the eventual fate of most evangelical churches
Reading Time: 7 minutes (Jake Leonard.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we’ve been checking out Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours AliveIn addition to offering non-solutions that are guaranteed to fail, this book became part of the never-ending line of evangelical advice books that would totally fix Christianity — and yet somehow did not change anything at all. Today, we do an autopsy of Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

the eventual fate of most evangelical churches
(Jake Leonard.)

The Big Problem Here With Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

Thom Rainer introduces his book’s title to us by explaining why it’s so important to perform autopsies at all (p. 6):

Why should I take you through the pain of discovering why churches die?

Because we need to know.

And he’s right. People can’t fix problems without knowing what those problems even are. In 2014, when this book came out, Thom Rainer’s denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), was beginning to realize they were in a very serious decline. In just the past couple of years, their membership had recently dipped below 15M, while their ratio of baptisms-per-members had risen above 1:50. They certainly must have known they had a problem of some kind.

Christians often decide to hyper-focus on something that’s tangential or largely irrelevant as the key to all their problems. They declaring that HERE YES HERE they have finally found The Big Problem Here at last! And we encounter this mindset in Autopsy of a Deceased Church as well.

Interestingly, Thom Rainer zeroes in on church closures as The Big Problem Here.

Why That’s Interesting to Me.

I say that’s “interesting” because in the SBC’s own Annual Reports, I noticed that their actual number of member churches usually stays fairly steady. In fact, that number had risen slightly in the previous couple of years leading up to 2014, from 45k to 46k.

Even in the 2020 Annual Report, they report over 47k churches. Those reports used to provide the exact number of churches opening, too. After a big burst in openings in 2010 (1364!), that number, too, had steadied at around 1100 per year.

(If you’re curious, the 2017 report told of a sudden drop from the 1100s to 964, then 975 in 2018, and then they just stopped telling people how many churches had opened at all. I couldn’t find that figure in either the 2019 or the 2020 reports. Total number of churches remained at 47k, but that number has risen by much smaller increments — as in by 12 in 2019, and 74 in 2020. That said, I don’t think they’ve ever revealed how many churches closed or left their denomination year by year. I’ve always left this hopeful little space in my database for that figure, but no report I’ve ever seen has offered that information.)

So if church openings remain steady at around 1100/year, but the total number of reported churches only rises very slowly (somewhere between 50-200/year past that yuuuuge 2010 burst), then a lot of churches must be closing every year.

An Epidemic of Church Closures.

And closing means that churches shrink too small to pay their bills and offer required amenities, and thus must close. A church with a thriving, growing membership rarely closes suddenly.

How many of those struggling churches are there in America?

Thom Rainer offers a figure of “100,000 churches in America are showing signs of decline toward death.” He’s getting that figure from his own research, so who knows how accurate it is. It’s both seriously outdated (it appeared in his 2010 book Breakout Churches) and probably suffers from the usual shortcomings of evangelical research.

Also, he must be counting all churches everywhere in America, not just SBC churches. As mentioned, the SBC only has less than 50k churches of its own. We don’t know how rigorous those other church groups are about their reporting — some are way more rigorous than others, and nondenominational churches can be notoriously difficult to accurately record at all.

All that said, I can easily believe a lot of churches are heading toward closure, and that the situation was already dire in 2014.

Why are they closing, Thom Rainer asks in his book, and how can it be stopped? The answers became his Autopsy.

Thom Rainer sure likes the idea of “autopsies” so much. Thus, I thought I’d be super-helpful and offer one of Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

The Autopsy of Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

Toward the end of Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer writes, regarding his surefire fixes for churches (p. 85):

These are no magical, easy-fix solutions.

Unfortunately, ‘magical’ is exactly what they are. And ‘easy-fix’ is exactly how he positions them.

This book makes two main demands of evangelicals:

I don’t disagree in the main, but I also recognize that evangelicalism is so broken now that there’s no way to make either change happen.

Instead of offering usable advice to bring about these changes, Rainer includes a bunch of “prayerful commitments” that he wants evangelicals to recite very earnestly. (When I was Pentecostal, my crowd was rejected all pre-written prayers because of Matthew 6:7.)

And once that sea change has happened, everything will be totes easy! Thom Rainer barely even needs to say exactly how churches should make all this stuff happen. Jesus will lead the way!

And that is absolutely not what happened for anybody.

Self-Awareness: Missing, Presumed Nonexistent.

It’s downright hilarious that Thom Rainer ever thought churches would do any of this stuff, much less that the recitation of pre-written prayers would bring about deep changes to the scandalously-cruel and narcissistic evangelical psyche.

He’s evangelical himself, so you’d think he’d know this wouldn’t work.

But then again, I reckon that self-awareness has never been a part of that psyche.

So Autopsy of a Deceased Church is dead on arrival because it never reckons with its hosts, it offers absolutely no usable advice, and it never outlines a real way to bring about the changes Thom Rainer thinks churches must make to survive.

Evangelicals’ Reaction.

Interestingly, I located no critical reviews of Autopsy of a Deceased Church. No reviewer had tried the book’s advice or evaluated its efficacy. Instead, reviewers evaluated the book’s adherence to their own beliefs.

  • A pair of ministers at Word Strong liked it. The post’s writer recognizes the traits described in Autopsy of a Deceased Church in many churches he’d encountered. Neither minister used its advice.
  • Assembly Hub liked it. He hadn’t tried to put its ideas into action. Instead, he recommends the book “for the purpose of learning or being reminded of symptoms” of decline.
  • A UK blogger, Everyday Evangelist, wrote that he “cannot recommend this volume enough.” But again, he hadn’t actually tried its ideas.
  • A Catholic priest writing for The Catholic Man Show loved it. He especially liked the emphasis on evangelism. Unsurprisingly, he had not actually used any of the book’s advice.
  • This Christian-college teacher at Reading Acts liked it. He “can see church boards purchasing copies for each member” to read and discuss together. I’ve never heard of any churches actually doing that, and he doesn’t mention doing so himself.
  • Ministry Magazine reviewed the book. They had some doctrinal quibbles with it, but recommended it to ministers and church boards. In addition, they thought it could be used to “evaluate” congregations and aid in future planning. They do not mention a single church using it for these tasks.

Obviously, Thom Rainer’s then-employer, LifeWay (the SBC’s faux-research and propaganda-printing division) reviewed it on their blog, Facts and Trends. I was pleasantly surprised that they even mentioned Thom Rainer’s professional relationship with LifeWay.

In their review, LifeWay never mentions any research done to determine if Thom Rainer’s advice could help a church in decline. 

The Upshot of the Reviews.

I found no reviewers who disliked Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

That said, not one reviewer mentions using the book’s advice at all.

Nobody changed anything they were doing after reading it.

Indeed, I saw not one church pastor talking about revising his church’s budget after reading it. No church leaders mentioned increasing outreach efforts. Nobody discussed being “convicted” of their territoriality or control-lust.  No church leaders decided to engage more with their local communities.

It was downright stunning to see just how little changed in the evangelical world as a result of this book. I mean, it’s not that I didn’t expect that outcome. But I expected to at least see a few people pretending to want to change as a result of it.

But no.

At most, reviewers hypothesized that some church leaders somewhere — not them, but some others maybe — might use the book as an evaluation tool. Yes, maybe someone would evaluate how their church operated and change priorities thanks to it. But I found none, none at all, that actually had done so.

It was enough for all of them that the book recited all the correct talking points and was sufficiently Jesus-y.

What Changed, and What Didn’t.

Thom Rainer certainly seems proud of this little book. (And I confess: from an aesthetic standpoint, at least, it’s pleasing to the senses.)

However, in real terms it had no positive effect at all on churches’ survival rates.

Thom Rainer’s own denomination, the SBC, had already lost 287k people between 2010 and 2013. But boy howdy, that decline has only gotten worse since 2014: they’ve lost 1.2M more people. Their Sunday School enrollments are down about 500k kids since 2014. Baptisms are down about 70k as well. Weekly attendance as a percentage of membership hasn’t changed much (it hovers around 36-37% usually), but the decline in membership means about 600k fewer butts in pews (BIPs).

Moreover, evangelicals have sought every single way possible since 2014 to tell the whole world exactly how awful they are. Their blatant racism and sexism, the multitude of scandals exploding out of their ranks every single day, and their self-serving political grabs for temporal power have all destroyed whatever credibility they still had in 2014.

So nothing at all changed for the better because of this book. In fact, evangelicals only got worse — and their decline only accelerated — since 2014.

The Gravy Train’s Still Running — For Now.

But that hasn’t stopped various ex-SBC employees from embarking on careers as experts in evangelism and church revitalization.

They’re the last people evangelicals should look to for ways to turn their ship around. Instead, they seem like they’re just here to shear whatever wool they can from the flocks before the gravy train stops running for good.

They’re experts in that, at least.

Thom Rainer is never going to tell them the truth about their decline, even if he recognizes it himself. My mind boggles at the level of cynicism he must experience every day if he knows the truth — and the dissonance he must experience if he doesn’t.

I really believe that Thom Rainer knows one truth, though: that his comfortable life absolutely depends on evangelicals buying his stuff.

If there really existed any way to save evangelicals from their decline, he’s positioned to know exactly what that is and to communicate it to the flocks. He hasn’t, though, and I think there’s a good reason why.

NEXT UP: LSP! And then, speaking of the SBC, their Dear Leaders want to remind the flocks not to forget about recruitment. We’ll check out Christians’ hidden self-interest in their exhortations. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...