Croft, Brian. Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying and Divided Churches. Christian Focus Publishing, Great Britain, 2016. 126 pages.
Review by Jeff Mingee
In a world of quick fixes church revitalization can feel slow. In a world of internet fame and celebrity pastors church revitalization can feel small. Yet pastors in church revitalization know the work is good and that God has called them to the task. In Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying and Divided Churches Brian Croft encourages and helps pastors in revitalization settings.
Brian Croft understands the joys and sorrows of church revitalization. Croft is the Senior Pastor at Auburndale Baptist Church as well as the founder of Practical Shepherding. He is the Senior Fellow of the Methena Center for Church Revitalization at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In the introduction, Croft contrasts unhealthy approaches to revitalization with a biblical model and method. He explains, “this method rests its full weight on the truth that God’s spirit working through His word is the only way to bring true lasting spiritual life to a local church.” (17). Croft has seen church leaders attempt to revitalize God’s church with worldly ways. They traded faithfulness for what merely looked like fruitfulness. He writes to help pastors avoid that trap. He shares, “This method’s goal is to see new life and growth come to a local church, but not at the expense of a faithful pursuit of God’s design for the local church” (17).
Following the introduction, Biblical Church Revitalization is divided into three sections. In section one, Croft defines church revitalization by asking four foundational questions. In section two, Croft helps pastors identify and diagnose five key areas of church health. Finally, in section three, Croft shares some of the lessons he learned through his own journey in church revitalization.
Section one begins by answering the question, “How does God revitalize a dying church?” Croft’s answer, as the book’s title suggests, is biblical. In nearly every chapter he draws his principles from clear and obvious exposition of biblical passages. Croft opens chapter one, “This chapter seeks to demonstrate the power of God vividly displayed in this vision of the valley of dry bones. It is an exposition of Ezekiel 37 that seeks to answer this question, How does God revitalize a dying and divided church? And here’s the answer: A church is revitalized by the power of God through the Spirit of God at work through the word of God by means of a faithful shepherd of God” (24). Croft shows that God brings life by declaring His word, by fulfilling His word, and by explaining His word. He applies these lessons to church revitalization, “If there are two primary marks of churches needing revitalization, it would arguably be the absence of spiritual life and the presence of hostile division among those in the church. […] The only hope for these kinds of churches is the same hope for Israel in the darkness of their exile—the power of God” (30).
Croft exalts God as the hero of church revitalization. He writes, “The aim is that you will see not just that God’s design of Spirit and word is what breathes life and unites His people in His church, but that God’s word speaks to the details, direction, and strategies of how this work is to be approached” (31). In chapter two Croft identifies three simple, but key, areas for the pastor’s attention: Pastoral Theology, Ecclesiology, and Personal Soul Care. He counsels, “The best approach for a pastor when entering a dysfunctional, dying congregation is to simply be a pastor to those people” (35). In this, Croft cuts through the complications and points pastors to their biblical task.
Croft rescues pastors from the suffocating idolatry of assuming they must be the hero of revitalization. He writes, “A pastor should not place the crushing expectation on himself of transforming the church in eighteen months, but should simply come with a clear vision of what his calling is as a shepherd and pastor and do that with all his might” (35). He offers the piercing insight, “The key to survival in pastoral ministry is a pastor’s diligent care for his own soul” (39).
In chapter three Croft offers eight strategies to persevering: trust the Word, shepherd souls, love all people, pray hard, celebrate old members, be patient, expect suffering, pick battles wisely. In chapter four he presents a biblical plan, “The biblical plan is this—a central focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, a rigorous and passionate application of the gospel in everyday life, and a tenacious effort to love and shepherd every redeemed soul in that local church” (52). Knowing that God is building his church through their ministry will give a local church pastor perspective in the journey. Croft advises pastors, “Instead of becoming impatient when your flock is not growing in grace at the pace you had hoped, employ the means that God has provided you with as their pastor for their sanctification” (54). On nearly every page, Croft is pointing pastors to the simple biblical task of Shepherding God’s people with God’s Word. He explains, “A right and passionate application of the gospel in the lives of Christ’s redeemed people is enough to radically change a dying church and give it new life, for it is the gospel that is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’” (57)
In section two, Croft helps readers diagnose the need for revitalization. In chapter five he explains authority, “Who has the greatest influence in the church? Who do church members go to when decisions need to be made? […] You must first determine where the authority in the church really lies. Only then can you compare your answer to Scripture’s answer” (64). In chapter six he reveals the importance of leadership, “This chapter addresses the second area of leadership that must be evaluated in every church and is summarized by this question, Whom do I follow? […] Even if a biblical understanding of authority is adopted, without proper, qualified leadership to carry out that paradigm, the church cannot move to a greater place of health” (70). Unhealthy leaders will never produce a healthy church. In chapter seven Croft moves from leadership to membership and in chapter eight, Croft examines Titus 2 and the unifying power of the gospel. Finally, in chapter nine Croft discusses worship. Croft is not offering platitudes about having more modern worship songs or better technology. He exposes the deeper problem, “Many dying, divided churches have forgotten the reason Christians gather for worship. They lose confidence in God’s word being what brings life while experiencing the pressure of needing to increase their attendance, and as a result fall into pragmatism, or even worse—apostasy” (96).
In section three, Croft shares his own story. Even here, he points readers to the biblical text. “I want us to consider Hebrews 13:17 as a banner over this account, for when I am asked why I stayed as I walked through these hard years, I always come back to this sobering responsibility to pastors: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (102). Croft shares two foundational commitments which he brought with him to the work of revitalization, “First, I must faithfully preach the word, sacrificially love the people, and not change anything for a while. Second, regardless of what happens, stay ten years” (103).
Some church leadership books are filled with the author’s success stories. Each page shares another wonderful moment in the life of the seemingly flawless leader. Croft, however, shares his own failures. As he reflects on one event he writes, “To this day, I do not know how much of that encounter honored Jesus, and how much saddened Him” (107). Croft does not set himself up as the hero but merely as a faithful shepherd. Reading pastors will not find themselves crushed by Croft’s unmatched examples but helped by a fellow pilgrim willing to walk the road with them.
Croft does share the success of revitalizing his church. He identifies two significant events which signaled that God was making changes at the church: First, a plurality of pastors was affirmed by the church. Croft shares how he had to navigate church politics as well as how he embraced the title “pastor” instead of “elder” because the church was more familiar with the former. Second, Croft shares how they approached updating the membership of the church.
In conclusion, Croft summarizes five lessons: the epiphany of patience, the sweetness of tough love, the discerning perspective of scars, the inevitability of suffering, the steadfastness of the Chief Shepherd. He writes, “My final appeal is for men to step up and be a courageous pastor captured in this way: show up as broken, weak, and needy before the church you seek to pastor and revitalize” (124).
Biblical Church Revitalization keeps the focus on “biblical.” Croft keeps the reader’s nose in the text. And he keeps the chapters brief. But readers will get to the end of some sections and find themselves with unanswered questions. Most pressing, they will be asking “how?” How did you identify the financial state of the church? How did you teach the church about biblical leadership and membership? How did you organize member care? How did you lead the church through embracing a plurality of pastors? A few key application exercises would give handles to the material and help readers move forward.
Croft repeatedly gives the reader biblical hope. He holds out God’s promises and helps weary pastors move forward in faith. Croft writes, “There is a unique and special power and testimony in not just a vibrant local church full of life, but an old historic one that had lost its way, was on life support, and into which God saw fit to breathe life once again. What better testimony that God is a God who raises the dead than watching it happen to dead churches all around the world?” (19). Revitalizing pastors will find their hearts growing as they gain a biblical picture and confidence in what God might do even in their local church.