Regan Reviews: Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church + 12 ways to Keep Yours Alive

Author: Thom Rainer
Title: Autopsy of a Deceased Church + 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive
Published: B&H Publishing Group, May, 2014
pages: 102

I believe Rainer hits the nail squarely on the head with this straightforward volume. While writing from an American context, much of the material is (appropriately) in reference to the American context. It is sad to read of hundreds of thousands of churches in the land of my birth and childhood that are showing signs of sickness, are very sick, or on their deathbed. Rainer outlines 9 characteristics of a dying church.

1. The Past is the Hero
2. The Church Refused to Look Like the community
3. The Budget moved Inwardly
4. The Great Commission becomes the Great Ommission
5. The Church is Preference Driven (as opposed to Christ focused)
6. Pastoral Tenure Decreases
7. The Church rarely prayed together
8. The Church had no Clear Purpose
9. The Church obsessed over the Facilities

As a church planting pastor and as the son of a church planting pastor, from the numerous deceased churches I know of in whose buildings new and healthy works have been planted and also from my current exposure to other churches that I believe to be sick and/or dying these points sum it up. How so?

In Britain’s dying churches, the past truly is the hero. ‘These are the days of small things’ is a common refrain, generally offered by an individual in a church where literally nothing is happening. ‘Oh that we had another Spurgeon or someone like Lloyd-Jones to set us straight!’ has been a helpless statement that has come to my ears. And yet, here and now, we have someone better. Jesus Christ. If people stop worshiping the past and looking to Christ then necessary changes will be made to better equip the church for serving in the present. I once was told by an older lady in a church, ‘I’m afraid we are very set in our ways.We don’t really like change’. It is no surprise to me that with many of that mindset, that church is on its way to death. And yet there is, as Rainer notes,  denial of the reality and angry resistance to the inevitable.

‘…more than any one item, these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.’

Relating to the second point, it is all too common that I have visited, preached in, and/or helped in a church where the surrounding demographic is not reflected at all. An additional issue, that is even more common in Britain, I believe, is the refusal of churches to look like any type of community at all. Upon visiting some of the congregations I have been to, one would be forgiven for thinking that Christians are not supposed to like each other much less love each other (as Christ commands us). There is often a cold stoniness in receiving the message from God’s Word. People come in and they rush out. There is no flexibility in time or understanding when it comes to changing up the general order of service. If the chairs face a new way, there is a complaint. If the evangelist is zealous to get people involved in outreach, he is considered a nuisance. If there is suggestion of the need for more fellowship there are comments about busy schedules (after all, can’t miss the evening news or worse yet, Coronation Street.) The church is a family not a club. The church is a body not a bus. When a church is not what it ‘is’ by Biblical definition, it is dying.

The third point is interesting. I would be very keen to know the percentage of gospel churches in the UK that have a planned budget. It may be even more interesting to know how teach generous and faithful giving. A man attended a conference in my church, Grace Baptist Church (Angel, Islington, London) on the subject of Christian giving. He was convicted and challenged and said his pastor had never taught on the matter systematically in the Scriptures. Aware of the situation, I knew that there was not even an opportunity for giving an offering. He went to his pastor and shared what he learned. The pastor simply grunted and said ‘Yeah, its not something we’ve really done here that much. Might have to give it some thought.’ Without belabouring the point, Rainer gets across a point I have often sought to make – a giving church is a growing church.

As for points 4, 5, 7, and 8, one doesn’t have to look more than a second into the practices of deceased or dying churches in Britain to know that these relate. I believe in most cases the preferences of many church members as by Rainer are often what shape the neglectful attitude towards the Great Commission, prayer, and purpose. I have lived in the UK now longer than I did in the US and still hear comments on methods to the tune of ‘That is not the way we do it here’  when nothing is being done. I have sat in a meeting where at the close a pastor resisted a request from another elder to have a time of open prayer by saying ‘That’s not really necessary is it? We’ve gone on a bit long enough already!’. The sentiment was shared by many. It pretty much summed up the reason for that church’s decline and lack of purpose. In other churches, there has been such a pendulum swing reaction to some Christian’s falling to feminist ideology that women are not allowed to pray in public.

Points 6 and 9 are really the main points that need slight revision for a UK audience. While pastoral tenure can be linked to the decline in some churches, interestingly a recent census of Grace Baptist Churches indicated that an overly lengthy tenure could be just as detrimental. As I read Autopsy, it struck me that very small pastoral tenures are not as much a problem in the UK, but that in many cases pastors have fallen into the path Rainer notes from year 11 of a pastor’s tenure where he risks becoming resistant to change and the church grows complacent. Another, perhaps, more common problem in the UK is the hesitance of churches to call a pastor. Years and years go by with countless men preaching in the pulpit in a caring and challenging way, but without any call to the pastorate given. For some, lengthy absence of pastoral oversight in their church is worn as a badge of honour. These are churches that really, as much as they may whinge about their need, don’t want a pastor. At least, not one who will make any changes. Certainly not the one who didn’t wear a tie. Definitely not the foreign guy – he might attract other less than savoury sorts. The skubala you here from people trying to find a reason…

Point 9 relates to obsession with facilities. While in the past, even non-conformist churches in England would have fallen into traps of obsessing over gilding, memorials, and decorative fashion, most seem to have gone in the opposite direction in their treatment of facilities. In the 13 years I have lived in London, I have assisted in countless clean-up days in which a building of a deceased church has been made ready for the arrival of a new work. With many it is clear that not only has the building been systematically allowed to fall into dilapidation and decay, but little attention has been paid to basic cleaning. I remember cleaning one kitchen that contained products containing 1980s use-by dates! There really is no excuse.

Autopsy is not about doom and gloom. Its primary purpose is to show where we can learn from others’ mistakes and failures and prayerfully seek to see our churches grow from strength to strength for God’s glory. Rainer closes each chapter with a commitment to pray in a particular way toward to health of our local churches in the knowledge that the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ and those who are truly His. The second part of the book gives sound, hope-filled, and helpful application to those whose churches are showing signs of sickness, are already sick, or are dying.I won’t spoil it for you though!
I cannot recommend this volume enough. Get a copy and prayerfully read through it, seeking to assess your own church’s situation and what you can do to make it better.

In Christ


When it is right to say goodbye to your small church

When is it right to leave your small church? When is it right to say ‘enough is enough’? Here are some examples of when the ‘when’ moment was resolved with some individuals.

1. When you despise the small size of your local church.

He sat across the table from me. I had gone to what I thought was a pre-New Years lunch with my friend and his wife in their home. My goal was to enjoy a time of fellowship and also to encourage them as to what the church plant I served in would be doing in the next year. My friend had grown distant and had increasingly been late to our Sunday service and chose to hang out with two or three other friends on a regular basis while neglecting the church Bible study. Something seemed to be discouraging him, but it was probably the impending pressure of shortly becoming a new father. The sincere, ‘Please tell me, how are things?’ was met with generic responses so it must have been the stress of a soon to be father. Despite my request to meet up with both of them, my friend had sent his wife out for the afternoon. That was…interesting, disappointing, odd. The words played through my mind. As we ate and talked, I expressed my thankfulness for the man and his wife and their support in the church plant. I started talking about the plans for the next year. The man still seemed distant. He wasn’t smiling, there were a couple of times I thought he smirked, but that could have been his smile…it had been some time since I had seen him smile. Eventually he came out with his statement. He and his wife were leaving the church. While they had been thinking about it for sometime, even meeting with another pastor and his wife and while he had discussed it with his two friends, he had never discussed the possibility with me. I asked when they planned to leave. Well…they weren’t coming back. They were just going to leave. No seeking the church’s blessing. No discussion. They were just going to leave. The church plant was small, there weren’t enough on-site leaders, we didn’t offer enough, and we expected too much of members in the way of faithful attendance and giving. The church they were going to was bankrolled by a large U.S. church, didn’t teach tithing as Biblical, they had the “right” view of the end times (we simply emphasised Christ is coming again and we should be ready), and wouldn’t need much if any input from them personally or practically. They could go hear good teaching, return home, and enjoy life on the periphery of the church. And so they left and started to travel past their local church. You see, the new church was larger.

2. When you despise the small status of the pastor(s).

My first story really could have included this aspect as well. Since it wasn’t stated as such, however, I will relate another cautionary tale. A young man moves to London to study and to work for a designated period of around two years. He comes into contact with me and my church. He starts attending regularly. He seems zealous. He seems keen to do evangelism, but doesn’t understand why the church situation inhibits a church-wide weekly night of evangelism. He is encouraged to participate in the church opportunities for witness that are available and then to be faithful in the call of personal discipleship and evangelism on every other day. He comes to meetings, but doesn’t fully take the opportunities that are to hand. His schedule is busy, though and the church is understanding. We mention the possibility of membership a time or two and he seems keen. He attends a larger church linked to a famous pastor of great status and good teaching for a student meal. The next Sunday, this friend says ‘I won’t be attending your church anymore.’  I ask if he has found another church closer to him. Not really. ‘I’m going to go to *famous pastor’s name*’s church. It’s a good opportunity, plus the service time allows me to have a lay in. I’m young and like my lay-ins.’ He wanted to be in a place that would link him to the famous pastor. He wanted teaching that was like unto the famous pastor. He wanted the opportunity that being in a place close to a famous pastor would bring. So, why not leave the small church with the unknown evangelist/church planter and go to the place that had a name for itself? After all, such action would provide a good opportunity. Indeed the structure and programming would all be served up on a plate with minimal member initiative needed. It made traveling past the small church worth it.

3. When you despise the smallness of musical gifting.

‘I like taking my friends to Hillsong, because it doesn’t feel too much like a church. I feel like its better than them going clubbing and they all like the music and lights and stuff. I feel like they would just really like find our church a bit boring.’ So spake a young teenager who only 6 months previous had been indicating real growth and had been a real encouragement. Sadly, a couple of friends who came once or twice didn’t like what they saw as ‘our style’ and this began to play on this teenager’s thoughts  feelings. As much as I would like to, I cannot currently play a musical instrument nor can my wife or anyone else in the church. I do hope to learn the guitar in the near future, but whether that will happen, I know not. The last person who was in our congregation who could play anything? You guessed it! This teenage girl. Trouble is, despite asking her to play and use her gift on numerous occasions she only accepted to play once during a Christmas service. Of course, the problem was not really that our circumstances require that we sing acapella each week, rather we find our identity as a church not a concert, a body of Christ not a night club. The latter are popular, the former is not. Christ promises his disciples that the world will hate us just as it hated him (John 15:18-25). But pleasing God is an eternal thing. If what we do and where we go pleases our peers and makes us more popular we can feel better about ourselves, nevermind Galatians 1:10…Paul’s Words must not apply to the present.

4. When you despise the smallness of programming

‘There are too many people in your church who are needy. They require a lot of attention and help. There aren’t enough mature Christian friends in the church. There is only you, Regan, and *church member’s name*.’ So my wife was told. ‘Also, at *name of large evangelical Anglican church* they have a really good homeless outreach that we don’t have.’ We did have a one-off outreach to local homeless people at which the individual in question did not participate in any way. ‘I enjoy going and making bacon rolls and getting in the church bus on Saturday and driving around giving them out. A lot of them aren’t actually homeless, but it just feels really good to make a practical impact.’ So basically, you don’t want to invest in people or get your hands dirty by getting to know them and through helping them with their baggage. Why not go to the place where there is not really an organised membership? You don’t have to be too responsible, there isn’t a concept of discipline to hold you to account, and when you really don’t feel good about yourself, you can join the Saturday Sandwich Squad and feed people off, all while sating your own ego! Much easier than committing to involving yourself on a weekly basis with real people who have real problems. Much simpler than actually getting to know people and allowing people to get to know you.  Just join the program – no questions asked and accept your Brownie points for an hour a week of feeling like you are doing good. It makes sense. Its a ready made opportunity to slot into. In the church with fewer resources and limited programming there would be too much investment and involvement needed. Much more comfortable to hop on the bus and the 2 miles past to a more comfortable place.

I trust that you understand all of the above is written from the perspective of people looking for an excuse when there is none. I have written from the experience of real conversations and situations and have presented each point following the logic and manner of thought exhibited in our conversations. It all begs the question: why do people despise smallness? Why do people mourn or act surprised at small early stages where great care and investment are called for? The Scripture’s certainly don’t view smallness as weakness. Only Noah and his family out of all humans survived the Flood of Genesis. Gideon and a very small band of men were used by God to deliver his people from their enemy’s oppressive grip. Jonathan was alone with his armour bearer, but by God’s grace they won a great victory over Israel’s enemies with God’s grace. David wasn’t the tallest or strongest of his brothers and yet God used him to slay Goliath and defeat the Philistines. Proverbs 30:24-28 points to wisdom exemplified in the smallest of creatures. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were the small minority who stayed faithful to God while other’s bowed their knees to the idols of Israel’s enslavers and God protected them. Zerubbabel’s temple lacked the glory and splendour of Solomon’s, but would be filled with the greater glory of the promised Christ (Haggai 2).

I cannot sum it up any better than in the words of C.H. Spurgeon in preaching from Zechariah 4:10:

 It is a very great folly to despise “the day of small things,”for it is usually God’s way to begin His great works with small things. We see it every day, for the first dawn of light is but feeble and yet, by-and-by, it grows into the full noon-tide heat and glory. We know how the early spring comes with its buds of promise, but it takes some time before we get to the beauties of summer or the wealth of autumn. How tiny is the seed that is sown in the garden, yet out of it there comes the lovely flower! How small is the acorn, but how great is the oak that grows up from it! The stream commences with but a gentle rivulet, but it flows on till it becomes a brook, and then a river—perhaps a mighty Amazon—before its course is run! God begins with men in “the day of small things”—He began so with us…Woe unto that man who despises “the day of small things” in the Church of Christ, or who despises “the day of smart things” in any individual Believer, for itis God’s day—it is a day out of which great things will yet come and, therefore, he that despises it really despises his Maker’s work and despises the great and glorious things which are to come out of he small things which are at present apparent! I know some professing Christians who, I am afraid, despise “the day of small things” in little Churches. There is gathered a small community of godly people. Perhaps they are poor and many of them illiterate. And some of you rich folk who think yourselves wonderfully intelligent—though I am not always sure that you are—if you happen to settle down in that village, you say that you would like to attend the little Chapel or mission room, but the minister puts his h’s in the wrong place and his speech is ungrammatical and, of course, that is very painful to your refined taste! Then the people are very poor and you hardly think that the Church is advancing at all, so to help it, you leave it alone! “God forbid,” you say, “that we should despise the day of small things!” But you are very sorry that everything is on such a small scale! You say that you pity the poor people, but, instead of helping them, you lie quietly by, or you go off to a more fashionable place where you meet with some of your own class and feel more at home.There, the h’s are put in properly, though the Gospel is left out of the preaching! But the people who attend are such a“respectable” sort of folk that you feel it is quite the correct thing to worship with them. If any of you have any respect for yourselves while acting in such a way as that, I hope you will soon discover that there is really nothing “respectable”in that kind of respectability! I mean that there is nothing that should make a man respected when he gives up his convictions and leaves his own true Brothers and Sisters for the sake of getting into a better class of society and seeming to be of a superior order to the godly poor people to whom he might be of real service.To me, it seems that it should be your glory to join the poorest and weakest churches of your denomination and wherever you go, to say, “This little cause is not as strong as I should like it to be, but, by the Grace of God, I will make it more influential. At any rate, I wil1 throw in my weight to strengthen the weak things of Zion and certainly I will not despise the day of small things”

So when is it right to say goodbye to your small church? In a Biblical church, that time comes when God grants grace for your small church to grow larger.

May God help you and me to press on and to always rejoice in the day of small things that when larger things come, we may rejoice all the more!

In Christ