Have you ever been part of a dying church? I have. I was raised in a dying church. So it was with great interest that I agreed to read and review Thom Rainer’s new book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

Rainer’s book is the result of the study of 14 dying churches to see what went wrong. The book is an expanded version of a blog post that Rainer wrote on his website last year. In it, Rainer considers what common factors these churches had and what steps can be taken to save a dying church.

What was most interesting to me was the strongest common thread that all the autopsied churches shared: their past was their hero.

The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.”

And they did.

Hear my clearly: these churches were not hanging on to biblical truths. They were not clinging to clear Christian morality. They were not fighting for primary doctrines, or secondary doctrines, or even tertiary doctrines. As a matter of fact, they were not fighting for doctrines at all.

They were fighting for the past. The good old days. The way it used to be. The way we want it today. (18)

This was the story of my dad’s first pastorate after seminary. It was an older church, by American standards. Founded in 1932 on the east side of Houston near the ship channel, it had once been a very large and thriving church. In its prime it had boasted 2000 members. The buildings were impressive. The sanctuary was huge with a large balcony, designed to hold those 2000 people. There was a large gym, classrooms, offices, a large kitchen and fellowship hall, nursery, and a library.

When my dad was first called to the church in 1983, the once vibrant church had dwindled to 150-200 members on the rolls. With only 100-125 in regular attendance, the large sanctuary always looked empty. The buildings were expensive to maintain and were showing their age and the neglect of not having the funds to keep them in good repair. But the congregation, especially those who could remember they “way things used to be,” didn’t want to let go. The church was dying, the buildings were an albatross dragging it down, and no one was interested in changing.

The second major point that Rainer makes in his book is that these dying churches no longer looked like the communities around them.

Here’s the typical scenario I heard. In the “good old days” the church was booming as residents in the community flocked to the church. The church was a part of the community and it reflected the community.

Then the community began to change. In some cases the change was ethnic or racial. In other cases it was age-related. And sometimes it was simply socioeconomic change. …

Some of the younger generations left town completely. Others stayed in the areas, but they found churches where their homes were. They did not see the point in driving to a transitioned community that had no identity with the church.

So the church began its death march. Family by family the church declined. Of course, the membership of the church grew older. Those who once lived in the community represented the oldest of the members, and no younger families replaced them. (25-26)

This was also part of the church where I grew up. The congregation was predominately older Caucasians living in an increasingly young Hispanic area. Now, to their credit, some in the church wanted to reach out to the community, and they had some success. The younger people in the church did reflect the changing neighborhood, and many in the church were welcoming of that change. My dad, a bilingual/bicultural pastor, was a good choice for bridging the gap between the two demographics. But there were some in the church who would greet Hispanic visitors by telling them they wanted to go to the church down the street where they would fit in better. They were not interested in the church changing to reflect the community around them. They lived in the past.

Rainer goes on to explain the other findings from the 14 church autopsies: budget inwardly focused, a lack of evangelism and outreach, short pastoral tenures, no desire to change, and little interest in praying together. The common thread in all of this, according to Rainer, is an increasing “inward focus” and a decreasing “outward focus.” The churches were more concerned with their own comfort and preferences (buildings, programs, needs) than with reaching out to those around them and meeting their needs.

The ministries and programs for these churches tend to be shifting more and more for members of the congregation rather than those on the outside. In simple terms, the church is moving from an outward focus to an inward focus. (87)

But the book does not end there with the bad news. Rainer moves on to give his recommendations for how to save a dying church. For churches that are sick, but not dying, Rainer offers four suggestions:

  1. Pray that God will open the eyes of the leadership and members for opportunities to reach into the community where the church is located.

  2. Take an honest audit of how church members spend their time being involved.

  3. Take an audit of how the church spends its money.

  4. Make specific plans to minister and to evangelize your community. (88-89)

For very sick churches, Rainer gives these steps:

  1. The church must admit and confess its dire need.

  2. The church must pray for wisdom and strength to do whatever is necessary.

  3. The church must be willing to change radically.

  4. That change must lead to action and an outward focus. (95)

And for churches who are dying and for whom there is no remedy, Rainer offers these suggestions to die with dignity:

  1. Sell the property and give the funds to another church, perhaps to a new church that has begun or will soon begin.

  2. Give the building to another church.

  3. If your church is in a transitional neighborhood, turn over the leadership and property to those who actually reside in the neighborhood.

  4. Merge with another church, but let the other church have the ownership and leadership of your church. (100-101)

Twenty years after my dad left the dying church (to become a PCA pastor), the church is still alive. They sold the buildings and land to a funeral home, and they moved to a smaller location. The church appears to be thriving and to be very representative of their community. I’m glad for them.

I think that Rainer’s analysis of the common threads shared by dying churches is very accurate. Reading the book was very eye-opening and affirming. I found myself nodding my head and underlining several passages. However, I think that Rainer’s advice and solutions are lacking.

First, his book is very Baptist in its flavor. I say that without any animosity. I was raised Southern Baptist and have much love for my Baptist brethren. But much of what he addresses are concerns and approaches that are more Baptist than Presbyterian. One example would be the issue of members on the rolls coming back to vote on issues when they don’t attend the church. Most Presbyterian churches would have stricken them from the rolls, but it doesn’t happen much in Baptist churches, in my experience. Also I found his suggestion to turn the leadership of the church over to those in the community to be odd.

Second, I’m not sure I am comfortable with his “outward” vs “inward” focus dynamic. Yes, it’s true that many dying churches have forgotten evangelism and are especially uninterested in reaching out to the community around them. But despite the frequent misquote of Bonhoeffer, the church does not exist for its non-members. The church has more than one role. We are called to go preach the gospel, baptize, and disciple in the great commission. Much of that is outward focused, but discipling is also inward focused. We are not just adding members but teaching those members, new and old, what the Bible says and what it means to serve God and to be a Christian.

It is also an important focus of the church, as illustrated in Acts and the Epistles, to care for the needs of the saints. This seems very controversial in the current social justice climate, but we are told to care for our immediate families, our local church families, and our Christian brothers and sisters all over the world (in that order). It is right and proper that our first thought would be for needs of other believers. Not that we don’t care for those outside the church. We do care, for both their spiritual and physical needs. But it is not wrong for churches to spend time and money on the care of their own people.

Lastly, I am somewhat concerned that in all the advice for these sick and dying churches Rainer doesn’t seem to focus much on the ordinary means of grace. He does discuss the need to pray together, but there seems to be something missing in his overall approach. Is a church a success if it preaches the Word, the people pray regularly, the sacraments are administered, the people care for each other, and also evangelize others? What if the church is very small? Is it still a success? Is growth in numbers the only way to measure a “good” and “healthy” church? If so, is Joel Osteen’s church healthy? His numbers are better than almost anyone else’s.

In all, I greatly appreciate Rainer’s book for his stark look at the common features dying churches share. I would just have liked to have seen more focus on the spiritual life of the church and less on the numbers.