Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick. Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014. 176 pp. $14.99.
It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.
So replied one of my mentors whenever someone asked him why our church prioritized starting new ones. The task of revitalizing older, fading churches seems almost hopeless when you consider aging members, dilapidated buildings, labyrinthine polity, dysfunctional community, and power-hungry leaders. Who ever would choose such a ministry? As John Cionca put it, “If you put a healthy minister into a dysfunctional church, the pastor will become dysfunctional within four months” (Red Light, Green Light: Discerning the Time for a Change in Ministry, 68). Why clean up someone else’s mess when you can just start your own?
That’s the question Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick ably address in their story, Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again. And I do mean “story.” This is not a book of principles about how to bring renewal to dying churches, but a narrative of how God did that for one congregation in midtown Kansas City. Their purpose isn’t to give pastors tips for leading a church recovery but “to inspire you to take risks for God's glory, to raise your gaze to what is possible, to challenge what is comfortable, so that God's plan A—the local church—advances” (20). In this they are largely successful.
Replant consists of 12 chapters. The first 10 are written by Mark with periodic sidebars from Darrin, who wraps up the story in chapters 11 and 12. Mark offers two appendices, the first a theological argument for beauty in worship spaces (you’ll want to read this section before your next capital campaign) and the second a practical argument against the open business meeting (you’ll want to read this section if you’re a congregationalist). The whole is marked by transparency, honesty, and wonder at God's work.
The story takes place in Kansas City, where Mark was asked to serve as interim pastor for First Calvary Baptist Church, a congregation whose history predated the Civil War but whose future was in doubt. He bravely led the church toward health, even though that meant three years of dismantling “the cartel” (46), four powerful members who held sway over the church. That task completed, Mark sought to merge First Calvary with a larger, missional congregation. Finding no takers in Kansas City, he reached across Missouri to The Journey in St. Louis, where Darrin was pastoring. Darrin knew an Acts 29 church planter named Kevin Cawley. Mark led First Calvary to turn the keys over to The Journey, who sent Kevin to plant a new church, Redeemer Fellowship, out of the ashes of the old. In the six years since, Redeemer has grown to a congregation of 1,600 people in the heart of this strategic Midwestern city.
The great value of Replant is the pastoral wisdom littered throughout. As they tell their story the wisdom of God granted to fallen shepherds of Christ’s flock shines through. Mark’s patient and humble, yet clear and persistent, dismantling of the power players at First Calvary illustrates “the wisdom that comes from heaven” (James 4:17) for ministers engaged in similar struggles (46–47, 54–55, 63). His prioritizing of the church’s mission over the church’s survival exposes the idolatry of every pastor who finds his identity in his ministerial success (96, 105, 127). And Darrin’s thoughts on what God does when we experience setbacks are pure gold (108).
The specifics of First Calvary/Redeemer’s situation, however, limit the applicability of Replant. Given the book’s subtitle (“How a dying church can grow again”), one might conclude that Mark advocates killing it. That recommendation may dishearten not a few search committees! The authors never argue that this is the only way a dying church can grow again, but the absence of an alternative leaves merger as the only apparent option. In fact, when resuscitation without merger comes up, Mark dismisses it: “Hypothetically, a pastor might, over time, gain the congregation’s trust and help them become a leadable band of believers. But a quarter century of failed attempts invited me to consider alternative paths” (81). The scope of Replant is not to present every viable option for church renewal; as stated before, it is the story of one dying church that by God’s grace is growing again. My point here is that readers in other circumstances might not find it as valuable as they hope.
Nevertheless what I love most about Replant is Mark’s display of pastoral discernment. While Mark’s choice to lead First Calvary to death and merger may not be universally applicable, it was the right option for this congregation. Thus the decision was of less interest to me than the process—the biblical insight, reasoning, conflicts, timing, and skillful pastoral leadership that resulted in First Calvary’s rebirth as Redeemer. If Mark wrote a book on pastoral discernment, I’d devour it.
Replant should find its way on supplemental reading lists of seminaries everywhere. Church planting has become so hot in the past 20 years that would-be pastors often assume it’s the best way to advance the gospel. But in cities and suburbs and towns across America, Christ didn’t begin building his church with us and our church planting movements. Unlike Corinth, some of the people he has there already are part of his church. But they languish without wise shepherds and long for the gospel to renew their struggling congregation. Sure, it may be easier to give birth than raise the dead.
But maybe one can do both.
And that’s the story of Replant.