Church planting has enjoyed a renewed interest in recent years. Droves of practitioners have joined together to form massive church-planting networks, published stacks of books on the subject and have written a whole host of blog posts discussing the various approaches to planting churches. While this increased attention to church planting is encouraging, church revitalization has not always experienced the same level of careful contemplation. It is sometimes viewed as the less appealing option for pastoral ministry.
This trend is changing with more pastors and academics championing the cause of revitalization. One of those advocates for church revitalization is Bill Henard, pastor of Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., and a professor of evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book, Can These Bones Live?, is a clear, practical guide to help ministers accomplish the difficult work of revitalization.
The title, which is based on the prophecy of Ezekiel 37, clues readers into two important characteristics of Henard’s work: his desire to see dying and declining churches experience life once again and his deep trust in God’s life-giving power to transform congregations.
There is much to praise about the book, especially Henard’s contention that church revitalization is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit working through the preaching of the Word and prayer. His focus is refreshing in light of the vast number of resources that focus on methods and programs as primary means for achieving church growth. Henard warns, “Not all church growth is healthy church growth. Not all churches that are growing experience biblical church growth. Drawing a crowd is not the same as growing a church.”
Henard is right to point readers to the true spiritual nourishment that only the Lord can provide. Church revitalization is not simply about growing a church’s membership roll, but about seeing God produce a harvest of men and women committed to following Christ with all of their lives.
The subtitle of Can These Bones Live? describes the book as “a practical guide to church revitalization,” and readers will not be disappointed with the wide range of topics addressed. Written for pastors or involved laypersons, Henard offers numerous lists of practical assessment questions for churches. These questions bring up a host of issues, ranging from organizational structure to the condition of women’s restrooms.
While some books on church and ministry stick to abstract theological truths, Henard’s pastoral experience becomes apparent as he guides readers through a number of practical – and often overlooked – areas that should be addressed in church revitalization.
The majority of the book focuses on the assessment of one’s local church, and the final chapter introduces Henard’s “Change Matrix.”
This matrix is a four-step course of action that pastors can use to implement needed changes in their congregation. It is not a gimmick that promises an easy transition process in every decision. Henard is clear that revitalization is messy work that requires patience and wisdom from pastors and congregations alike. So, he provides an outline for pastors to consider as they implement changes.
The matrix is a potentially helpful resource for the church revitalizer, but the chapter felt dissatisfying because of its brevity.
Henard tried to unpack the Change Matrix – a distinguishing feature of the book – in a meager seven pages, not enough space for readers to fully grasp how to utilize the matrix in their respective ministry situations.
Additionally, there were a few topics that were noticeably omitted from the book. For instance, recovering biblical church membership is a component that seems essential to the process of church revitalization; it is largely missing in the book. Henard mentions the importance of a “New Member” class, but very little discussion about what constitutes church membership can be found.
Many, if not most, declining or dying congregations have lost sight of what it truly means to be a member of a local church. After all, statistics show that almost two-thirds of Southern Baptists are missing from corporate worship each week, according to a 2014 Baptist Press report on the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profile. Henard overlooked an important opportunity to encourage churches toward recovering healthy church membership.
Along the same lines, the topic of church discipline was missing from the book. God has given us church discipline as a means to purify His bride (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5), and any congregation seeking revitalization must reclaim the biblical practice of church discipline. It seems peculiar that a practical guide to church revitalization would neglect to give churches wisdom on how to implement church discipline, a practice that is sadly missing from many Southern Baptist churches.
Our country, our own denomination even, is filled with churches that desperately need a fresh wind from the Spirit. While we cannot produce spiritual renewal through our own efforts, the Lord has a history of graciously pouring out his revitalizing Spirit on churches that align their hearts and practices with the Word. Henard does churches a service by providing a book that gives readers practical questions to assess and address areas that need to be realigned with God’s scriptures. Even though readers could benefit from a fuller discussion of church membership and discipline, the book still provides a great deal of wisdom and guidance as church leaders labor to build up the body of Christ. It is certainly worth a read for those who are interested in the work of church revitalization.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Cody Cunningham is a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes at codycunningham.com.)