Book Review: Can These Bones Live? by Bill Henard
Bill Henard. Can These Bones Live?: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization. Nashville, TN: B & H Books, 2015. $14.99.
As churches continue to plateau and decline, the study of church revitalization continues to grow. In this book, Bill Henard adds his voice to the discussion, bringing both academic and local church experience to bear on the subject. Henard pastors Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky while serving as an assistant professor of evangelism and church growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The title of the book immediately calls to mind the resurrection language of Ezekiel 37. Henard parallels the question of the Lord with the question that many pastors face regarding their churches: “Can these bones live?” In light of the Ezekiel’s encounter with the Lord in the valley of dry bones, Henard concludes, “Church revitalization begins with laying the foundation of God’s Word as it is preached and followed through a movement of God’s Spirit. The two are inseparably linked.”
After this promising introduction, Henard dedicates two chapters to addressing the need for revitalization and the process for assessing a church’s potential. The remaining chapters analyze eleven different reasons for church decline. On page 44, Henard writes, “I am confident that the process given to resolve the reason for plateaued and dying churches, bringing about biblical change, and initializing revitalization will work regardless of the problem” (44, emphasis mine).
Over the course of the remaining chapters, Henard discusses a litany of issues such as apathy in the church, inadequate facilities, signage, parking, staffing, leadership, assimilation, web presence, follow-up, committee structures, pastoral giftedness, community demographics, inward focus, loss of vision, inadequate ministry structures, servant evangelism, prayer, evangelism, and discipleship ministry. With each issue, he explains the nature of the problem and suggests a process to overcome the matter. The book draws to a close with a brief chapter on methodology followed by this conclusion that bookends the introduction:
Not every church will revitalize. Some are destined to die. If Christians are going to stem the tide of decay and loss, they must commit themselves to changing churches around the world. God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” His response was, “Lord God, only you know.” And God does know. So do not give up on the church. Commit to becoming a revitalization pastor.
THINGS TO CELEBRATE
There are several things worth celebrating in this book. First, Henard’s initial emphasis on the need for the preaching of God’s Word and the work of God’s Spirit in revitalization is refreshing. In multiple places throughout the book, Henard stresses the role that biblical preaching plays in the revitalization of churches. Furthermore, it is clear that he sees prayer, discipleship, and the work of the Holy Spirit to be vital aspects of the work of church revitalization. Such a contribution should be welcomed and celebrated among those with the desire to see dying churches live again.
In addition to his initial emphasis on God’s Word and work in revitalization, Henard offers some helpful correctives for those who may have more romantic views of church planting over against church revitalization. It is not uncommon to hear young seminarians speak glowingly of church planting while showing disdain for “tradition-plagued” established churches in need of revitalization. Henard notes that church planters often report that within seven years of the plant, their churches have also developed traditions that had to be addressed. He writes, “Therefore, if we are drawn to church planting rather than church revitalization because we reject tradition, we will be leaving our churches about every four to seven years. Better reasons must exist for why we plant churches and why we revitalize churches.”
Lastly, from a practical perspective, Henard does mention some important things to consider in dying and plateaued churches. The issues he addresses are genuine factors to consider in church revitalization efforts. Yet, as the next section will detail, it’s not clear that these issues are the most pressing in church revitalization efforts.
THINGS TO RECONSIDER
Can These Bones Live? begins with an exceedingly hopeful and humble acknowledgment of God’s sovereign work in church revitalization. Within the first two pages, it seems as though the reader should expect a study on how the Word of God and work of God through the Spirit of God brings about revitalization according to the will of God. However, while the reader is told to understand these elements as foundational to church revitalization, like a foundation in a home, these elements are minimized by the emphasis placed upon other elements. To be fair, the book’s subtitle states that it is a “practical guide to church revitalization.” But it seems almost unthinkable to begin a book with the grand vision of Ezekiel 37 and then to spend the rest of the time discussing the importance of sociology, church signage, and well-done websites.
This tension between a grand view of God’s work in revitalization and the “practical” aspects of revitalization is evident in other places as well. Case in point, it’s difficult to reconcile Henard’s comments regarding submission to the work of God in church revitalization with his comment that “the process given to resolve the reason for plateaued and dying churches, bringing about biblical change, and initializing revitalization will work regardless of the problem” (again, emphasis added).
The reader is left wondering if Ezekiel’s answer, “Lord God, only you know,” should have been something more like, “Lord God, I know a process that will work regardless of the problem.” So, though Henard rightly insists that pastors should “avoid the pragmatisms of initiating programs or methods just because they work somewhere else,” he also seems to think that there is a “process that will work regardless of the problem.”
Immediately, one may ask, “What is this process?” And while it would be reasonable to think that the rest of the book would talk about this seemingly surefire process on the basis of God’s Word and God’s work through God’s Spirit, the disproportionate amount of space given to discuss other things will inevitably disappoint. Instead, Henard’s process focuses overwhelmingly on overcoming his eleven reasons for church decline and death.
This book begins well and at certain points contains valuable instructions for the pastor. So, though it is worth a read, it cannot stand on its own as a text for church revitalization. Furthermore, its emphases could potentially distract pastors from their primary work as Christ’s undershepherds by focusing too much on peripheral matters. If you’re is looking for a book that deals with church revitalization primarily from the perspective of dependence upon God’s work according to God’s will, rooting the process in an exposition of the key texts, this book should not be your first choice.