[Today is the release date of the new book from Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Find out more about the book at ThomRainer.com/autopsy.]
Most of the churches in America that close don’t shut the doors over a single or few cataclysmic events. In most of the cases, indeed all of them I studied, the issue was slow erosion. There would be no autopsy to perform if they had faced reality and, in God’s power, reversed course.
But they didn’t. And for that reason, we must look at them after their death.
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 me 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.
For sure, there were some prophets and dissenters in these churches. They warned others that, if the church did not change, it would die. But the stalwarts did not listen. They fiercely resisted. The dissenters left. And death came closer and closer.
So what did the deceased churches cling to? What did they refuse to let go of facing certain death?
Worship styles were certainly on the list. As were fixed orders of worship services. And times of worship services. Some stubbornly held on to buildings and rooms, particularly if that room or building was a memorial, named for one of the members of the past. Some would not accept any new pastor except that one pastor who served thirty years ago.
But 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. It was not just the past they revered. It was their personal good old days.
So, unlike the heroes of Hebrews 11 who held onto nothing of this life, these dying churches held onto everything, at least everything that made them comfortable and happy. Such is the reason we speak of them in the past. They were warned. They were facing certain death. They saw every sign.
But they preferred death to change. And death is what they got.
Adapted from Autopsy of a Deceased Church (B&H Publishers 2014)