The mere existence of Brian Croft’s most recent book, Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying and Divided Churches, should encourage lovers of the gospel. Churches are being reborn as faithful Christians quietly labor to restore life and health according to God’s Word.
Still, church revitalizations are rare. Ten years ago, Thom Rainer managed to fit almost every extant case within a single volume (Breakout Churches). So-called “dying” churches appear hopeless, with few pastors initiatiating and even fewer sustaining serious efforts to see a reversal. They leave looking for greener pastures. The lion’s share of new church life seems to occur through church planting, not through committed engagement with difficult congregations.
Dead Bones Alive
But ought this to be so? Croft—who serves as senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky—sees incentive for church revitalization in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). That wild scene displays a divine pattern of activity present throughout the Bible: Our Creator God gives life, even to what is dead.
Stretch out your hand. Little girl, arise. Lazarus, come forth.
The waxing and waning of life happens to churches as well, doesn’t it? Without casting aspersion on church planting, Croft illumines the vast sea of weak and troubled churches as scenes of divine concern and unique opportunities for the display of divine glory.
Croft defines revitalization as an infusion of divine power that no pastor or congregant can provide, but that all should prepare for. This preparation entails more inward-directed than outward-directed attention. Cultural analysis, pragmatic church growth strategies, and plunges into current leadership theory often tend to forget that King Jesus builds his church. We do not. Pathology within the church, then, requires diagnoses and treatment fit for the living organism it is. We need discernment and recovery of healthy congregational life. Preaching, prayer, worship, meaningful membership, church discipline, pastoral care—along with courageous, patient, but strong pastoral leadership—must be our humble aim.
But haven’t many pastors of declining churches adopted such an approach, at least for a time, without success? Well, yes and no. Courage and patience prove just as essential as do the other factors Croft identifies.
What God Alone Can Do
The final section of Biblical Church Revitalization recounts actual events at Auburndale Baptist Church, where Croft serves. He withstood three attempts to fire him within five years. To be clear, Croft defends neither each aspect of his behavior nor each decision he made as he sought to overcome the problems besetting the church. But his responses to attacks involved various mixes of patience and courage without which this book would’ve never materialized. Many pastors simply would’ve cut and run.
Biblical Church Revitalization provides a helpful balance of biblical and theological grounding, practical guidance, and concrete examples for struggling pastors and would-be revitalizers. What it can’t do is make easier the “staying and standing” Croft managed to sustain long enough to see God do what neither he nor the congregation could—breathe life into a dying body.
Spreading the Joy
Biblical Church Revitalization adds to the evidence that a new commitment to revitalizing declining churches is afoot in North America. Croft’s own Practical Shepherding ministry is another evidence of this encouraging trend.
When successful, revitalization evokes a joy akin to that depicted in Jesus’s parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son (Luke 15). May God grant that such occasions for joy will multiply and spread as more pastors take the path Croft and others are mapping out.