B&H Publishing Group (Autopsy of a Deceased Church) and Banner of Truth (The Faith Shaped Life)

Weekend Reads: Death in a church, life in a believer


Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive

By Thom Rainer

I go to a dying church. In fact, my congregation will almost certainly close in less than six months. I’m not alone. According to Autopsy of a Deceased Church (B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 80 percent of American churches are either sick or very sick, and another 10 percent are dying. In other words, only 10 percent are healthy.

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Thom Rainer knows what he’s talking about. He’s been a pastor and then a consultant for churches for more than 30 years. For this book, he studied everything available about 14 dead churches. All the churches were past-focused, inward-looking congregations. That is, in large part, why they died. A section heading sums up the message of the book: “Others First = Life. Me First = Death.”

So, a dying church almost never cuts staff salaries. That would mean reducing the amount of service available to church members who believe that the pastor and other staff members are “their personal caretakers.” The first item to get cut is always the outreach budget. Soon enough, the church stops looking like the community around it. Those who worship there don’t live there, and vice versa. Rather than being driven by the goals of God’s kingdom, a sick church is driven by the preferences of its members. Left unchecked, this leads to members digging in and saying they will let the church die before they let it change. So it dies.

What if your church is in the 90 percent? Rainer’s subtitle offers 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, but his main point is this: Abandon selfishness. A dying church should sell its property and give the money to another ministry, giving its life for others. The same is true for sick churches. They must focus upward (prayer) and outward (evangelism) and have a humble willingness to change. Otherwise, just like my church, they will die.

The Faith Shaped Life

By Ian Hamilton

According to Ian Hamilton, those really gripped by the good news of what Christ has done “will speak it and live it as men and women humbled by its grace, filled with its joy, thrilled by its possibilities, harnessed to the One who is ‘full of grace and truth.’” Those words are a very fair description of how Hamilton presents the truth in The Faith Shaped Life (Banner of Truth, 2013).

Hamilton is pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, England, and a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust. The Faith Shaped Life is a collection of 43 devotional meditations, and it combines a rich Reformed orthodoxy with a strong vein of heartfelt piety.

Thus, Hamilton teaches that God “providentially ordains and orders all your ways and the ways of all men and women everywhere. For the child of God, this is not first a conundrum to solve, it is a pillow to lie on!”

And indeed, Faith Shaped Life draws spiritual nourishment from topics as diverse as the beauty contest in which Esther was chosen as the new queen to the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural reality of the Christian church. Faith takes hold of the promises of God. It does not give us a right to inherit those promises, but it is the means by which we appropriate the promises.

Thus, knowledge of and trust in our promising God contours a walk in a faith-shaped life. Such a heartfelt trust expresses itself in the words of the Puritan John Owen: “Nothing so ill, but Christ will compensate.” Hamilton takes this for a chapter title and meditates on the beauty of the “all-glorious Christ.” If that beauty is your heart’s desire, then you will find—and feel—in the words of Hamilton the out-breathings of a soul like your own.  

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb is the pastor of Harvest Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gillette, Wyoming.


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