Can a dying church live again?
It seems like such a simple question. As long as there are people present and the Bible is faithfully preached, there’s every chance. But even so, there is no guarantee. Conflict, turf wars, wounds from church splits, and numerous other challenges are very real threats attempts to revitalize, especially the dreaded seven words, “But we’ve always done it this way.”
Can those obstacles be overcome? Yep. But it won’t be easy, which is why Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again exists. In this short book, Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick share the challenges facing prospective replanters through the story of DeVine’s efforts to rejuvenate First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.
Who is prepared for this task?
DeVine was, by his own admission, an unexpected choice for this job. He was primarily an academic—a seminary professor—not a vocational minister, nor a church planter. “What prepares a man to imagine that he can stroll into an old, proud, dying city church in the Midwest and have his way with it?” he asks.
What allows a man to suppose he can wrench the levers of power out of the hands of a small but entrenched and fierce pack of lay Christians habituated to having their way—to imagine he can do so despite decades of failed attempts at pastoral leadership?
Given what he and Patrick describe in this book, I’m not sure there’s anything that could prepare a man for such a task. DeVine found himself in the midst of a disaster: a church controlled by an elite few who intimidated congregation members, controlled committees and bullied their pastors into leaving. And this had to end:
The prevailing culture of the place, despite a superficial sheen of interest in the gospel, expended its energies largely in nostalgia, defense of personal perks and privileges, and the sabotage of would-be pastoral leadership. The more I researched the recent past of the church and examined its present state, the more convinced I became that only radical steps—including multiple and likely bitter confrontations with the lay cartel—held out much hope for spiritual revival.
As DeVine details the events that took place to eventually dismantle the lay cartel, readers see something pretty incredible: the rest of the congregation begins to stand up to them, as well. DeVine’s actions remind us of an important value: leaders shape the culture. When a leader cowers in the face of opposition, the congregation likewise cower. This is how the “cartel” took control of the church, in DeVine’s experience. It was because of a lack of strong leadership—not strong in the sense authority, but a humble confidence in the Lord. A willingness to be courageous in the face of opposition. And when a leader does that, it empowers the congregation to follow suit.
Perpetuating popular evangelical stereotypes
In terms of practical value (specifically “how-tos”), Replant doesn’t have much to offer. It’s really not that kind of book, something the authors themselves readily admit. But that doesn’t mean there are no practical takeaways. Most are in the form of principles, such as the one above. There are some, however, that don’t sit quite as well.
For example, early in the book, the authors assert that, “When churches settle into extended periods of decline, they sometimes adopt a defensive rhetoric that touts spiritual growth or spiritual health over numerical growth.” While there is an element of truth in this, without question, it’s not quite as clear cut as they make it seem. Some declining churches absolutely do adopt defensive rhetoric around spiritual growth. But many apparently thriving churches do the same around their numerical growth. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.
Growing in numbers doesn’t equal gospel-fidelity, as any number of churches around North America bear witness. It’s hard to make a case that Lakewood Church is a bold outpost for the gospel since its pastor preaches another gospel. Numerous so-called evangelical megachurches—such as Elevation Church—seem more enamored with their rockstar pastor than with the Lord Jesus. And then there are churches like those of my friends’ Noel and Tim, churches that are intentional about making disciples, training leaders and sending out people in order to spread the gospel through church planting. Their congregations are small by some standards (around 200 or so, which really isn’t all that small), but they are gospel lights in their communities and seeing it spread.
There are other curiosities as well—not necessarily good or bad, but things I’d love to have seen discussed in more depth. DeVine’s family was not with him while he served as the interim pastor of First Calvary. And this, he explains, was a good thing, for they were spared an enormous amount of hardship. But as I read, I wanted to know more about how that dynamic affected the family, even from afar. Of how much were they aware? Who did DeVine have to confide in and seek encouragement from during that time? The picture painted is, perhaps inadvertently, a continuation of the “leadership is lonely” paradigm, and that should not be.
If one church can revitalize, so can another
That’s not to say, however, that you should not read the book. In fact, I’d especially encourage those who are considering replanting to consider this. Every replanting situation is different, filled with its own peculiarities and personalities, after all; in some ways it might even more more difficult than planting an entirely new church. So those who are pursuing this mission are in short supply of encouragement. That’s really what this book has to offer: it’s the story of how one church was replanted and revitalized. And that should give readers hope that if it can happen in one church, it can happen in another—perhaps even their own. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible.
Title: Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again
Authors: Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick
Publisher: David C. Cook (2014)