Book Review: Church Revitalization from the Inside Out, by Robert Stuart
Robert Stuart, Church Revitalization from the Inside Out. P&R Publishing, 2016. 256 pp, $15.99.
For over a decade, church strategists like Ed Stetzer and Aubrey Malphurs have alerted us that 80% of evangelical churches are stagnant or declining. Throngs of writers have compiled copious volumes aimed at diagnosing what ails the North American Church while prescribing an effective antidote. In Church Revitalization from the Inside Out, Robert Stuart joins the conversation with a helpful perspective that comes from both his academic study and his practical experience as a church planter, consultant, and present pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
Stuart wastes no time in announcing his greatest concern for dying churches—leadership. Leaders are both the problem and the solution for sick churches. Just four sentences into his work he warns that “weak leaders produce weak churches, and weak churches are ineffective in reaching a dying culture with the gospel of Christ” (13). God’s solution for hurting congregations is “strong and wise leaders who apply God’s wisdom to the needs of the church” (14).
Chapter 1 argues that declining churches need to replace “cattlemen “leaders—absorbed with self-interest—and “drovers”—who vote with the crowd—with shepherd leaders who lovingly and sacrificially care for God’s sheep. From there, he launches into the symptoms of bad leadership in chapters 2-10. These symtpoms include: bad decisions, the guise of uniformity, gossip, sacred cows, irreconcilable attitudes, fear of change, lack of vision, intellectual exile, and abdication of authority. After each symptom, Stuart encourages leaders “to adopt the leadership traits of Jesus and to avoid the nine pitfalls that are inherit in weak leadership” (31).
Chapters 11-13 prescribe three variations of “Vitamin F”—faithfulness, forgiveness, and focus—“the taking of which should help prevent poor leadership” (171). Stuart concludes powerfully with a chapter that explores “how modeling Christ is the perfect antidote for all the symptoms of poor leadership” (224). He revisits each symptom covered in chapters 2-10 with specific examples of how much better Jesus’ leadership model is. Jesus “epitomizes the character traits of a pastor and leader” (224), and Stuart makes it clear this model is only possible for those who have put their faith in Jesus as both Savior and Lord and continue to follow his example with the strength of the Holy Spirit (232).
This book is chock-full of helpful illustrations and insights. For one, Stuart relentlessly challenges elders toward humble self-evaluation. He rightly places the responsibility for lethargic and lagging churches squarely on the shoulders of elders and, in chapter 10, summons them to “play the man.”
Stuart also argues leaders need to make tough decisions. He writes, “If a person doesn’t want to debate, discuss, and make difficult decisions, I doubt that he truly aspires to the office of elder, for courage is a prerequisite for shepherding the flock” (36). Or, later, when speaking of pride’s danger: “Blindness will keep leaders from seeing how irrelevant their church is. Whenever I see a ‘For Sale’ sign on a church, I wonder if the leaders failed to recognize the signs of decay” (101).
He also warns the bookworm pastor who sees his job as something of an intellectual exile. Stuart writes, “Bookworm pastors are academians, first and foremost, with little regard for interpersonal shepherding and boot-camp training of their sheep” (140).
As Stuart unreels the yellow caution tape around each pitfall, the seasoned pastor will appreciate the reality of each danger, as well as the prescribed solution suggested after prayerful self-evaluation.
What’s more encouraging about Stuart’s work is his consistent exaltation of Christ. If you want to “play the man,” then we must look to “the Man”—Jesus! This book understands the only medicine for anemic leadership is a better understanding of Jesus. Even as the early chapters describe symptoms of ineffective leadership, Stuart can’t help but get to Jesus as the answer.
Even as he encourages us to be faithful, forgiving, and focused, we realized that in doing so we merely reflects the leadership of Jesus who was perfectly faithful, perfectly forgiving, and perfectly focused.
Stuart saves the best for last in his conclusion, which he fittingly titled, “The Leadership of Jesus.” He rehearses each symptom mentioned in the previous chapters and then demonstrates how Jesus’ example provides pastors the ultimate model for leadership. Stuart writes, “By turning our attention to Christ, who models perfectly the opposite of each of these symptoms, we will discover the antidote for the toxin of poor leadership” (226). The ultimate answer to why a church’s leadership is unhealthy is that it has lost sight of Jesus. Here, Stuart shows specific ways a clear view of Jesus will change the way shepherds care for their flocks.
SOME FORCED CAUTIONS
It would be easy not to include any negatives for this book, but here are a few cautions.
First, the title is misleadingly broad. Church Revitalization from the Inside Out sounds like a book that’s about church revitalization in general, something that would offer broad practical suggestions on clarifying a church’s mission, vision, etc. But this book is specifically for elders, so it leaves the reader with the feeling that healthy elders are the issue in pulseless churches, which of course isn’t always the case. This may be truer from the perspective of a Presbyterian form of church government where final authority rests with the presbytery and not the congregation. But even then, though elders are a major factor in unhealthy churches, they’re not the only factor.
Because of this, Stuart’s book would be best used as part of a larger arsenal of works aimed more broadly at church revitalization. Also, because the book’s narrow content, this may not be the kind of book you’d want to hand out to most church members, unless you’re inviting them to diagnose you. Groups of elders, on the other hand, would reap rich rewards from this work. If you’re in a dying church and able to admit it to your fellow elders, perhaps you all should read it together this summer.
Second, the book’s frank and sometimes alarming tone seems appropriate given the author’s conviction concerning the consequences of weak leadership creating weak churches. That said, Stuart’s tone may prove off-putting to some. They may sense it has the feeling of Chicken Little who’s constantly exclaiming the sky is falling.
One may also finish this book wondering how to detect not just healthy church leaders but also what a healthy, fruitful church look like. Should we just look at attendance or baptisms? What about spiritual fruit? This concern would evaporate if the book were given a more refined title that focuses on what the book focuses on: the role of church elders in revitalization.
Though the book is mistitled, it offers a great deal of Christ-centered counsel to elders. Its main value is how it encourages its readers to model their ministries after Jesus. Stuart himself is a shepherd who seeks to shepherd shepherds, calling them to reevaluate how they care for Christ’s sheep.
To be sure, to revitalize your church you’ll need help from other books, not to mention copious amounts of conversations, prayer, Scripture meditation, discipleship, and evangelism, but Stuart’s work would be a helpful addition to challenge elders to man up to the glory of God.