved Inwardly
“In dying churches the last expenditures to be reduced are those that keep the members comfortable” (33).

The money … was symptomatic of a heart problem. The church cared more for its own needs than the community and the world. And no church can sustain such an inward focus indefinitely. It will eventually die of heart failure. (36)

The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission
When Rainer looked at dying churches, he noticed “Obedience to the Great Commission faded; it usually faded gradually” (42). He notes these churches “chose not to remember what to do” (43).

Members of the dying church weren’t willing to go into the community to reach and minister to people. They weren’t willing to invite their unchurched friends and relatives. They weren’t willing to expend the funds necessary for a vibrant outreach. They just wanted it to happen. Without prayer. Without sacrifice. Without hard work. (44)

The Preference-Driven Church
“A church cannot survive long-term where members are focused on their own preferences” (49).

Pastoral Tenure Decreases
“The problem is that many good leaders are leaving churches before they reach their prime leadership years at a church” (55).

The Church Rarely Prayed Together
“Not coincidentally, prayer and the health of the church went hand in hand. When the church is engaged in meaningful prayer, it becomes both the cause and the result of greater church health” (66).

The Church Had No Clear Purpose
Rainer notes, “the dying churches, at some point in their history, forgot their purpose” (75).

The Church Obsessed Over the Facilities
“A number of the fourteen churches became focused on memorials” (79). Rainer adds, “Dying churches, more often than not, experience severe battles over facility obsession before their demise” (80). This is certainly not to say that facilities are unimportant. Rainer contends, “Being a good steward of those material things that God has given our churches is good. Becoming obsessed with any one item to the neglect of his mission is idolatry.” (80)

At the end of the book, Rainer offers twelve responses that may help churches that have symptoms of sickness, are very sick, or dying. The book is helpful for churches in any stage. For healthier churches, it’s a good reminder to stay alert and to avoid some of the pitfalls and slow erosion that can happen in the life of the church!

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