Book Review: Who Can Save the Incredible Shrinking Church?, by Frank Page
Frank Page wants to do nothing less than save struggling, shrinking churches everywhere.
The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Taylors First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina declares this intention at the outset of his book Who Can Save the Incredible Shrinking Church?
My prayer is that this book will give practical, actionable advice to pastors of all kinds of Bible-believing congregations to enable them to grow into the great kingdom churches God wants them to be. (p. 5)
The following twelve chapters, an expanded version of a PowerPoint talk Page has delivered to numerous SBC churches, present Page’s vision for accomplishing this aim.
WHY THIS BOOK IS ENCOURAGING
Page exudes love for God and his church throughout the text, revealing a heart to help the struggling pastor and the disheartened church. His tone is confident and pastoral, and his writing suggests a personality of infectious faith and trust in God. In short, he sounds like a strong shepherd and a fruitful Christian, the kind of believer who cannot help but ignite good works in the lives of those he encounters. His text has this effect as Page works through chapters on “Paul’s Perspective” of ministry; “Shrink-Proof Leadership” that seeks a bold pastoral corps; “Heading Toward Evangelism,” which seeks to empower all church members for evangelistic work; and “The Whole Armor of God,” an exhortation to pastors to adopt and embody a biblical approach to ministry.
The following are some of the insights I took from these and other chapters:
- “Pastors have to be willing to stay put and see beyond the horizon of trouble.” (58)
- “Pastors have to be good at conflict management. I don’t like conflict, but I’ve learned never to run from it.” (59)
- “Visionary church leaders have to attack musical and worship snobbery and let people know that God can be worshipped in a variety of ways and settings.” (71)
- “Your task is to do all you know how to do, then wait on the Lord to work out the details and His timing and tell you what to do next.” (140)
Certainly, it is necessary these days to say that pastors should “stay put” through times of “trouble.” All too often, pastors today mistake a troublesome spot of ministry for a call to change location. Perhaps many of our “shrinking” churches find themselves shrinking because they have not experienced the loving care of a shepherd who seeks to emulate the covenant faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead they have only experienced the fickle, self-serving ways of certain business leaders.
A second point worthy of consideration is Page’s firm belief in a balanced music ministry that attempts to embrace various musical forms. Page’s words encourage us to esteem musicians of the past, but also to embrace the riches of modern hymnists like the Gettys, Sovereign Grace, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, Sojourn Community Church, and many others whose compositions will richly bless us. We all need to steer clear of ennobling our own musical preferences and pursue congregational deference and unity instead.
A repeated refrain throughout the book involves the need to work hard according to biblical mandates and to trust God to work as he sees fit. This is excellent—and simple—advice. In the end, it is the chief contribution of the book. Who Can Save the Incredible Shrinking Church? offers most fundamentally an encouraging word from a godly pastor to other pastors to stay the course. The book is not particularly imaginative, but it provides hope through accounts of what the Lord has done in the struggling churches Page has pastored.
The book suffers from a few weaknesses. Chief among these is the matter at its heart: growth. Though Page promises the reader definitive counsel for growth, he ultimately delivers no real secret, but instead says simply, “Be faithful.” This is excellent counsel taken straight from the Bible (Mt. 13:31), and I wish more writers were emphasizing faithfulness like Page does. But there is no guaranteed promise that any and every church will grow when their pastors are faithful. I have personally encountered biblically faithful churches that, despite years of scriptural fidelity, shrank instead of growing. In God’s mysterious providence, he does not grant revitalization to some churches. This is a hard reality, but it is a reality nonetheless.
Also, Page is not always consistent in promising a solution. For example, he notes in a folksy way that,
It would be nice to have a checklist titled ‘The Absolutely Foolproof Antidote for Your Incredible Shrinking Church’ that you could run down, marking off the steps like a science experiment, and get a guaranteed result at the end. There are too many variables for this approach to work.
But the “antidote” has already been promised by this point (see above), leaving the reader to wonder which counsel he ought to trust. Furthermore, spiritual and numerical growth are sometimes confusingly conflated (see, for example, 49-50).
The book would also have been strengthened by the use of a biblical-theological hermeneutic that reads scriptural texts in the flow of redemptive history. Page interprets figures like Samson and David as if their primary significance is their leadership ability. There is little sense of the gospel of Christ being the center out of which all Scripture proceeds and ministry flows.
With these weaknesses noted, however, I was thankful for Page’s exhortation to pastors to be like Paul and others who “used their God-given talents and worked extremely hard, doing all they could to reach their goals, then had faith that God would do what they could not” (140). This is surely the note that Scripture strikes on the matter of pastoral ministry. As Paul said to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). Page’s seasoned counsel may well encourage pastors currently carrying out the work of church revitalization.
REFLECTING ON GROWTH
The subject of the “incredible shrinking church” requires, in conclusion, a bit of contextual reflection. Though we are trained in America to think that large size in any field, religious or otherwise, signals success, Scripture reveals that God’s mind is not like ours. The metric by which God measures his people is not numerical size, but faithfulness (1 Sam. 12:24, Psa. 31:23, Prov. 28:20, Ezek. 18:8-9, etc.). After all, he is the One who called Israel to be a peculiar people (Deut. 14:12). Tiny Israel, puny David, Gideon’s 300, the faithful remnant, the mustard seed, the narrow way, the scattered disciples, the overmatched apostles, the slain martyrs—this is just a tiny sample of how God chooses and delights in what is small.
And this is the confidence of the pastor of the small church. As he leads his church and it worships together, evangelizes the lost, cares for its needy, celebrates the ordinances, and images the glory of God in a fallen world, God is not dishonored. He is glorified. He is not ashamed with the smallness of the congregation, shrinking though it may be. If it is faithful, he is delighted.