September 2007


[I am including here my review of Comeback Churches because the review service at Pastor Bookshelf seems to be on hiatus. As a matter of fact, it seems that the entire Pastor Resources site has taken a pause for an extended period of time. When the site returns to activity you’ll be able to find my review there. Until then, I post it here.]

Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson.  Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can too. B&H, 2007. 226 pp.

[rating: 4 out of 5 stars]

How does one take a book based on statistical research and make it worth reading? Title it Comeback Churches, and you have a good start. Rarely can you find a pastor or church leader who is not ready for their church to go farther and do more in Kingdom work. At the same time it is also almost just as rare that you will find one willing to do what it takes to make that turnaround happen. Ed Stetzer has teamed up with Mike Dodson to disseminate the mountains of research material collected by a team interviewing leaders from over three hundred churches representing ten denominations.

Both Stetzer (Director of LifeWay Research, Missiologist, Church Planter, and author of such books as Breaking the Missional Code and Planting Missional Churches) and Dodson (a church planter in his own right) have experience in helping churches turn around. Their desire with Comeback Churches is to encourage churches and church leaders to move away from the typical decline or plateau tradition that has beset itself among American churches and be part of the comeback generation of churches.

The book and information targets church leaders and is filled with statistics, graphs, and stories showing what happens in churches that determine to move from the graveside to the community. The trends that are reported are at once surprising and logical. The bulk of the text deals with interpreting the data collected. What the researchers found was that overall, respondents to the questionnaire cited leadership to be pivotal in the turn around of the church. Leadership was not a dictatorship, but a modeling and guiding into the multiplication of the leader. The three most influential faith factors (discussed in chapter 3) were found to be (1) a renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church, (2) a renewed attitude for servanthood, and (3) strategic prayer efforts.

Filled with quotations from books on church health and growth and from participants in the study, Comeback Churches builds a case that a comeback while greatly desired it is also bought at a great cost. Leaders and churches are cautioned that the road will be difficult but well worth the trek. Another indicator that the trip is a difficult one is the evidence presented that only one percent of the churches of any of the studied denominations met the criteria for participation—having experienced an extended period of decline (at least five years) followed by a two to four year period of radical growth (evangelistic and not biological or transfer growth) of at least 10% each year.

The final three chapters include suggestions for pastors and leaders who desire to explore a comeback in their church, listing challenges as well as stepping stones that would be helpful in turning a church around from decline to vibrant life. Advice includes be intentional in what you do, be prepared for opposition because coming back requires change, and evaluate what you are doing so that it continues to build.

While much of the information held in its pages make the book another in a long line of church growth books that repeats the same suggestions, the overwhelming addition that Comeback Churches brings is the evidence that churches can (and do) come back. The challenges addressed remind the reader that the journey is not for the faint of heart. I recommend reading this along with several other books geared toward the process of changing today’s church into the church that has an impact on American society today. It is beneficial information for pastors as well as other church leaders who are concerned about the health of the church today.

I’ve discovered something new — a “blook” tour (blog + book tour = blook tour). And I’m hosting one for debut author Steven Hunt over at Book ’em Benj-O. If you’re a fan of Christian fiction, private eye novels, or suspense, drop on by and check it out.

I raced through Comeback Churches in order to be informed as I attended an audio conference featuring one of the authors (Ed Stetzer). I probably didn’t have a chance to really interact with the mountain of information included there, but I did finish the book a few minutes before dialing the conference number. My review of the book should be up soon.

In the meantime, I’m compelled by the emphasis of the book – Change. In order for local churches in the evangelical life of America to be effective, the authors insist there must be change. I agree. Sometimes when driving in the country, we find ourselves on what is little more than a path—two ruts and a grassy line. It is in this context that we learn about “high center,” or the situation where driving down the middle of the ruts will cause the body of the car to become stuck with the wheels not making enough traction to move the vehicle. Whenever we high center we must do something to change our situation or we will never move forward again. We have to evaluate our situation and make necessary adjustments to get the wheels rolling anew. The American church has high centered, and change is in the future. The change is not easy, nor is it exciting, but it is necessary for the church to become exciting and to begin moving forward in the future.

The point: Change is part of what we need to grow as a church. My friend Kinney Mabry had an excellent post a few days ago about change. He reminded me that change is what Christianity and the church are all about. Jesus creates change in the lives of individuals so that they can gather together as the church to effect change in the world around us. Let’s make necessary changes to move the church forward, and to create the atmosphere that allows change in the hearts of men, and their expression in society.

The dead link for the Chazown website  is no longer dead. Wait, though. It doesn’t take you to the site that had all the interactive tools that feathered so well with the book. Now you are sent to the publisher’s page for the book itself. You get a good description of the book and a short bio of Groeschel, but if you want to download the .pdf file of the Chazown Journal you’ll be out of luck.

            Some years ago, announcers on television enthusiastically admonished viewers, “Don’t change that channel!” (If you’re old enough to remember, they may have told you not to turn the dial.) The message was that if you would wait out the commercial interruption, you would be glad for having stayed on the channel. This was because the resolution to your program might follow that commercial break.

            The church today is in another situation. We need to change the channel. Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson have unearthed the statistics (via research) that says again that the American church is in need of a change. The result of this research is a little volume from Broadman and Holman called Comeback Churches. At the outset of the book the authors acknowledge a difficulty in the move from being a stagnant or declining (or even dying) church is the misunderstanding of who and what the church is and is to be about. Here is one of their observations:

Most pastors . . . believe that the church exists, at least in part, to fulfill the Great Commission . . . But the average person in a church believes that the church exists to meet his or her needs and the needs of the family. (pp. 29-30)

            I would suggest that this difference in understanding is one that, while “most pastors” believe in the Great Commission they join society in tacitly teaching the view that the purpose of the church is to meet the needs of the church-goer. Instead of focusing on building the Kingdom of God, we ask ourselves, “How can we meet the needs of the mother or father with small children/teenagers?” “What must we do to present a positive face to the community?” and “Where are the needs that we must meet?”

            Needs exist, and it is the responsibility of the church to meet at least a portion of these needs. But the existence of the church is not to please the crowd. The ultimate question is who are we to please? The most fundamental answer to that question is the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. In the process of pleasing God, I am convinced that He will lead us in a direction that results in meeting the immediate needs of the community around us and in so doing winning a hearing among them at which time we will be able to further advance the Kingdom of God.

            Why then must we change channels? Because we’ve been stuck in the mode that has not moved church-goers who look for “what’s the church going to do for me?” to become followers of Christ whose driving force is “what can I, as the church, do for others in the name of Christ?” No, what we have done is taken those who arrive at church interested in having their needs met, and moved them to the place of church members who expect to have their needs met. There has not really been a change of heart, only a change of title. Change is important to add change to the lives of those who become Christ-followers, and not to simply move people from people with real needs to the status of spiritual sycophant bleeding dry the lifeblood of the church that is designed to meet, not the needs of its members, but the real need of the world outside the walls of the church building—the need for Jesus.

            Change is not easy, nor is it to be taken in immediacy. No, making change within the church in order to redirect her to the course for which she was commissioned requires the same type of time and space to change the course of an ocean liner. When the ship of the church is headed in such a gross misdirection, course correction will take time and hard work. It will also require the cooperation of the entire church. Let’s change the channel and save the ship!

            This past weekend I had the opportunity of hearing Richard Owen Roberts speak concerning the possibility of revival in today’s church. His prescribed text centered on 2 Chonicles 7:14 “[I]f my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Without going into detail about his lengthy exposition of this verse (and the surrounding passage), Roberts suggested that unless and until the church begins to focus on prayer—real, genuine, core-driven prayer—we might as well not bother to expect revival. Revival, he said, doesn’t come because we schedule meetings, nor when we perform a certain ritual. In fact, historically, revival springs from simple people in obscure places that have removed themselves from the equation and focused on God through prayer.

            Jim Cymbala gives an extended illustration of the truth of this assertion in his whirlwind success book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (Zondervan, 1997). In his book he chronicles the effect of prayer on Brooklyn Tabernacle Church where he is pastor and where the church went from death’s door to excitement and growing—because of a renewed sense and practice of prayer.

            Again I encountered the necessity of prayer for Christ-followers who are seeking to impact His world through their lives and churches in the opening chapters of Ed Stetzer’s new book Comeback Churches. Stetzer along with co-author Mike Dodson says, “Church leaders get entirely too busy, and prayer is often what is neglected.” Do not, they insist, wait until you have time to pray, but make time to pray.

            Why is prayer so important? I believe that B. B. McKinney expressed it well:

 Prayer Changes Things 

When the dark shadows come over you,

Bringing troubles you never know,

Trust in the Savior and pray it thro’,

For prayer changes things.

 

Prayer will bring peace when the days are long,

Turn your sighing into a song,

It will bring victory over wrong,

For prayer changes things.

 

Pray for the wanderer at your door,

Pray for lost ones the wide world o’er;

Jesus will save them forevermore,

For prayer changes things.

 

Pray and take courage thro’ weal or woe,

In life’s battles on earth below;

Pray with a faith that will not let go,

For prayer changes things.

 

(Chorus)

Prayer changes things,

Prayer changes things,

When the world is cold and blue,

Trust in Jesus, pray it through,

Victory will come to you,

For prayer changes things.

Having examined core values and spiritual gifts, the concept found in Craig Groeschel’s Chazown directs the vision-seeker to look into personal experience. Not only should you dig into the good things that happened in your past, but also look closely at those things that could be designated as sad or disappointing—even tragic—to determine where God has been working in your life. Why? Scripture indicates that “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The suggestion is that regardless of the circumstance—good or bad—if it is our desire to please God, He will use all our experiences to work together to advance His plan. With these ideas racing in my head, I addressed Groeschel’s “experience” questions:

  1. What do your good and bad experiences have in common?
  2. What do you think your experiences have done within you to prepare you for the future?

My answers:

            The common thread in all my experiences have been family and relationships. These two concepts play a strong part in my experiences. There is a deep-seated need to for approval running through my experiences. I see a great concern when I have not been the crowd-pleaser that I want to be, and equally great jubilation when I have.

            Developing the desire to please my audience, I have learned tact and discretion as well as communication skills that have been necessary in the path that lays before (and behind) me.

Finally, Groeschel asks the reader to try to name the next chapter in their life path. Keeping in mind the things I value, the gifts I’ve identified, and the dreams affected by my experience, I’ve come up with the following challenging title for my life’s book:

“Writing the Right Way”

Feel free to answer the questions for yourself, and share your next life chapter title if you wish. Some of the suggestions Groeschel offers as starting points are:

“Making a Difference”

“Starting Over”

“Restoring Brokenness”

“Going for It”

“Taking the Faith Risk”

“Living the Dream”

“Shaping Up”

“Close to God”

What do you think?

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