Book Review—Comeback Churches

Reviewed by J.A. Ingold (Jack)

Stetzer, Ed, and Mike Dodson. Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub Group, 2007. 226 pages. $17.99

(Review copy courtesy of B&H Publishing Group)

Purchase: B&H | CBD | Amazon
ISBN: 0805445366 / 9780805445367

DCN: 260

Subjects: Church Renewal, Church Growth

Ed Stetzer began serving churches 20 years ago. He has also worked as a seminary professor and is now senior director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board, where he researches churches and culture for more effective ministry. Ed holds two masters degrees and two doctorates and has written dozens of articles and widely heralded books including Planting Missional Churches and Breaking the Missional Code. He lives with his wife and three daughters near Atlanta, Georgia. (From the dust jacket)

Mike Dodson has served as a pastor and church strategist for more than 10 years and holds a Doctor of Missology degree. He lives with his wife and children in Meadville, Pennsylvania. (From the dust jacket)

Comeback Churches intends to encourage stagnate and declining churches to follow the example of other churches that have recovered vitality and enjoyed renewed growth. This is a timely topic given the negative growth trends of many denominations, associations, and individual congregations. Stetzer and Dodson base this book on survey results that identified 324 “comeback churches.”

The survey was conducted by the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research. The North American Mission Board is the domestic mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Survey respondents, pastors in revitalized churches from more than 10 denominations, ranked the factors they thought most important to the recovery of their church. Each respondent ranked factors on a scale from one to five, and the aggregate numbers are sprinkled liberally through the book. The book states that the complete survey is available online at www.comebackchurches.com, but at the time of this publication, the survey could not be located at that site. [Editor’s note: This survey is located in the appendix of Mike Dodson’s An Analysis of Factors Leading to the Revitalization of Comeback Churches. The Table of Contents lists THE COMEBACK CHURCHES PHONE SURVEY as appearing on page 126. However, this appendix is absent from this online version of the document.]

After a couple of introductory chapters, the book is structured topically, beginning with the elements most important to the comebacks of the studied churches. In chapter zero, the authors identify three elements necessary to a church. Churches should be biblical, missional, and spiritual. Incidentally, this book contains a simple explanation of the word missional. “Missional is the adjectival use of the word ‘missionary’” (p. 56). Put in SAT terms, missional is to missionary as adversarial is to adversary.

The other introductory chapter asks why a church should consider becoming a comeback church. Twelve ways churches stagnate or get stuck are offered. Readers will recognize many of these 12 in both obviously weak churches they have seen and, perhaps, in some ostensibly strong ones they have known as well. After the authors cursorily discuss the state of several declining denominations in the United States, readers are encouraged to carefully consider whether their church is in need of a comeback. The chapter concludes with 10 sound reasons the church matters.

Moving into the comeback factors, Stetzer and Dodson give leadership top billing. Some of the key leadership elements they identify, such as sharing ministry and developing leaders, can greatly bless a church when performed in a biblical manner. Other elements seem more closely identified with management and motivational techniques than with biblical example. For example, the section on vision is linked to Scripture as follows: “Vision comes from faith and allows a church to be or do something beyond its current abilities to impact the Kingdom. It is a vision of faith, the “evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, NIV). Though these things cannot be seen physically, they must be seen mentally and spiritually if people are to commit themselves to the task.”

But, for every unhelpful detour into management-speak, the authors give equal time to important, biblically-founded considerations. In chapter three, they address three “faith factors.” This is perhaps the most helpful chapter in the book since the authors place emphasis on a renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church, on an attitude of servanthood, and on strategic prayer efforts.

The next several chapters, comprising the bulk of this little book, look at more specific comeback factors. Individual chapters focus on changes to worship and preaching, to church evangelism, and to small groups, among others. In these chapters, the reader begins to wonder what specific changes a comeback church must make. For example, what needs to be changed about the worship? In general, these questions remain unanswered. A few changes made by specific churches are mentioned, and sometimes a sweeping conclusion is drawn (e.g., “Comeback churches were substantially more contemporary than traditional”).

The treatment of worship styles may be of particular interest to some members of SharperIron. While the book is technically neutral regarding traditional or contemporary worship, it is clear that most of the churches involved in the survey employ a contemporary worship style. A lengthy e-mail from the pastor of one surveyed church related all of the upgrades made to his church’s sound equipment. He asserted that “if new Christians come and in and hear a style of music they have already been listening to, their worship experience will already be familiar even though they have to learn new words” (p. 77).

While the authors note that “comeback churches came in all different kinds of styles,” they also concede that “comeback churches were substantially more contemporary than traditional” (pp. 80-81). Stetzer and Dodson are clear that simply spicing up worship is not a quick fix, but they do note that “in many cases, the worship of the church was once meaningful but has since lost its cultural relevance” (p. 79).

The result is a book that advocates change without assisting the reader in the evaluation of potential changes. It is plausible to imagine a reader determining that a number of unhelpful, even dangerous, changes are necessary in his church. Just marry the section on vision with the section on worship with the section on facilities, and an undiscerning pastor may be on his way toward erecting a new facility far beyond the means of the congregation he leads.

A more subtle assumption underlying the entire book is that God wants a (or even every) particular local church to make a comeback and to experience substantial growth. This assumption seems at odds with biblical teaching that demands faithfulness and that recognizes God as the source of any increase. Is it not possible that God sometimes is pleased to remove His truth from a block, a neighborhood, or a city? Is it not possible that God is sometimes glorified by the closing of a local church? It is unhealthy to create in church leaders the expectation that they can, simply by making a few changes, ensure that their local church will rebound?

The book concludes with a few chapters on the most common transformations of comeback churches, the top comeback factors, and the biggest challenges comeback churches faced. The top three comeback factors were listed as prayer, evangelism, and preaching. The top three challenges were attitudes, finances, and facilities.

Although some of the major elements of this book are subject to many of the usual criticisms properly aimed at the church growth movement, Stetzer and Dodson are to be commended for their evident love of Christ’s church. And a few highlights of Comeback Churches are their emphasis that church membership matters (p. 126) and the importance of training laypeople to take on responsibilities for real ministry (p. 139). Most encouraging was the reminder that “our goal is always to hear our Lord’s ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matt. 25:21, 23, NIV). And that’s true wherever He has placed us” (p. 174).

Despite the presence of some helpful material in Comeback Churches, its inconclusiveness, inconsistency, and faulty assumptions do not recommend it to church leaders.

ingold.jpgJ.A. Ingold lives with his wife in Washington, DC. He earned his B.S. from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and his J.D. from The George Washington University School of Law. He has been a member of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church since 2003. The opinions expressed in this review are his alone and should not be attributed to SharperIron or to Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
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