autopsy won't save them
Reading Time: 6 minutes (Tobias Oetiker.)
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hi and welcome back! I recently read Thom Rainer’s 2014 book Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. In it, he offers evangelical churches a variety of ways to ensure their survival and growth. But as you can probably guess from the publishing year, none of it saved his tribe from decline. Today, I’ll show you the main reason nobody took his advice seriously: he demanded that churches pull a bait-and-switch on their members.

autopsy won't save them
(Tobias Oetiker.)

2014: The Year That Was.

When Thom Rainer first published Autopsy, his tribe was already well into its decline. Most of them simply hadn’t accepted that fact yet. (Indeed, they wouldn’t until the next year — and even then incompletely.) In 2014, many evangelical leaders still thought they faced nothing more than a temporary dip in certain parts of the country. And the flocks in general certainly believed that notion; I remember getting in tons of arguments with evangelicals online about that very topic.

Back then, very few evangelicals really understood what was happening. And the few that did grasp the extent of the problem still thought there was a big chance of reversing that tide.

That’s where Autopsy comes in. It got published right as evangelicals hovered on the very, very outermost fringes of the cusp of comprehension.

In 2014, Thom Rainer probably understood better than most of them just how bad the situation was.

And even he couldn’t bring himself to be utterly straightforward.

As a result, Autopsy exists in this strange netherworld between assured dominance and frantic clawing-for-power. It’s downright weird to read it and know what was coming evangelicals’ way in just a year or so.

The Good Advice Evangelicals Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Take.

Amusingly, Thom Rainer offers evangelicals a bunch of advice that normally I’d consider decently good. The problem he has here, of course, is that evangelicals could not and would not ever actually take any of it. Their reason for ignoring his advice was and is simple:

In essence, this book demands that evangelical churches become something besides what they are and always have been: gratification stations for the self-declared chosen elite ambassadors of King American-Jesus Superman.

He wants them to pivot from being what my mom always called “mutual admiration societies” to becoming forces for good in their local communities. He wants them to accept and encourage firebrand pastors who’ll push them to become better people. In personal terms, he also demands that evangelicals — who tend to be moral scolds and pearl-clutchers anyway — start caring way more about addressing their own flaws than about policing other people’s behavior.

(But I’m guessing Thom Rainer absolutely wouldn’t approve of any churches dropping the culture wars! Autopsy doesn’t address that topic. Back in 2014, I don’t think evangelicals understood just how many adherents those politicized crusades were costing them. They still really don’t.)

Fervent evangelicals could never, would never actually accept any of those changes in their churches.

Why Evangelicals Join These Churches.

It’s like Thom Rainer just has no idea in the world why evangelicals even join their churches in the first place.

Churches do not recruit people on the basis of come join us and help us do good in the community and conscientiously better ourselves without worrying about other people’s errors. Nobody’d join just on that basis. There absolutely must be something in it for the members themselves.

Now, I’ve seen some that do talk up their community involvement (especially Black evangelical groups). In this strategy, churches seek to poach Christians from other churches on the basis of community service. Indeed, almost all churches include stuff about “mission” or “accountability” in their promotional material.

However, in their actual recruitment pitches they tend to focus primarily on members themselves: the amenities they offer members and their guests/families, the personal benefits of membership, the attentiveness of their clubhouse staff, the incredibly nice people in their group just waiting to make friends with new members, etc. And their sales pitches center almost exclusively on creating-and-then-fulfilling people’s personal needs.

But okay, Autopsy, sure.

Just go ahead and pretend that Christians start their “walks with Jesus” specifically to serve others and seek genuine self-improvement, rather than their actual main reason: to save themselves from whatever it is they fear most (Hell, loneliness, mortality, insignificance, powerlessness, whatever).

Go ahead. Pretend.

It’s what you’re best at.

Shepherding From the Bottom.

But even if Autopsy convinced a few churches to give its advice a try, the flocks wouldn’t stand for it.

It’s just so funny to see Thom Rainer basically spending a whole book telling churches to be something besides what they are, and then chide them for not putting up with pastors who try to change them into the vision he considers TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ for churches.

Indeed, Chapter 8 discusses a sign of a dying church: high pastoral turnover. We’ve talked about high turnover in broken systems before, but it’s actually nice to see it laid out in a Christian book. In Thom Rainer’s view, high pastoral turnover indicates great friction and tension between pastors and the congregation. He thinks that churches hire their new pastors under false pretenses, telling their new leaders that they want to be led into a new era of personal change. Unfortunately, their eyes are way better than their stomachs, as we say of young children loading their plates (p. 60)

When these [new] pastors initiated or even suggested change, there was fierce resistance. They really didn’t see much hope based upon the patterns and the history of the church, so they left.

And the cycle repeated itself until, finally, the church shut its doors.

Some few pastors end up acquiescing to the flocks’ desires and lasting until the bitter end (p. 61):

The[se pastors] likely knew the church was headed toward demise, or at least toward severe decline. [. . .] But, for these pastors, decline and death of the church was preferable to conflict. They became caretakers of members only. They sided with the members at any hint of change.

But he leaves out the reason why pastors go this route: it’s how they keep their jobs. The Hank Busches of the evangelical world do not actually last long in real-world evangelical churches.

Christians might play at being sheep, but they very much top from the bottom. The moment their leaders start taking that “shepherd” metaphor too seriously, the flocks slap them back into line — or fire them.

To Thine Own Self Be Utterly Unaware.

Thom Rainer seems to adore this tiny little Autopsy book of his, like it’s some instant classic of evangelical literature. I can see why. It centers primarily on evangelicals’ own self-image in all the best ways. And its advice isn’t terrible. It’s just impossible for the vast majority of evangelical churches to put into practice.

And the reason for that impossibility is simple.

Just as Autopsy up-plays evangelicals’ own fantasies about themselves, it ignores all the really awful parts of evangelicalism: the control-lust, the territoriality, the constant drama and infighting in churches and groups of all kinds and sizes, the sheer pettiness and small-mindedness of evangelicals generally, and most of all the predation — from pastors’ wives recruiting for their silly MLMs to the pastors fishing for off-limits sex from the church’s dock to professional high-rollin’ conjobs taking all the wealthiest members of a church for a ride through the wacky world of shady investments.

Without a tether to reality and a real commitment to consent, the sheep have no protection at all from these scammers and predators. But you’d never know that any of that stuff even happens in evangelicalism.

Autopsy assumes good-faith on the part of all evangelical churches — as a default. I’m suddenly wondering just how many of these churches Thom Rainer visited that successfully concealed dealbreaker scandals from him. I bet the answer is far from a nonzero number.

The Cure That Won’t Happen.

Thom Rainer doesn’t spend much time in Autopsy talking about the many churches that stand suspected or guilty of abusing members or mishandling resources. Nor does he, as I mentioned, address the culture wars that were already polarizing churches in 2014 and losing them adherents.

No, Thom Rainer was just laying the groundwork for his post-LifeWay career. As such, he needed to sell evangelicals the idea that yes, they could fix their decline.

Even now, they think this way. All they must do is change to be something they weren’t and never have been and never wanted to be at all! Everyone just needs to Jesus harder! Then everything will be peachy!

And six years after Autopsy’s surefire solution to evangelical decline, evangelicals still can’t even rise to the level of basic human decency. I guess as long as the sheep throw him money and buy his books, it’s all good in Thom Rainer’s world.

NEXT UP: What would actually happen to a church that took Autopsy’s 12-Step Plan seriously? Tomorrow, let’s speculate!

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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,...