Reviewed by Brian Croft
There exists an unprecedented need to help dying and struggling churches. Churches are closing their doors at an alarming rate, particularly in the Southern Baptist Convention. This is why I am grateful for the growing efforts of some within the SBC to address the issue of historic established churches closing on a weekly basis. Bill Henard and his book, Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (B&H Publishing) is one such timely effort. Pastor Henard has served in the ministry for many years and the wisdom he has gained in those years is reflected in this helpful book.
The title of the book originates from an important question asked of Ezekiel when he was standing in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:3), “Can These Bones Live?” (2) This well-known passage becomes a helpful metaphor for modern day dying churches for as Henard proposes,
Following a particular methodology or program does not guarantee success. One might greatly desire for the church to revitalize and grow, but genuine church growth calls for more than personal passion. It requires the Spirit of God. Church Revitalization begins with laying the foundation of God’s Word as it is preached and followed through a movement of God’s Spirit. The two are inseparably linked. (2)
From the beginning Henard boldly states that God does not breathe life back into a dying church through programs and gimmicks, but through his life-giving word at work by the Spirit. Then, the opening chapter makes a strong argument on the need for church revitalization. Henard contends that revitalization is not about church growth, but church health (8-11). This is important as there is a big difference in judging success by numbers in comparison to spiritual health.
In Chapter 2, the author begins the steps to assess a church to determine what needs to be pursued to begin the revitalization process. There is very helpful wisdom in this chapter not just about assessing a church, but to consider the different groups in a typical church and the impact each of those groups have had and continue to have on a church. This chapter also contains some well done yet troubling research that builds the case for the need of revitalization in so many SBC churches. In laying this ground work, the author spends the rest of the book providing different assessment tools (Chapters 3-12) that would aid a pastor or church to consider the problematic areas, the need for revitalization, and where to start. Here are the eleven assessment areas proposed:
1) The Church Does Not Recognize the Need for Revitalization
2) The Church Does Not Want to Grow
3) Physical Barriers to Growth
4) Gifts Do Not Match the Church
5) Community Demographics Differ from the Church
6) The Church Turns Inward
7) External Factors
8) The Church Has Lost Its Vision
9) Operating through Inadequate Ministry Structures
10) Failure to Increase the Impact of Ministry
11) The Church Lacks Important Ingredients for Conversion Growth
The book concludes with a “Change Matrix” which is a strategy to help a pastor or church begin the process to change that which needs to be corrected for a revitalization to be possible (Chapter 14). In my reading of the book in light of my own experience with church revitalization, I evaluated three strengths and two weaknesses with this work:
1) Wisdom for pastors in revitalization efforts. My favorite part of the book is when the author spoke as a seasoned pastor to other pastors and exhorted them in the most essential area—the pastor’s own soul. Pastor Henard exhorted pastors from not neglecting their own soul in this journey of revitalization (18) to the need to be patient as revitalization is never accomplished in a few years. He urges pastors to give 7-10 years to see promising fruit in revitalization work. He references often this work is a hard labor that requires perseverance and courage. I appreciated these kinds of exhortations as so many pastors lose their soul in the unrealistic short-sighted expectations that lead to short pastorates and despairing souls of pastors.
2) Church health verses Church growth. Historically, SBC churches have evaluated church success on numbers. Growth is a good thing, but is not the final judge in whether a church is thriving. The spiritual health of a congregation must be the primary gauge to determine whether life exists in a church. Henard rightfully points us to church health as the tool to measure the state of a church. This is particular important in church revitalization for a church could be spiritually growing, but in decline numerically as older members die and people move away. The author points us to church health, which is not only the best way to measure a revitalization effort, but the fruitfulness of any church.
3) Assessment tools. The problem must first be assessed; otherwise a solution cannot be determined. Church revitalization is no different. The primary focus of this book is to serve pastors and churches in assessing their church and identifying the problematic areas that have contributed to the struggle. There are some very helpful categories represented in each chapter heading that are necessary in seeing the problematic root issues in a church. The author then walks through each area, chapter by chapter, and helps the reader learn how to evaluate their own church.
1) Assessment verses Practice. Despite the time and energy of the book poured into assessing a church’s condition, I found myself longing for more explanation on how practically to do revitalization. The areas of assessing and the end goal was clear, but wished more was said about how to implement the changes necessary. To be fair, implementation didn’t seem to be the goal of this book, but I felt more application would have still served the reader well.
2) Application for Smaller Churches. There are many principles in this book that apply to any church situation and size, but as a small church pastor I found many of the applications to reflect the ministry of a larger church. I am aware the author pastors a larger church and speaks often about his own church situation throughout the book. The specific applications felt a bit disconnected to me as I read it as a small church pastor.
I would recommend this book, especially its wealth of wisdom for pastors in tough churches and those looking for tangible and practical assessment tools for the work. You may not agree with every thought, conclusion, and methodology the author has in considering this very complicated work of church revitalization, but I pray you will resonate with his thesis that only God gives the church life. God’s all wise and powerful design to build his church comes through his Word being preached, the gospel being proclaimed, and the power of his Spirit at work. Only through that word alone does God breathe life into the most hopeless looking church and can revive it for his purposes and glory.
Brian Croft is Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Brian is the founder of Practical Shepherding, a non-profit organization committed to equipping pastors all over the world in the practical matters of pastoral ministry.
Buy the books
Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization