Ezekiel 37 is among the most well known passages of the Old Testament. God gives Ezekiel a vision of a valley of bones. These bones were particularly dry, signifying they had been there for a long time. As they are walking around the valley, God asked Ezekiel “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “Oh Lord God, you know.” Dr. Bill Henard applies this Scripture to dying churches. In his book, Can These Bones Live?: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization, he answers the question of the title with a resounding “yes!” Pastors who go into churches that are dying or declining may feel an overwhelming sense of inadequacy for the task at hand. Dr. Henard again reminds all pastors that they are inadequate, but with the Spirit of God and the instruments that He works through, a church can live again.
The book begins with two introductory chapters. The first answers the question that some readers may be asking, “Why Church Revitalization?” He argues from Scripture that God is for the Church and wants it to prevail, so church leaders should do their part in making that happen. The second chapter teaches on how to assess the church. He advocates for two main ways: assess the church during the interview process and assess the church via the stakeholders. Stakeholders are people and entities within and outside the church. Henard gives a thorough and helpful look at all the different groups of stakeholders and how to work with them.
After the introductory chapters, the author begins the meat of the book. He describes eleven reasons why churches may need revitalization. Space does not permit a full summary of each chapter, for many of the insight and implications will come from these chapters. For the sake of understanding book, here are the eleven reasons: the church does not recognize the need for revitalization, the church does not want to grow, they have physical barriers to growth, gifts of leaders do not match the church, the community’s demographics differ from the church’s, the church turns inward, external factors can hurt the church, the church has lost its vision, they may be operating from inadequate ministry structures, they have failed to increase the impact of its ministries, and the church lacks important ingredients for conversion growth. Within these chapters, Henard gives practical ways of addressing each. There seemed to be much repetition, however they may have been intentional. Not all churches will have all eleven as factors in its decline, but they will have likely more than one. So the leader who is reading this book needs to have a good understanding of each in order to help the church.
The final chapter gives a blue print for leading change called “The Change Matrix.” This matrix gives four categories as well as five aspects of each category that need to be addressed while leading the church through any type of change. This seems to be a helpful paradigm for change, but this chapter could have been strengthen by giving a concrete example of using this matrix throughout a particular situation. The appendixes at the end of the book were basically a collection of different topics Dr. Henard had given throughout the book. The most practical appendix is the “Church Revitalization Assessment Tool.” That one appendix was worth the price of the book.
Can These Bones Live? was packed to the brim with information. At times, it seemed overloaded with unnecessary stories, even irrelevant Bible stories (I say this at the risk of sounding incredibly unspiritual or even un-Christian. However, there were a few places where Dr. Henard seemed to be trying to use a Bible passage to back up his point when it just did not seem to work. One example is on page 31 where the author walks through Genesis 3-4 in detail to make the point that sin affects power struggles within the church). On the other hand, the relevant suggestions and practical help outweighed the former. One insight that can be gleaned from this book, which is not totally original to Bill Henard, is the discussion of the stakeholders. He breaks them down into three main groups: the Thirties, the Tens, and the Newbies. The Thirties are split into two groups: the Older Thirties and the Younger Thirties. His profile of the Older Thirties may prove to be most useful for the vast majority of his readers. The third point on page 32 reads, “They have heard it all before. This pastor is not the first one to come along with great ideas. They also know that he probably will not stay long…” This harps competency and longevity. The Older Thirties have done all they can for all of their life to have the church the way it is. They will not give over their church to a young man who wants to change everything and then leave.
In the section about the Older Thirties, Henard suggests visiting the primary leaders and asking about their vision for the church whenever first arriving at a new church. This plays into the next insight, which is to be ready to answer questions with real answers. When going through church revitalization, several, possibly heated, business meetings must happen. The pastor must understand how his people think, and also work through possible questions that will be asked about whatever change that is being presented. This seems like a small part of leading a revitalization, but being able to answer any question with a substantial, well-thought answer builds rapport and trust.
A fascinating insight that Henard gives is his timeline for church revitalization. It is found obscurely tucked away in chapter five on pages 89-90. Very little is said about it before or after but it gives a realistic timeline for pastors trying to live his book. His statement found on page 89 should be underlined in every pastor’s book, “Effective church revitalization will take, at the minimum, seven to ten years.” This statement flies in the face of studies that show pastors stay anywhere between three to seven years. Pastors who determine to be revitalization leaders should be willing to commit to a church for at the very least ten years to make the most impact.
Another applicable insight comes from the same chapter. The author poses a question, “How many connection points are available for new people?” Essential he asks if there are ways for new people to immediately and easily get plugged into the life of the church. If the answer is no, then he suggests three areas that should be readily available to newcomers: new member/church information class, Sunday School, and service projects. When a visitor sees no way to become connected or is not even invited to get connected, they will most likely fall through the cracks and the church will continue to decline.
Thom Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Church spends a whole chapter on prayer in the church. Bill Henard has prayer throughout his book. Effective praying has been proven to be a key element in a healthy church. In chapter thirteen, he addresses how to have an effective prayer ministry. This is a key insight of the book because many new churches have done away with “prayer meetings.” They do not need to be trashed; they need to upgraded. He borrows suggestions from Jim Nicodem but also gives several helpful suggestion of his own. A church revitalizer would be wise to implement many of these suggestions.
Times are changing. People are more mobile now in the 21st century than ever before. Communities can change seemingly overnight. The congregation will stick out like a sore thumb within just a few years. Pastors working in churches who are experiencing this phenomenon must be willing to fight a hard fight. Many communities have not just several races living within them but also several cultures. This can cause problems when trying to assimilate all cultures into one church. A way for the revitalizing church to still partake in the community is help plant a church for one of the separate cultures. They may even go a step further and allow this church plant to use a section of their church. This would give life and vitality to both churches and the community at large.
Towards the end of the book, on page 192, Henard suggests an ongoing servant evangelism program. More and more people are becoming resistant to the gospel (see page 153). An effective way to bring down the initial walls is to serve. For a church to be able to have life again, they must be seen as a indispensable in the community. Not everyone will love Jesus and the Gospel, but a church must have a visible impact on the community.
For those who are impacted by the servant evangelism projects and decide to visit the church, how will they be treated? People decide if they belong in the church within their first visit to the church, so it is that important to make it pleasant and have follow up. Henard’s ten suggested touches have huge implications for how the church reaches out to the guest. In the consumer culture of America, the Church should not buy into it, yet it must understand that people are used to excellence and friendliness. The Church should be even more friendly than Chick-fil-a.
During this day and age, subjectivity has become king. Having an objective standard by which to measure a church against is key in obtaining revitalization. The church revitalization assessment tool gives the leader an important, objective look at their church. This is especially helpful for a long tenured pastor who has become blind to many issues in his church.
Henard believes strongly that vision is an important key to the health of the church. On page 170 he states, Vision-casting for the twenty-first-century church involves much more than just putting together a Long-Range Planning Committee and deciding how many staff, how much parking, and how much space will be needed over the next few years.” Vision in this century needs to be crystal clear and challenging. Vision does mean giving direction for the church, but it ultimately means focusing the churches energy to fulfill its God-given purpose.
Churches are dying by the hundreds every year. The church plants within the Southern Baptist Convention are more than the ones that die, but the actual loss of hundreds of churches cannot be described on paper. The stories, legacies, and movements of God will not be resurrected in those churches ever now that they have closed their doors. Church revitalization is more important than ever. Dr. Bill Henard has written a thorough, useful guide to revitalizing almost any church facing the eleven problems he mentions. Can churches live again? God knows, and He has said yes.