Based on numerous studies and statistics, one could conclude that the American
Evangelical church is in decline. The reasons for this are open to interpretation, but an application of this decline is the need for revitalization. Churches are struggling, sometimes because of rapidly changing communities and sometimes because they themselves are stuck in certain practices and traditions that no longer allow them to engage with the lost surrounding
In his new book, Church Revitalization: A Pastoral Guide to Church Renewal, Russell N.
Small takes on the task of helping walk a church leadership team through the process of revitalization. The first challenge that Small admits is how to actually define “revitalization”
(13). His solution is to place four different types of revitalization on a spectrum. I would add that there is a struggle in identifying when a church is in need of revitalization, versus when a church is simply going through a season of struggle.
In his process, Small hits on some really helpful concepts. He seems to desire to find the
beauty in the existing congregation while fixing those things that are hindering growth. This is
refreshing in what seems like an age of “burn it all down and start over.” Another strength of the book is the broad range of resources referenced in the footnotes. I would argue that this is both the book’s greatest strength and weakness. There is a wealth of solid authors referenced, and a struggling pastor looking to be refreshed will find bountiful wisdom from many of the authors referenced. However, there are also a lot of headscratchers. Small seems to draw many of his leadership principles from secular sources. This can be helpful but can also bring the
pastor who is looking to lead biblically into conflict with scriptural principles.
Small does a good job of helping readers see the need to understand where members of a congregation are coming from when they resist new directions set by church leadership. His approach to helping these members is careful and insightful. This careful tone created a dissonance with me when the author also made the point that he didn’t believe that any church could be a place for all people (32). I think I understand the point Small is making, but I am
concerned that his philosophy here can easily lead churches to become siloed in their outreach. I think this dissonance comes from the lack of scripture in the book. Dr. Small has written a very practical and pragmatic book with very little scriptural content. This allows an author to make statements such as the one that I cite above without any type of biblical backing. Ultimately (as the author admits early on), there is very little precedent in scripture for church revitalization itself. This is not to say that revitalization is not biblical. It is to say that the process, definitions, and goals are somewhat open to personal preference.
One final note I want to make surrounds Small’s use of therapy for pastors. He encourages pastors to get regular therapy, using terms such as “problematic emotions” (122) or “destructive” behaviors (123). No mention is made of sin, repentance, or change. This shortchanges the sanctification process that all believers, including pastors, need to go through. We are broken people who sometimes fall into sinful patterns of behavior. This needs to be
addressed, and grace needs to be extended. But we need to be careful not to minimize or redefine sin in more acceptable or therapeutic terms. This is a concerning development in some circles of evangelicalism.
Overall, Church Revitalization is a mixed bag. There is practical help for searching pastors and elders. There are good references that will lead to sources that will encourage and challenge. But there are also limitations, and the reader will need to read with discernment and care.
There are good references that will lead to sources that will encourage and challenge. But there are also limitations, and the reader will need to read with discernment and care.
I received a free copy of this book from Kregel in exchange for a fair and honest review.