Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again Reviewed

This is a book I hoped to like a lot. I am working through the North American Mission Board’s process to be a replanting pastor and the topic is very interesting to me. I didn’t love it for reasons I’ll explain.

That being said, it is an easy read and I’m glad Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick wrote it. The book chronicles one church (First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City) and its journey through a growing awareness of its status as a dying church, the political infighting of a few influential people who were happy to see the church die provided they remained in charge, and the path the church took (led by Mark) to deal with the problem. Mark and Darrin are both very conversational and they did the reader a favor by simply telling their story. At various places in the book they clarified that they were not trying to write a manual on replanting but just telling the story of one situation.

For what it’s worth, they accomplished what they set out to do. It just wasn’t that ambitious of a goal. The book has very little for anyone to learn other than a fact pattern that went basically unchallenged or even contemplated. The story is presented as though the steps taken were the only possible steps that could be taken and perhaps it’s true. The problem is that they never built (in my opinion) any kind of a basis that argued for why selling out this autonomous church and giving everything to The Journey was the best course of action. It’s not even clear how much other replanting/revitalizing options were considered or what the barriers in Mark’s mind were to their implementation. Pulling back the curtain on this could have been something very valuable to readers drawn to this kind of book but it is noticeably absent.

I have to say that while I sympathized somewhat with Mark as he tells the story with himself being the main character and protagonist, it was hard for me to like him as a character. By his own admission, he got most excited not at the idea of helping these believers find an electrifying identity in Christ, but rather by the prospect of ending their church as they knew it and handing it off to someone who would do more with it than they could (in his opinion). Even his comment about his family being absent from the church created less sympathy for him and more suspicion over how differently he would be processing things had his loved ones been directly affected by his decisions. I am confident my decision making is improved by my wife’s active involvement in it and I didn’t pick up any introspection by Mark as he discussed trying to figure out his next steps absent his wife other than to say that if the church folded or the new owners fired him he’d lose 1/3 of his income and his family would be impacted. To me, he came across much more as a consultant than a pastor and while I’m sure that was not the case in reality it is the way the book reads.

I gave it three stars because I have to admit that once I realized it was not a serious book I started skimming some parts and may have missed something that would counter the things I found lacking. Otherwise I would have given it two stars.

There are so many better books out there on the topic that offer more wisdom, more practical help, a better understanding of the supernatural battle that is replanting, more compassion for the senior saints that tend to be in these churches, etc. The best one I’ve read so far is Mark Clifton’s book Reclaiming Glory but even Darrin’s book Church Planter would equip most people far better to attack this kind of situation than this one did.

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Reclaiming Glory by Mark Clifton

I had the chance to meet Mark and pickup his book at a North American Mission Board conference on replanting dying churches. I read the book over the same two days the conference was held, so it is a pretty quick and easy read.

There is a lot to commend about this book. First of all it is well written in a “keep the cookies on the lowest shelf” kind of way. He does not go out of his way to use seminary words like prolepsis and polemic – he just talks about the topic in a way that makes sense to most readers. This is really important because I think it’s average everyday people who have to understand this idea if a movement around replanting will gain ground. Just having some young pastors who are willing to take on a dying church so they can finally be senior pastor is not going to get it done.

The book (and the conference which will be repeated in Feb 2017) do a very good job of redefining the narrative around successful churches. The Southern Baptists, perhaps more than other denominations but at least as much, have majored on numbers for a long time. While it’s true that living things grow and the lack of growth should be a concern, numbers of people in pews is actually never something that is commended in the Bible. Their new definition seems a lot healthier and more biblical is “Success – bearing fruit in the life of a church – means having a pattern of making disciples who make disciples that results in the community being noticeably better.” Note: Having 1500 people show up on a Sunday morning who are total consumers who want things their way and make no meaningful impact on their community is not success in this definition.

One of the real strengths of the book is the empathy it shows for these dying churches. Prior to the conference, I would have said that these places were just stuck in the mud. They need to repent and move on and get with it. The reality is that many of these churches have been hurt over and over by a system of rotating pastors every 2-3 years and have lost faith that there really is a shepherd out there who will shepherd them after God’s own heart (Jer 3:15). Additionally, as Clifton says on p 26, it is frustrating and confusing for a dying church to accept that what worked so well in the past may, in fact, be hastening its demise. It’s hard for these saints bought by the blood of Jesus to see these truths and they need a gentle shepherd who won’t break these bruised reeds.

Honestly I don’t know whether I am cut out for the work of replanting. I feel like I’m a little more missionary than shepherd – I even prefer to use biblical counseling evangelistically than with people who are already in the Kingdom. I think in the right context I probably would be able to do this. The great value of the book is not only that it clarifies for potential replanters whether this is something they might be called to, it also puts a spotlight on a topic the whole church needs to bathe in regular prayer.