Book Review: Autopsy of the Deceased Church by Thom Rainer

Autopsy of the Deceased Church by Thom Rainer

When I was first ordained in 2007, I discovered a wonderful secular book that really helped me get organized. It was Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen. Two years later, after being assigned as president of our diocesan high school, I was given another secular book. It was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. Both have been instrumental in my life as a priest both for personal organization and to lead the high school and now a parish. I share this to say that, as Catholics, we can learn a lot from the expertise and experience of those who do not share our Catholic faith.

With that in mind, I share this review of Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Rainer is a Protestant pastor who is well thought in evangelical circles and writes extensively on church growth and, in this case, church decline. A short book, just 102 pages, Rainer studied 14 Protestant churches that had recently closed. He dissected the reasons for the church closure and observant Catholics will see many parallels to our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

The reasons a church will close include:

  1. Slow Erosion- decline over time
  2. The Past As Hero- Always looking back to the “glory days” (which may, or may not, have been glorious)
  3. The Church Refused to Look Like the Community- It was out of place in the neighborhood or city where it served.
  4. The Budget Moved Inwardly- Resources were spent on those already in the church to the detriment of looking outward
  5. The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission-  The church forgot that Christians should be mission/outward focused as directed in Matthew 28
  6. The Preference-Driven Church- Members put their own wishes above the needs of the church
  7. Pastoral Tenure Decreases- Frequent turnover of pastors
  8. The Church Rarely Prayed Together- This includes staff and people. People didn’t pray together seeking God’s will.
  9. The Church Had No Clear Purpose- Pretty self explanatory
  10. The Church Obsessed Over Facilities- The building became the focus instead of prayer and the people

There is a lot of wisdom in these 10 signs of a dying church. Rainer lacks the sacramental theology so important for Catholics so I would disagree only with his 10th point about the importance of the building. For Catholics, the church building and all that goes with it are extremely important to both help people pray and teach people about what is most important.

For me, the chapter on “The Past As Hero” struck a cord. I run into a lot of Catholics who long for days gone by. They want things to be the way they were before Vatican II or they want their current parish to be like it used to be (whatever that means) or like the parish of their childhood. A friend of mine who is a Catholic superintendent of schools once said, “Nostalgia is killing us.” This can be true in the Catholic Church as well. The past has value to be sure but when we live in that past and desire a world that is no more, our parishes will die on the vine. 

It’s a fine book and one that leaders in Catholic parishes will be challenged by and from which we can learn a great deal. St. Paul VI famously wrote, “The Church exists to evangelize”. When we miss that, we can expect our Catholic parishes to not only decline but to die a slow, painful death. 

Written by: Fr. Brian O’Brien, Pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Stillwater, OK.

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