“A church that stops reforming is dying. And a church that has been in that state for a long time will be rescued only by revitalization” (p. 22). Andrew M. Davis’s book, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again arrives at a much needed time. Interest has grown, particularly among young pastors, to reclaim dying churches for the glory of Christ. However, once pastors enlist on the front lines, they see that the battle rages and the enemy is wreaking havoc. The work is tough, and much counsel is needed. With pastoral care and biblical precision that is both refreshing and instructive, Revitalize is a must read for any pastor/elder who labors toward the revitalization of a local church. Davis’s aim is clear. He desires to help pastors in church revitalization “restore biblical means [to] a once healthy church, from a present level of disease to a state of spiritual health, as defined by the Word of God” (p. 20). While this book is arguably a resourceful tool for every pastor, Davis states, “Churches in need of revitalization differ from healthy churches that simply need maturing in that toxic forces are at work that will make ministry there a particular challenge, and if left unchecked, will finally result in the death of the church” (p. 20).
When it comes to revitalization, experience counts. Readers should know that Davis writes from personal experience. He led First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina, where he has served for nearly twenty years, through the slow process of biblical revitalization.
In chapter 1, Davis makes a convincing argument that revitalization of local churches is a necessary and noble work because Jesus was “zealous for the ongoing revitalization of the church in every age. Revelation 1–3 clearly indicates that the slide of local churches from health toward death has been an ongoing issue for twenty centuries” (p. 15). Having established this biblical precedent, he then summarizes fourteen biblical keys for revitalization. These fourteen keys make up chapters 3–16. However, skipping over chapter 2 would do the reader a disservice. In this chapter, Davis puts his theological convictions on the table. He writes, “But all this information will do nothing to renew a dying church unless the Lord breathes life into it. God alone has the power to do this” (p. 46). Thus, this book is not for the impatient, entrepreneurial, “I’ll fix it” kind of pastor. Rather, this book is for the brother who is willing to do the labor-intensive work of breaking the ground, preparing the soil, forming the rows, planting the seed, continually watering, and removing the weeds in order to watch God give healthy growth.
What does Davis put forward as the keys church revitalizers should embrace? For a summary of each, the reader can skip to pages 22–27. But as listed, the keys are: Embrace Christ’s ownership of the church. Be holy. Rely on God, not on yourself. Rely on God’s Word, not on techniques. Saturate the church in prayer. Cast a clear vision. Be humble toward opponents. Be courageous. Be patient. Be discerning. Wage war against discouragement. Develop and establish men as leaders. Become supple on worship. Embrace the two journeys of disciple-making.
Whether intentional or not, keys 1–5 primarily have a vertical focus and keys 6–14 a horizontal focus. In key 1, Davis establishes that God is sovereign over his Church, and his Son is Head of the Church by blood payment. The pastor’s aim is to lead the congregation toward spiritual vitality that exalts Christ. Davis explains, “A passion for the exaltation of Christ as head over the church must enflame the heart of all revitalizers” (p. 48). How can pastors do this if they aren’t pursuing Christ-likeness? Davis answers with key 2: be holy. How can pastors do this if they are self-reliant? Davis answers with biblical keys 3–5: Rely on God, which is to rely on his Word and prayer. He expounds this point with the example of the Apostle Paul illustrating how God taught Paul “to stop relying on himself, [and] to rely on God, who raises the dead” (p. 72).
In keys 6–14, Davis shifts his focus primarily toward the revitalizer’s relationship with the congregation. Casting a clear, compelling, biblical vision is essential to a church’s revitalization. He writes that a church in need of revitalization is “overwhelmed. It has a track record of increasing weakness, a downward spiral of dwindling fruitlessness” (p. 107). Thus, the kind of vision Davis argues for is not of a worldly kind, described in chapter 8. Rather, it’s a vision that helps the congregation see what is “true, godly, real, and ultimately, biblical. A godly visionary leader relies on Scripture and by faith sees the timeless truths of God and his plans and purposes for all Christians generally” (p. 108).
Reader beware. If you heed Davis’s counsel, especially in the context of an unhealthy church, you will most likely encounter some level of opposition. Thus, Davis addresses the humility, courage, discernment and patience you’ll need, along with the ability to wage war against discouragement, to endure in this worthy work. As a pastor, who by God’s grace has endured, Davis rightly states that “a pastor who is too thin-skinned and cannot bear patiently the hostility of people who will murmur and complain against what he is trying to do in revitalization will not last long” (p. 151). In chapters 14–16, Davis focuses on specific areas where a biblical vision must be applied, and will most likely face opposition: raising up a plurality of male leaders, honoring God with our corporate worship, and embracing the commands to grow in Christ-likeness and help others do the same. He then concludes his book with a chapter devoted to the future glory that we will celebrate together over what we labored for faithfully here on earth.
Davis’s book provides a clear and compelling biblical argument that adds even more color from his use of church history. Anecdotes from Davis’s journey in revitalization at FBC Durham and historical figures, such as Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, and William Tyndale demonstrate the biblical approach to church revitalization spans generations.
Another significant strength of this book is its usefulness. As Mark Dever notes in the foreword, Revitalize “joins a fairly elite group of books—like C. H. Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Preaching and Preachers—that combine theology and practice as only a learned and experienced pastor can” (p. 11). The chapters address individual topics that pastors will likely face, and are easily read as standalone chapters.
Finally, it should be noted that each chapter ends with a section labeled “Practical Advice” that helps the reader think about how the biblical truths presented might apply to his own situation. The mixture of statements and questions are thought provoking. Just think of this as the “theology applied” section.
Davis argues that this book is specifically for church revitalizers. While that may be the intent, all pastors would benefit from Davis’s wisdom. Unfortunately, the title might prevent some from reading this book. I want to urge any pastor laboring toward the health of a local church to read this timely, and eternally rewarding book.