The basic premise of this book is that a particular local body of believers should always consider the expansion of the gospel ministry as the greatest priority, even above its own existence. This is a great premise that should be given great consideration by church leaders, both ordained and lay-leaders. I personally find this concept as beautiful for the body, because if an individual Christian can be called of God to offer up his body as a sacrifice in martyrdom to the advance of the gospel, then certainly a local body of believers can be called to do the same. This book is a recounting of Dr. Devine as to how a church in St. Louis went through such a process during his interim pastorate.
In his book he recounted his desire to revitalize the church, and referred to this as his primary reason for taking the church. However, the story pertaining to the church is very atypical for church revitalization. Instead of introducing new programs, ministries, and revamping the outreach arm of the church, Devine led the church to merge with a mother church pastored by Darin Patrick. The mother church then took over all existing assets of the church and established a new ministerial staff. This was an arduous process and was voted upon and approved by the congregation.
Thus, theoretically, Devine did lead the church to be revitalized, because both the facilities and the local congregation were reintroduced into a thriving worship community. The mother church financially supported the local body until it returned to a thriving community. The mother stayed in leadership over the new satellite campus as well. In actuality, the church was not revitalized but disbanded. They gave their assets to another church, who then planted a new church in the place of the old one, and the former members joined a new church.
To me this not true church revitalization. Yes, the individuals and the group of believers in that facility were revitalized, but in truth the local body was disbanded. Devine subtly admitted this with his argument that it is better for a church to die and be reborn than to die and close, and for the record I agree with this statement. What I found inconclusive, is at what point must a church determine to die and be replanted instead of revitalized?
In my pattern of thinking revitalization is the process where the church procures new leadership, that moves the existing body from debilitated to healthy. Furthermore, a healthy church must be healthy in all areas of ministry. This means that the leadership leads the church away from precipice of death though the power of the Holy Spirit and back on course with its intended design and work in the community. Not long ago I was meeting with a colleague whose church has changed from being a predominantly white church to a Hispanic church because of the demographic in its region. To me this is revitalization more than disbanded.
I am not arguing against Devine or what the church did. In my opinion there are many other churches that should follow suit. Instead, I am calling for more research to help ministers understand what is "the point of no return" for a church? When must the church choose to disband and be replanted? What features of church growth come into focus: membership, discipleship program, amount of young families, sustainable growth and baptisms, financial ability to maintain facility? Certainly this information changes with each church, its demographic, and its inherent needs. If this information were perhaps more available to Christians, then we could make more educated judgments based upon our churches. Understandably, this argument assumes that the church evens wants to grow, be healthy, and advance the gospel, but based upon the assumption that all Christians ought to desire these things, there should be some plea from churches for this information.
I believe that some churches ought to be disbanded and merge with other churches or be reborn. I also believe that some church planters like this model because of its simplicity. However, I do believe that some churches need to transition from their current state and be revitalized. What I am attempting to learn in my own ministry, is how to determine which course of action is right for each church. Right now I see an impetus on church planting in my denomination, but I'm afraid this is too close to the opposite extreme of the previous impetus of the denomination. I think that more thought given to these areas can help to bring some balance to continuum of church planting and church revitalization.