By Jim Von Wald
Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, as researchers and practitioners, wrote Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too. They addressed a common concern facing many churches and denominations: “What can be done about a church that has plateaued, is stagnant, or has fallen into decline?” The authors tackled this dynamic through the study of over 300 churches that experienced “renewed growth after a significant period of plateau and/or decline.” Their research attempted to find what biblical principles empowered a declining church to turn around and experience success.
Defining success in the church world can become a challenge; the measurements of spiritual growth and achievement remain difficult to quantify. Stetzer and Dodson gave “a qualitative study built on quantitative data” to determine what best practices turnaround churches implemented and those readers could utilize to evaluate their church practices. The authors gauge the spiritual dynamics in comeback churches and their impact on the kingdom of God. The church may find itself in danger of failing to accomplish the mission of God to the world if it only builds numbers or dogmatically follows a formula without the corresponding fruit of changed lives.
Church revitalization addresses a complex and perplexing issue to delineate. With the church a primary means of fulfilling the mission of God towards this world, a healthy church becomes imperative to that assignment, and a plateaued or dying church may undermine the task. Unfortunately, many churches have plateaued or declined. When describing the Assemblies of God denomination, Dr. John Davidson in his October 2018 Trinity Graduate School presentation stated, “Of the approximate 13,000 Assembly of God Churches in America, 70% are either plateaued or in a state of decline.” Stetzer and Dodson’s work could help determine keys to reverse that trend. Their work eliminated churches that grew numerically through transfer growth. Transfer growth may be viewed as Christians simply rearranging themselves between churches versus reaching the lost, critical to the mission of God. Furthermore, the movement of people between churches fosters a consumer mentality, which may hinder the church fulfilling the mission of God towards the world.
Stetzer and Dodson observed foundational biblical principles of church revitalization in comeback churches that intertwined with church praxis. The authors showed the following spiritual factors as critical components of comeback churches: intentionality, growth goals, strategic prayer, reconciling relationships, servanthood and renewed faith in Christ’s mission for the church. The study resulted in discovery of significant components,
While each factor is important, three stood out. We believe these Three Faith Factors help a church regain a missional focus and are always necessary to lead a comeback church:
- Renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church,
- Renewed attitude for servanthood,
- More strategic prayer effort.
While these three factors, became the main contributors to a comeback church turnaround, and may enhance any church or leader fulfilling the mission of God to the world.
Stetzer and Dodson’s examined over 300 turnaround churches and systematically described the elements, determined as essential, to the comeback occurring. Their documentation provided issues found in declining or plateaued churches. The authors stated, “…we recognized we can learn from either our own experiences or from the experiences of others. This book will help you…so that you do not have to pay the same price and endure the same hard lessons…” Leaders should exercise caution in copying the steps other churches have taken for revitalization. The book should not become a step by step manual, but a way to understand some of the best practices used in churches that turned the direction around. Practitioners could use this book as a guide to formulate a foundational plan for revitalization.
The authors’ writing could springboard into a deeper study about indicators of plateau or decline before it occurred. Preventative measures remain critical components for churches to avoid the painstaking process of revitalization. However, the writers stated, “From its inception, the church has followed this very pattern throughout its history – growing, decaying, and being restored.” A question to ask, must a church or denomination decay and die as a part of its life cycle? Further research about what lead into plateau and decline may introduce some prevention.
Stetzer and Dodson provide an opportunity to study the recent history of church revitalization in America and have outlined practices that could revitalize a church. Practitioners in plateaued or declining churches may benefit from this book’s insight into ideas and groundwork that can reverse trends. Data and criteria from the turnaround churches may provide a “hands-on” guide for a church to return to health. Healthy and growing churches could use this book as a guide for warning signs of decline. An essential issue stated by the authors, one person cannot revitalize or prevent decay by themselves. Revitalization requires a team willing to take the necessary steps to move into healthy patterns following the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
 Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too. (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 19.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, x.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, xi
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, xi.
 John Davidson, “Rural Church Planting/Multiplication and Revitalization” (presentation, Trinity Graduate School Immersion, Foley, MN, October 2018).
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, xii.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, 55.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, (bold original), 55.
 Churches and leaders, who believe the church brings hope to this world, recognize the multiple mandates given by Jesus: His mission to build the church(Matt. 16:18-19, NIV), His example to serve the world (Matt. 20:28, NIV) and Jesus encouragement for the church to pray(Matt. 21:13, NIV). Stetzer and Dodson’s findings remind the church of instructions given to experience life within its walls.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, xi.
 Stetzer & Dodson, Comeback Churches, 209.
 Ted Duboise, It’s Easier To Give Birth Than Resurrect The Dead: A Proactive Approach to Managing Employees. (Columbus, GA: On Point! Publishers, 2013), chapter 5. Leaders could tailor principles Ted Dubois gave to prevent a deadbeat from developing in the first place.
Davidson, John. “Rural Church Planting/Multiplication and Revitalization.” Presentation at Trinity Graduate School Immersion Experience, Foley, MN, October 23, 2018.
Duboise, Ted. It’s Easier to Give Birth Than Resurrect The Dead: A Proactive Approach to Managing Employees. Columbus, GA: On Point! Publishers, 2013.
Stetzer, Ed & Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2007.