Book Review: The U-Turn Church, by Kevin Harney and Bob Bouwer
The current church planting trend among evangelicals forces an important question: Why would anyone choose to pastor a struggling church rather than simply plant a new one? Pastors Kevin Harney and Bob Bouwer offer some intriguing answers to this question in their new book The U-Turn Church.
There are two reasons this book piqued my interest: First, I am eight years into a revitalization work in a church that met many of the authors’ criteria of a church that needs a “U-Turn.” Second, before coming to my current church, I spent almost ten years as an associate pastor in large churches that were immersed in a pragmatic philosophy, which made me wonder how the author’s advice would match up to these experiences.
Harney and Bouwer went to pastor two different RCA (Reformed Church in America) congregations that had similar problems. For various reasons, both churches had been either stagnant or in decline for many years. Through an engaging and conversational writing style, these two pastors share how they took these two congregations through a U-Turn and turned them into vibrant mega-churches, and what they learned in the process.
Here are a few ways this book can help pastors who are reforming churches, as well as cautions you will want to consider as you read.
HELPS FOR PASTORS
1. Helpful diagnosis of some of the typical problems in declining churches.
Harney and Bouwer identify several misguided principles that cause churches to wither away through the generations. One common mistake is what the authors call the “Field of Dreams” philosophy: “If you build it, they will come” (19). This was a common movement in the 1950s through the 1970s, which is why today we find so many churches with more room than they need.
The authors also critique churches who know they need to change, but desire change for the wrong reasons: self-preservation, increased income, and larger attendance (20-21). Instead, they argue that what should motivate a church U-Turn is a holy zeal, which they define as “a passionate commitment to count the cost, be willing to sacrifice, and follow Jesus into his ministry of making disciples of all nations” (20).
2. Wise advice about how to shepherd members through a transition, as well as helpful counsel for a pastor’s heart.
Something that causes aspiring pastors to choose to plant a church instead of entering an existing church is the prospect of finding intransigent traditions and unyielding mindsets among long-time members. Yet Harney and Bouwer give excellent advice about how to guide members through change. They emphasize the need to patiently and clearly communicate the vision (ch. 3), to cultivate a culture of prayer (ch. 4), and to diligently teach the difference between biblical truth and personal preference (ch. 5).
I think my favorite section in the book was chapter 8, “Tough Skin and Soft Hearts.” Harney and Bouwer conclude that most pastors usually have one or the other. Yet every pastor needs to develop a deep love for his people (soft heart) that can even survive attacks from the people, as well as an ability to take criticism and deal with conflict (tough skin) without taking it personally. The authors’ key to finding this balance is the expectation that “In the church you will find the healthiest and the sickest of humanity” (124). Having a realistic perspective about your people is a tremendous help as you deal with the frustrations of changing an established church.
Here are a few cautions about the book.
1. Make faithfulness your chief aim, not the “wow” factor.
The first subheading of the “wow” factor chapter (ch. 11) makes a weighty theological claim: “God desires the ‘wow’ factor to be our goal” (164). The authors argue that those who come to our churches should leave saying, “Wow! That was amazing.” They highlight many characteristics that can help produce the “wow” factor, including pursuing excellence, relevance, aesthetics, music, and the effectiveness of the communicator. Much of the book reflects this chief aim in the practical advice they offer pastors.
Scripture does indeed talk about making the church attractive, but it calls for churches to be attractive with love and good deeds, not with the things that money can buy. How discouraging pastoring would be if I thought pastoral success depended on the size of my church budget. After all, let’s be honest, it takes serious cash to produce the “wow” factor as these authors mean it. But look up passages like Matthew 5:13-16, or John 13:34-35, or 1 Peter 2:9-12. You’ll find a different kind of “wow” entirely—not one you buy with cash, but one you receive from the Spirit and the Word.
The goal for people to have a meaningful experience at our churches is not wrong, but it is wrong for a church to make that its chief aim, or to assume that “success” depends on it. As others have said, what you win them with, you win them to. If the goal is to “wow” people, then what happens if we win them with technological savvy or slick rhetoric instead of the message of the gospel itself, even if it is being preached? The gospel is offensive and the faithful preaching of God’s Word does not always leave a person with warm fuzzy feelings, even if you dress it up with hip music, a friendly greeting team, or warm colors in the gathering place.
2. Be aware that your methodology can contradict your theology.
Both pastors declare themselves to be unapologetically reformed in their theology (86). They believe in the sovereignty of God, as well as other “biblical absolutes” (75). Yet the majority of the book is driven by pragmatism. For example, the authors write, “Healthy numbers communicate good health” (30). “The process of the U-Turn journey is to embrace the new. People outside the church will say the old church didn’t work for them but they would consider something new. New is good” (34). “Something that worked at one time may not work in a few years” (76).
It appears to be a contradiction to believe that God, by his sovereign grace, draws his people powerfully by his Spirit through the faithful preaching of God’s Word (reformed theology), and yet to place so much emphasis upon doing what is new and trendy, because it “works” (pragmatism). Unfortunately, this contradiction permeates this book and could easily cause confusion in the heart of a pastor. When theology and methodology are in tension, methodology almost always wins. Pastors, be cautious. This book demonstrates that your methodology can contradict your theology.
WORK TOWARD A HEALTHY CHURCH, NOT A BIG ONE
Although my church has experienced a kind of U-turn, it has been vastly different from what these two pastors have experienced. In one way, we should be encouraged that churches can be revitalized to be effective for the kingdom of God through different means and approaches. These two pastors have certainly turned their churches around. Because of this, there are many principles in this book that will be helpful if you are revitalizing a church. Just make sure to connect the dots between theology and methodology, and that you work not toward a big, new, and impressive church, but toward a faithful, healthy one.