Autopsy: Thom Rainer’s 12-Step Church Revitalization Plan

Autopsy: Thom Rainer’s 12-Step Church Revitalization Plan September 26, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you a 2014 book by Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive. As the title indicates, the book describes how evangelical churches wither away and die — and how to prevent that from happening to the reader’s own church. However, evangelical churches can’t even begin to put Thom Rainer’s suggestions into practice. Today, I’ll show you what those suggestions are, and why they haven’t saved evangelicals from decline.

autopsy this
(Nicole Keller.)

The Twelve Steps-That-Weren’t in Autopsy.

Though it’s very short (101 pages!), Autopsy certainly illustrates all the tropes of evangelical advice books.

First, it features a misleading, even click-bait-y title. In Autopsy, Thom Rainer promises to share with readers “12 Ways to Keep [Your Church] Alive.” However, you’ll find no such tangible advice in this book. Instead, his “12 Ways” take the form of “prayerful commitments.” And these, in turn, involve short canned prayers that he expects readers to recite — which will in turn open those readers to the suggestions he makes.

In addition to its misleading title, Autopsy features the usual non-advice we expect out of evangelical advice-givers.

Evangelical hucksters long ago mastered the art of absolutely intangible, vague, impossible-to-relate-to-reality advice. Years ago, I criticized this tendency: Yes, yes, but what does that LOOK like? I still think of it that way. When someone’s belief system isn’t based in reality, then the advice they offer tends to similarly lack grounding. It can’t be quantified or qualified in real-world terms.

Snake-oil hucksters like this kind of non-advice because the flocks can’t ever tell if it works or not. (It doesn’t.) When they fail to achieve their desired results, those flocks will likely only blame themselves for doing something incorrectly — they don’t know what, but obviously it was something. Meanwhile, the hucksters who shear those sheep always come out smelling like roses.

And Thom Rainer’s clearly learned these techniques well.

Becoming Open to Change.

Again, none of the “prayerful commitments” in Autopsy actually amount to genuinely tangible “ways to keep [your church] alive.” Here’s how his list begins. All quotes come directly from the book, but otherwise I’ve stripped out his Christianese glurge.

  • (1) See your church through the eyes of your god, which should be really easy (SWIDT?). Make yourself aware of changes that need to happen, and be willing to make those changes happen “whatever the cost.” (p. 8)
  • (2) Ask your god to make you part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Also, ask him to give you the courage to do what he needs in your church. Cuz gosh, it’s just so impossible otherwise! (p. 15)
  • (3) Try to be more like the “heroes of Hebrews 11.” Really. Consciously equate those heroes super-heroic deeds with trying not to be so territorial about your particular worship preferences. (p. 23)

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap between all three of the first 12 steps. Get used to that. Thom Rainer knows very well that his tribe doesn’t take to change well — and can get snarly very quickly when someone moves in on what they consider to be “their” turf. So he’s hammering at this concept.

That last one made me laugh, though. Imagine comparing a slight shift in, say, worship lighting or music to Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt! Or comparing the unnamed martyrs’ mythic suffering to anything going on in a modern American evangelical church! Nobody demonstrates group narcissism better than evangelicals. Their self-pity and entitlement could move mountains.

(I’d like to respectfully put forth this suggestion: if nothing short of an omnimax god could possibly wrangle your group into something worthwhile and enjoyable, then it is way past salvaging.)

Becoming Better Human Beings.

Now we move on to something slightly tangible. Self-serving and blatantly disingenuous, yes, but somewhat tangible at least.

Thom Rainer hammers at community involvement in Autopsy. I can see why, too. Evangelical churches in particular often get a really bad rap for draining local community resources while contributing nothing back. So this subsection suggests ways (and reasons) for Christians to better-immerse their churches into their local communities.

In that vein, here are the “prayerful commitments” he asks of readers for this subsection:

  • (4) Since holding TRUE CHRISTIAN™ beliefs does absolutely nothing to make Christians better people, ask Jesus to forcibly implant into you a sense of human compassion and decency. Use that implant to become a better neighbor to your church’s local community. Ask local community leaders to “lead us and teach us.” (p. 29)
  • (5) Stop thinking of the church’s money as belonging to its staff and members, but instead consider it as belonging to an invisible sky wizard who’s just really super-bad at managing money. Start using that money the way the Bible repeatedly suggests: by spending it on the needy. (p. 36)
  • (6) Don’t just be involved and charitable for its own sake. Instead, do absolutely everything with an eye toward recruitment. If you’re not recruiting 24/7, the sky wizard will be angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. (p. 45)

Yes, evangelicals could probably make themselves look way more credible by turning the ocean liner of their narcissism around, but they won’t. As we discussed yesterday, evangelicals don’t join their churches to serve others. They join to get their own needs met. Similarly, they don’t choose locations for their churches with an eye toward community involvement.

I’d almost rather evangelicals not even pretend to care about their local communities, if the alternative is them doing good only to impress people outside their walls with how incredibly Jesus-y they are so they want to join up. I don’t think Thom Rainer realizes how terribly obvious that kind of recruitment is, or how creepy it is to be the focus of that kind of charity.

Becoming a Better Church.

And now, Autopsy moves on to teaching readers to become better church members. The idea here is to introduce better cohesion to the church and reduce reasons to churn out.

  • (7) Start volunteering more for your church. Stop showing up just to get your own needs met. (p. 52)
  • (8) Ask Jesus to give your pastor a drive for recruitment, as well as to help you be only encouraging and supportive toward him. (p. 61)
  • (9) Since Christians know quite well just how ineffective prayer is, ask Jesus to magically implant in you the desire to pray “consistently.” Become a “leader in prayer” in your church and make sure all your peers pray with you whenever possible. (p. 69)
  • (10) Become 24/7 salespeople. Never let up. It’s all about the recruitment. (p. 76)
  • (11) Stop obsessing about the church decorations and facilities. (p. 82)

We can read between the lines here to get a solid bead on exactly why evangelical churches don’t attract a lot of functional people who want to serve the group. Indeed, if evangelicals could actually do any of this stuff, they’d already be doing it. There’s a reason why they can’t, though. That deep communal flaw is not something that can be changed through shame — or with any amount of thinking at the ceiling.

As with the other subsections, you’ll no doubt notice some areas of significant overlap here. I’m guessing Thom Rainer really wanted to hit that magical “12” number that makes evangelicals gooey.

The Summary Prayer for Autopsy.

As for that magical 12th “prayerful commitment,” it just restates all of the previous items. I’m reprinting it in full to show you the ultra-evangelical Christianese that Thom Rainer uses throughout this book (p. 90):

Lord, let me see my church with honesty and open eyes. Help me to grasp where we have gotten out of balance with inward and outward ministries. And give our church a vision to make a difference in our community. Even more, God, use me to be a catalyst and instrument for the changes that must take place in our church.

Interestingly, Thom Rainer also offers an additional pair of “prayerful commitments” past this one.

  • (13) Ask Jesus to show you what must be done to revitalize your church. Also, request the courage to do it all. (p. 96)
  • (14) If your church really has to close, ask Jesus to tell you so. He’s always honest with you, right? Ask also for the courage to let the church close “for Your glory.”  (p. 101)

Nothing says “glory to Jesus” like a church closing — especially if that church began life with a pastor claiming that Jesus personally told him to open it right there and then in the first place.

Maybe Jesus has a wonky sense of humor. I don’t know. It’s just so weird that so many pastors seem to misunderstand his instructions.

(That first photo in that link: “No, no, I meant I wanted you to open a church near the dog park!”)

Magical Thinking.

Even where Thom Rainer’s advice veers dangerously close to tangibility, there’s absolutely no way to measure success (or failure) in the short or long terms beyond the church’s status as open or closed for good. He never connects any of his “prayerful commitments” with metrics for measuring success.

How does a church know when it’s immersed enough in the local community? What part of the church’s budget in percentages needs to be spent on charity? When does a church hit that tipping point when there’s just no way to come back from declining membership?

You’ll find no such nuts-and-bolts advice in this book. And that’s a glaring, downright weird oversight coming from a guy who’s always sold himself as the go-to expert in church survival.

Maybe that’s for the best.

Evangelical advice is nothing but busy-work that doesn’t actually relate in any way to actual desired results. In other words, it epitomizes magical thinking. I criticized this kind of non-advice when we looked at that awful marriage-advice book The Love Dare, and I had to laugh that Thom Rainer praises that book in Autopsy. He does the exact same thing in his own book that we saw in The Love Dare!

Who Is Autopsy Even For?

Imagine a Christian actually sincerely reciting these “Prayerful Commitments.” Such a Christian will soon discover that none of those “commitments” actually pulls a church back from decline. A real revitalization takes business acumen and great people skills, as well as a core group of members who can recruit successfully. Authoritarians will have trouble with most of that shopping list.

The Christian leaders who understand the value of community involvement, creating cohesive groups that are worthwhile for members, outward and forward focus, charitable giving, and taking a hard line against territorial urges are already doing this stuff.

Meanwhile, flock members who understand the importance of supporting and encouraging their pastors, consistent devotions, praying together as a group, being in 24/7 recruitment mode, not getting territorial about worship preferences, and giving till it hurts already do it. If they want change but the pastor and dominant church members don’t, it won’t happen.

And Autopsy is vague enough that leaders and flocks who don’t do this stuff already can convince themselves that they’re doing everything they possibly can, y’all, so it’s all in our god’s hands now.

Hooray! We revitalize now, yes?

MUCH REVIVAL! VERY GROWTH!!

But Autopsy completely failed at that primary mission.

 

NEXT UP: How and why Autopsy failed. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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