Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too, by Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007. 219 pages. Reviewed by Michael T. Madaris.
Comeback Churches by Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, almost a year now. It is one of those books that a pastor buys with the best of intentions but never gets around to reading. I chose to write a review of this book because it addresses the very circumstance I find myself in as a pastor. It will be an asset to any pastor or leader who is seeking to bring about significant change in his church.
Ed Stetzer is an author, educator, church planter and pastor. He holds two masters and two doctoral degrees, and is currently employed by the North American Mission Board where he is the senior director of the Center for Missional Research. He lives in Nashville, TN. with his wife and three daughters.
Mike Dodson is a pastor and has been a church strategist for more than ten years. He holds a Doctor of Missiology degree, and lives with his wife and children in Meadville, PA.
Stetzer and Dodson lead the reader on very exciting and difficult journey. It is a journey of transition and change. Change is difficult and scary for any person in any context, but the stakes are exponentially increased when the context is church. Stetzer and Dodson demonstrate this throughout the book, and their point is highlighted by the statistical fact that most churches are plateaued or declining. Comeback Churches was written from the researching of three hundred and twenty-four churches from ten denominations that made a “comeback.” They state that they wrote the book to be a practical, applicable inspiration for those leading churches in need of a “comeback.” “We celebrate those comebacks because they inspire us to believe that seemingly impossible things really are possible. That’s why we wrote this book” (ix). They want to help churches make the “comeback” after being in a state of plateau or decline. “This is not a book of statistics. It is ultimately a book of practical advice-advice from more than three hundred churches and advice from your two authors” (xiv).
Stetzer and Dodson begin Comeback Churches by “examining what a church should be. That is the goal, as we see it…” (1). They immediately launch into the biblical idea of church, looking at passages of Scripture from Ephesians, Matthew, Acts and Revelation. This was a very important step in the writing of this book because to lay a false foundation would negate the concepts of the book completely. Their desire in writing Comeback Churches is developed from their belief that churches should be biblical in nature, character and context.
In reading this book one will come to the determination quickly that following Scripture is a priority for the authors and it is their opinion that the church should follow Scripture also. They give the reader six biblical criteria for the church: 1) Scriptural authority, 2) Biblical leadership, 3) Preaching and teaching, 4) Ordinances, 5) Covenant community, and 6) Mission. These are the biblical foundation of the church, and these criteria were a vital part of each of these “comeback churches.” It would be quite difficult to find anything to critique at this point.
There is a great deal of material covered and many ideas given to the reader concerning leading a church through the transitions needed in making a “comeback.” Of the three hundred and twenty-four churches participating, the vast majority said leadership was the most critical piece of the puzzle in making the changes necessary to produce a “comeback.” They suggest that “Being a good leader means being a godly person of influence. Comeback leaders influence their churches to strive for something more than the present stagnation” (29).
Someone once said that everything rises and falls on leadership and most have come to realize that this is true. It is good to know, at this point, that Stetzer and Dodson make a distinction between influence and manipulation. Quoting Erwin McManus they argue that manipulation is evil, while “influence is the best way to lead and move others toward what is good” (29). The concept of influence is not new in terms of leadership, but in reading some authors it is difficult to determine whether they are discussing manipulation or influence. Stetzer and Dodson do an excellent job of differentiating between the two and defending the use of influence over manipulation.
Another point made by Stetzer and Dodson is the fact that for a church to make a “comeback” those who make up the church must be involved in the process. The pastor/leader must cast the vision to the church in such a way that the members take ownership of the vision and take the steps necessary to bring about the needed change. Every pastor should know that it is impossible to bring about change in the church without the support of the “native” leaders. It is at this point that Stetzer and Dodson deal with the subject of communication in the church (30).
Communication is a very vital aspect of the ideas surrounding Comeback Churches. “Churches wanting change must discuss, discuss, discuss” (30). The majority of the church must acknowledge its current state before it will be ready to move forward. Communication should in the end lead to decisions, strategy and action. It is not enough to know change is needed, one must take action that will bring about the desired results.
One of the most critical concepts dealt with in Comeback Churches is found in dealing with what Stetzer and Dodson refer to as the “Three Faith Factors.” It is impossible to bring about the changes needed to make a plateaued or declining church a “comeback” church without faith. The three faith factors are: 1) “a renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church, 2) a renewed attitude for servanthood, and 3) a more strategic prayer effort” (55). One of the things most readers will appreciate about this book is its “common sense” perspective. Stetzer and Dodson are not trying to “reinvent the wheel,” they are just taking solid biblical principles and reintroducing them in light of the current condition of the church in North America, especially the United States. The discussion of the faith factors is essential in keeping with the expressed desires of the authors for the book, keeping in mind that “without faith it is impossible to please Him…” (Heb. 11:6, NKJV).
Prayer is the other key essential taken from the book if one desires to lead his church to be a “comeback church.” Stetzer and Dodson do more than discuss prayer from a theological perspective, but they give the reader some practical ideas for cultivating a desire in the people of God to pray. The ideas are helpful, and adequate examples of their effectiveness are given. They use I Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray constantly” and quote John Ortberg who says “Prayer is a learned behavior. Nobody is born an expert at it. No one ever masters prayer” (69). This is a difficult concept to remember and master, but Christians are encouraged to continue praying through the difficult times because of the results of prayer.
Stetzer and Dodson discuss relevant issues in leading churches to make a “comeback” like preaching and worship which seem to be somewhat easy changes to make if necessary,
preaching being a much easier transition than worship. But one of the most difficult transitions to make in the church is in the area of evangelism and missions. One of the words that is used over and over again in the book is strategy. The reader is encouraged to develop a new strategy in the area of evangelism and mission. They give examples of churches that were able to make great strides in reaching out to their lost communities, but they failed to give examples of what types of strategies these churches used. It is stated on several different occasions that this is not a “cookie cutter” presentation, but it would be an added bonus to look at the exact process some of these “comeback churches” used that worked and did not work. This is one of the few faults that I have with this book and others like it. It is practical but too general at times. It would have been more helpful if, in only an instance or two, they presented explicit detail of the strategies, etc… which led to the turn around of these churches.
Stetzer and Dodson make some very simple and yet profound arguments in the chapter dealing with the top factors and the biggest challenges facing a church looking to make a change, looking to reach their community for Christ, looking to make a “comeback.” It is not surprising that churches looking to make the change need to focus on prayer, evangelism and preaching, but what was shocking were obstacles that must be overcome by churches looking to reassert themselves into their culture and world.
According to Stetzer and Dodson the three biggest obstacles to overcome are attitudes, finances and facilities. It is easy to see that the facilities of church might keep them from making a greater impact on their community, and every church deals with the financial pressures of maintaining and growing a church budget in a godly way. But there is tremendous spiritual insight exhibited in their discussion of attitude. At this point the authors are dealing with the attitude of whole church, and to demonstrate the different attitudes Gary McIntosh’s book One Size Doesn’t Fit All is quoted.
The attitude of small and medium size churches that might keep them from being successful in God’s eyes is presented. This is a very helpful section of the book in that it highlights the different thought processes that are underlying in the local church culture. McIntosh goes on to demonstrate that each church must be studied and worked in individually although there are some general characteristics that make up each type of church.
I am glad I read Comeback Churches. It has given me, as a pastor, some great ideas and direction as I seek to lead my church to become missional in her mindset and behavior. Stetzer and Dodson do an excellent job of presenting their ideas and research. I believe every church, leader and pastor should keep it in front of them as a reminder of where he is and where he should be headed.
It is hard to critique a book that you find little wrong with. Stetzer and Dodson do an excellent job of keeping the teachings of Scripture concerning the church, not as an afterthought, but at the forefront of all they say. They used the information they received from the participating churches in a way that is beneficial and encouraging. They accomplish what they set out to do. They inspire the reader to step up and lead. They encourage the reader to do what is necessary to lead their church to be a “comeback church.”
My one regret with the book is that I believe it could have given more detail as to the strategies used by those churches that have already made the “comeback” and have maintained and exceeded the growth. At times Comeback Churches was too general in content. I would have liked for them to say “We began to pray, these are the obstacles we faced, and this is how we overcame them. We implemented FAITH evangelism, but it took us this long to see any results because of this opposition.” This type of information is part of what I am looking for when I read books like Comeback Churches.