By Thom S. Rainer
If your church was given a “physical exam” today, what do you think the doctor’s diagnosis would be: healthy, slightly sick, very sick, or dying? This short book is based on fourteen church ‘autopsies’ conducted by the author. The churches were denominationally and demographically different but similar by following paths that caused them to die. This book aims to be a cause for discussion rather than the last word on the subject.
Rainer notes that in all cases he studied, church decline was a slow process often unobserved by members. Chapters 3-11 then draw out some causes of death. The author observes that the most pervasive and common thread was “the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as a hero.” (p. 18) The dead churches had focused on what made them comfortable in the past (see Chapter 7 – The Preference-Driven Church).
Chapter 4 – The Church Refused to Look Like the Community – was particularly poignant and in most of the deceased churches “Those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than reaching residents of the community.” (p. 27) Chapter 9 – The Church Rarely Prayed Together – was also deeply convicting and an encouragement to think again about corporate prayer.
Chapters 12-14 ask if there is hope for the sick and dying church. These chapters “are more of a cry to God to intervene, and to create a willingness on the part of the church members to be obedient.” (p. 86) Each of these chapters has four responses which highlight the problems and act as pointers to potential solutions. The author recognises that only God can heal churches but “God usually works with a willing people, at least a willing leader.” (p. 94)
This short book makes for sad reading. It also offers glimmers of hope showing that humble followers of Jesus can move towards healthy local churches by focusing on some very ‘ordinary’ things.