We Didn’t Mean That Kind of Change

(Book Review of “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” part 4. Part 1 and Part 2  and Part 3)

Continued review/critique of Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

Chapter 8: Pastoral Tenure Decreases

Thom Rainer has written about the tenure of pastors for many years. He has studied, contemplated and written about this critical issue with integrity. I’ve read many things he has to say about this and agree with his assessments.

Rainer identifies stages and characteristics as he reports from the autopsy table.

  • Year 1: Honeymoon – here, Rainer talks about the adjustments of both pastor and church in getting to know each other. I personally have never like the term ‘honeymoon’, but I understand what it communicates. Marriage is a life long commitment, until death. I don’t like the use of it because it cheapens language we use to describe marriage. I would prefer a term like ‘start-up’ or ‘adjustment’ stage. However, I agree with his assessment of that new day era. He does report that he season does not usually last long. Where the church was excited about ‘change’ they didn’t mean that kind of change.
  • Years 2 and 3: Conflicts and Challenges – because no pastor is perfect and no church is perfect all parties discover imperfections quickly. It is in this stage that most problematic churches and pastors decide to part ways, either kindly or with great disruption.
  • Years 4 and 5: Crossroads, Part 1 – Rainer calls this among the most critical days in the relationship of pastor and church. Both have to either agree to part ways or come to an agreed upon conclusion that both are satisfied to stay the course.
  • Years 6-10: Fruit and Harvest – He concludes that his research is not complete but he argues that these are some of the best years in the relationship. Both can trust each other and love each other more deeply.
  • Years 11 and beyond: Crossroads, Part 2 – Here again, Rainer admits that his research is incomplete in that he sees in this stage the pastor either goes through a ‘reinvigorated’ vision or becomes complacent.

Apparently most churches and pastors rarely get past stage 2 (2-3 years) and it is a cycle repeating itself again and again and again until the church finally dies.

Personal evaluation: I’m in that rare place of being in the last stage of his examination. I could see that his observation of the stages are fairly accurate. The timing was slightly different for me in some of the stages but as a whole, it seems to be a representation of my experience here. I don’t think my church is interested in coasting along. I don’t want to be blind and ignore to potential pitfalls of being in a place this long.

I pray for a day of wide spread revival. I also know that the effect of revival may be an outbreak of awakening. This chapter had a soberness to it for me in that I appear to be in a critical stage in the life of the church I pastor. I’ve weighed the report from the autopsy room and head the warning of the report with interest.

Chapter 9: The Church Rarely Prayed Together

I was glad to see this chapter here. Rainer did a good job on this matter. He posted some questions he’s asked churches before and offered responses that gave helpful evaluation of the condition.

“Did the church members pray together?” I’m sure most churches would answer this with a “yes, of course we prayed together.”

Probing deeper to answers like that must be made, and he did.

“Describe your prayer times.” This is where the discovery and revelation to the first question came.

His description of these prayer meetings are likely fairly common across the landscape of the church. A list was presented to those present and someone prayed for all those on the list and then they went home.

This may describe many prayer meetings, but his probing deeper was looking for meaningful prayer meetings. A meeting that is more ritual or routine can hardly be described as meaningful. Praying only for the sick grows weary.

Rainer is correct, “when the church is engaged in meaningful prayer, it becomes both the cause and the result of greater church health.

I still want better definition. The word ‘meaningful’ is subjective. Is prayer looked at by the church the same way the bible describes it. Would anyone in Twin Falls know where to send someone if they were asked where a church gathers for prayer?

The New Testament does give a good example of this and Rainer does refer to Acts 2:42 “and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.” This is not a book on prayer, so I go easy on him here.

“Prayer was serious stuff for a serious group of people. Prayer was the lifeblood of the early church.”

When a church stops praying with an urgency for the aid of the Holy Spirit to fall upon them, then the church is in dire trouble.

Oh, Lord, teach me to pray.

Chapter 10: The Church Had No Clear Purpose

Where it is true that purpose is critical. Purpose is a buzz word that can be misleading. I appreciate that Rainer wasn’t advocating that a church ought to discover her unique purpose or niche in the church market. The church must have a biblical purpose. A gospel partnership linked to the marching orders of that first church era. Not one encouraged to find herself or find her voice in the sea of others. Rainer did good to clarify the clear purpose a church must have must be a biblical purpose.

The church has no reason to define herself as anything other than the bride of Christ. And that is clearly shown to us in Scripture. Yes, I see that a church in Twin Falls, Idaho will look somewhat different than a church in New York City or Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. But the church must know her clear purpose or she’ll try to identify herself in some niche way that limits her global scope.

Chapter 11: The Church Obsessed Over the Facilities

Oh, this is touchy territory. Rainer was good to go here. The dreaded ‘memorial’ funds or ‘memorial’ furniture, flowers, trees, etc…

In this short chapter the reader gets a close look at the reality of the autopsy. It’s ugly here.

Church fights over stained glass windows, pews, draperies, paint color, carpet color, sound systems, and more. “Dying churches, more often than not, experience severe battles over facility obsession before her demise.

This exposes severe problems, doesn’t it. It exposes not a need for change, but repentance. Anytime a person or church puts focus on a material matter above spiritual matters and unity, she is in serious danger of dying soon. A focus on things and not repenting of this sin finds the church with one foot in the grave I suppose.

There must be hope. The good news is, that’s the next focus on the remaining fourth of the book. The book is only 102 pages long. Rainer devoted 82 of these short pages to the autopsy room. The word count of my review/critique may be more than the entire book.

As a whole I was pleased and thankful for his assessment. Where I took issue with a few matters of semantics, I agree largely with his autopsy report. I would recommend any church read it. I’m most curious for the final push, the conclusion; Is There Hope for the Dying Church? Twelve Responses.


  • Don Woody

    December 2, 2014 at 9:38 PM Reply

    Thank you Paul! I agree with the timeline of the tenure of a pastor. Although I have been the pastor now of only two churches, I have experienced those same stages, some longer than others. I really appreciate your review. God Bless!

    • Paul

      December 3, 2014 at 10:20 AM Reply

      Always good to hear from you Don. Next time you are in Idaho, give me a call.

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