Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

Note: I was provided a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

The Myth of Big Church Success

There was recently a flap in the Evangelical world over a mega-church pastor castigating parents who attend small churches. Although he has since apologized for his baseless and offensive rant, he is not alone in holding the idea that bigger is better. This is, in fact, a common misconception particularly in the American life, and it isn’t a new fault.

In many ways a prophet, Francis Schaeffer was not silent on the temptation to believe that bigger is better:

Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered Me. This attitude, taken from the world, is more dangerous to the Christian than fleshly amusement or practice. It is the flesh. 

This is a failure that many churches and Christian institutions fall into. Sometimes we believe that if we are doing things right, then our organization will grow.

There are times that is a helpful perspective to have. If right doctrine is well preached, healthy community outreach happens, and personal evangelism is faithfully practiced, then it stands to reason that in many cases a church will grow. However, that may not be the case at all times.

The Future Winnowing

In fact, it may be that in the very near future there will be little the local church can do to grow, humanly speaking. The Holy Spirit may move through churches for revival. May it be so! Shy of that, many churches will likely continue to see declines in attendance as nominal Christians fade away. Although we are certainly a long way away from straight out persecution, the social advantages of being Christian are fading and will continue to fade for the foreseeable future.

As that reality takes hold, pastors who have founded their self-worth on the size of their congregation will find themselves in despair. That fleshly part of their heart, which was so fed by continued growth, may be pinched when numbers dwindle due to a changing society.

It is at this point that the temptation to view bigger as better is most dangerous. Facing the discouragement of shrinking crowds with an internal pressure to grow, then one of the options may be to make the “church experience” more palatable. This may occur through doctrinal compromise in some cases. More often, it will likely be reflected by adding more lights, widgets, and other attractions to entertain folks away from more docile worship services. This is a sort of competition between local outposts of the Kingdom of God that can be decidedly unhealthy.

The Bigger Pond Mentality

A second way that the desire to seek a bigger crowd demonstrates itself is the progression of churches that some pastors go through in their careers. They start small in an entry level church and work their way up toward a bigger church with a larger facility, more services, and a bigger paycheck.

Of course, it does not help that many congregations presently foster this unhealthy progression by requiring years experienced with demonstrable success in a previous pastorate for their pastoral candidates. There is little doubt that in the end, larger congregations will get better, more practiced preaching, but the downside is that it treats smaller churches as a minor league system to feed the staffs of larger churches.

In this sense, recent criticism of small churches has a point. Many smaller churches may indeed have poorer preaching with pastors who are just doing their time until they can move to a bigger field of service. However, having been to seminary with many small church pastors, I believe that most of them, even the ones hoping to move to a congregation that can pay their bills, are doing the best they can with the skills they have in the situation they are in.

It’s not the men that I find fault in, it’s the system that is flawed. The most recent critic is just a man giving voice to what so many believed anyway, but weren’t saying.

The Prosperity Problem

What Schaeffer doesn’t call out in his quote, however, is the connection between the Prosperity Gospel and the attitude that spiritual success results in more dollars, people, and whatever.

Of course, there isn’t really so much a connection as a unity.

This is what makes the “bigger is better” attitude so dangerous for the contemporary minister. It is the Prosperity Gospel. This means that setting out to simply get bigger because you believe that it means God is blessing can be an indicator of practical heresy. The doctrine preached from the pulpit may be sound and not reflect the egregious errors of the prosperity preachers, but the staff meeting may reflect a flawed celebration of growth for its own sake.

This leads to the simple caveat, which I won’t elaborate on, that small is not necessarily better, either. I’m partial to a smaller congregation, but the practical heresy of small church asceticism is no less deadly.

A Possible Solution

The best solution for the problem is to seek to do ministry better by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s a truism but worth pondering.

Instead of worrying about doing ministry with numerical growth goals, it will be more practical to do them with the hope of growing the depth of the disciples. That and being true to the context that God has placed the ministry in. That seems like a trite solution, but it is the best general solution that there is.

God may well grow your ministry, but if your goal is for the size of your ministry to grow, then you may need to check your heart. Of course, that should be a regular practice for all of us.

Why Churches Should Have Websites

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

Used in original by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/SxKG4 

My recent relocation to a new city has driven me to a fundamental belief that a church that does not have a digital footprint is failing the community. In other words, in the American context, a church without a website is in error.

To some a website seems superfluous. What does it matter if we are preaching the Word and doing ordinances correctly? A few years ago I might have argued the same thing. However, from the perspective of someone looking for a church home, the lack of a website is a significant failure on the part of a church.

Three reasons to have a website

The first reason it is important for churches in the digital age to have a website is because without a digital footprint it is nearly impossible to find a church. As a newcomer to town I have no idea where some of these small churches are located. I don’t have a phone book and a phone book is insufficient for getting information out in this day and age anyway.

If churches want to be found by anyone who doesn’t live right next door, they need to communicate their presence. The most efficient way to do that is with a simple website.

The second reason for a church to have a website is to provide helpful information. For example, what time does the church meet? Unless the congregation takes out an ad in the phone book (which will likely cost more than a simple website), then having the only marker of the church’s existence be the name and seven digits of phone number in the yellow pages is not very helpful.

Additionally, a website can simply convey what the church believes. Are you a moderate SBC church that refuses to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? This is good to know so that people can skip over to a biblically-faithful congregation. Also, how does your pastor preach? A visitor shouldn’t have to spend several hours to visit just to find that the pastor uses a text as a springboard for a ramble through a self-help lecture. That time could be better invested looking for a congregation where Scripture is valued and there is opportunity to serve.

It doesn’t take much time or money these days to create a simple website that presents the basic facts and links in some sermon samples (even if they are the best ones). The result is that people know what to expect, where to be there, and you are more likely to get visitors that are more likely to join the fellowship.

A third reason for a church to have a website is to meet the needs of the community. How will the person in the midst of a divorce find out you have a care group to minister to that situation unless you put it online? Maybe through word of mouth, but most people depend on a web search.

How about the ways that your congregation provides emergency aid to the community? Or, if the church does job training or a clothing closet, it is insufficient to expect work conversations to really communicate the resources to those in need. When technology is so inexpensive and ubiquitous, the failure to use it should lead others to question whether the aid programs are intended to be effective.

Stewardship

Although recently someone attempted to tie the existence of church websites to the decline in SBC missions, that tie is tenuous. Perhaps it applies to churches that spend large amounts of money on top of the line sites. That isn’t the point of this discussion.

A failure to have a website is a marker that you really don’t want to have people visit. Whatever your rhetoric is, you don’t want visitors if you won’t provide information about your congregation. This is not just new move-ins to the community, this applies to those in your community that suddenly have a need that drives them to seek out a church.

When a church fails to provide a digital footprint with basic information, it puts the onus on the visitor to figure everything out. As a believer who is required by my contract to join a church, I am forced to do the legwork to find a church. However, if I did not have that driving force, it would be much easier to stay in bed on a Sunday morning than to make phone calls, visit around, and potentially miss the beginning of your service because the church didn’t publish a schedule.

A church without a website is still a church. This isn’t a question of orthodoxy. However, a church without at least a simple website is not stewarding the available technology and resources well. While this isn’t essential to the gospel, it is a gospel issue because it undermines the effectiveness of a congregation in serving the community.

"Where Are We Going?" not "Where Are We Now?"

Sometimes at conferences or even in sermons, it’s the throwaway lines that pack the most punch.

In a discussion on the nature of social justice, particularly how it has been reinterpreted and changed from its original purpose, Michael Novak made an interesting comment.

He said, “When people’s life expectancy was only into their 20’s, ‘Til death do us part’ meant something significantly different than it does now.”

In one sense this is untrue, because at the heart of it, the marriage vow has always been a lifelong commitment. There was always an intended permanence. However, at the next level in the comment, which is where I think Novak intended the audience to go, there is a meaty truth worth chewing on.

Commitment to marriage for life is something different when you only expect to live for another decade than it is if you expect to live for another sixty years. Or, rather, the nature of what is being committed to is different.

Without deconstructing marriage in this discussion, which others are doing apart quickly and violently enough, it is worth considering if some of the unraveling of marriages within the church isn’t due to a slow change in teaching about the significance of marriage.

In other words, it is one thing to commit to live with someone you don’t get along with for a decade. It is another thing to commit to deal with another person’s idiosyncrasies for three times the time you’ve been alive. I'm not sure the teaching of the church on marriage kept up with the reality of life.

The way you think about marriage, enter into marriage, and live as a married person changes based on that expectation. The difference is much like the way you pack for a weekend getaway instead of a two week vacation. There is a lot more preparation for one than the other.

Pulling back from the specific issue of marriage, this brings up the way the Church uses data and adapts the way she teaches to the changing world around her. The doctrines do not change, but the way they are expressed certainly must to keep up with the changing landscape.

This is where, as a smart aleck young evangelical, I am tempted to point out how the Church is always reactionary. But, I am part of that reaction, continually lagging behind the culture hoping to find a way to communicate within it.

When the Church, which includes me, fails to find new ways to apply old truths, we leave people to fill in the gaps on their own. God is good and Scripture accessible, but sometimes the result of such independent development isn’t good.

Instead of reading into the sign of the times, looking for where we are right now, we need to be looking for where we are going. We may be wrong, but only if we lead people to think about a way forward can we hope to have them adequately prepared for today.

Image used by CC license: http://ow.ly/OvOcL Thinking....[Explored] Ricardo Cuppini