One of the experiences prescribed for student chaplains at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois is to witness an autopsy in the hospital morgue. So it was I found myself holding a human brain in my hands to be weighed and measured. It was a holy moment in which the scripture was brought home to me that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:14) Doctors carefully study the deceased so that they can better help the living.
It is no secret that local churches die. We see their redundant structures on
rural roads and urban centers. Church consultant Thom Rainer has spent a good deal of time carefully studying deceased congregations, interviewing members, studying budgets, board minutes, attendance and ministries. His aim is to help living churches stay that way! He released his findings in a little book called Autopsy of a Deceased Church.
I was taken by two indications of a dying church. One is when the “Great Commission becomes the Great Omission.” Jesus said, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) There’s a lot of action words here: Go, make, baptize, and teach. This requires decisive and strenuous effort. Somewhere along the way, dying churches stop making the effort. They may remember good old days when it was happening but are no longer willing to go into the community to reach and minister to people. They aren’t willing to invite unchurched friends and relatives. They aren’t willing to spend the money necessary for a vibrant outreach. They just wanted it to happen. Without prayer. Without sacrifice. Without hard work.
Rainer invites us to make a prayer commitment:
Lord, remind me that I am to be a Great Commission Christian in a Great Commission church. Remind me that, in your strength, I am to do whatever it takes to reach out into my community with the transforming power of the gospel.
A second indication he found was “the church rarely prayed together.” Acts tells us the early church, “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.” (2:42) They were fervent, intense and passionate about prayer. Failing to pray was like failing to breathe. Prayer wasn’t a ritual permitting one to eat a meal or start a meeting. It was the lifeblood of the church. Prayer before worship services. Prayer in small groups. Prayer for the community around the church. Prayer births hope but a focus on fear extinguishes prayer and along with it, the life of the church. No prayer. No hope. And death is not far off.
Again Rainer invites us to make a prayer commitment:
Lord, teach me to pray. Teach me to pray consistently. Teach me to be a leader in prayer in my church. And teach me to keep passionate and believing prayer as the lifeblood of this church.
No church can overemphasize the Great Commission or passionate prayer. The spirit has spoken to me to make these commitments the focus of my leadership in this New Year. I do not wish to talk about them but to do them and embed them deeply as habitual practices in our life together. No autopsies for me please. Let the church live and breathe!