Richard Southern and Robert Norton are partners in Church Development Systems, a consulting practice focused on church renewal and growth. Both Episcopalian laypeople, they offer a helpful volume on church vitality aimed at mainline congregations.

In a market filled with such volumes, the “twist” that differentiates Southern and Norton’s work is their focus on “spiritual DNA”—a congregation’s unique values, mission and vision. Given that every church is unique, a one-size-fits-all approach to congregational revitalization is not appropriate, they argue.

They write, “Once a congregation has a clear sense of who it is, why it exists, what it is doing, and where it would like to go, it can then create a strategic map for the future that remains true to its identity even as conditions and needs change.”

This sounds like a simple, common-sense statement, but many congregations unfortunately do not take this approach. The church that understands its “spiritual DNA” can make changes that are genuine to its identity and that better further its mission.

Southern and Norton wrote that simply knowing one’s DNA is not enough—that just as in the human body, a congregation’s DNA must be delivered through various systems.

Four key systems are identified that work together to maintain a congregation’s health and wellness: the welcoming system, nurturing system, empowering system and serving system.

The notion of a unique spiritual DNA for each congregation is right on target and has application for any group, from Independent Baptists to Unitarians. This theme, however, was not quite as well developed as it might have been.

The real strengths of this book are twofold:

First, the discussion of the various delivery systems gives a good overview of important issues in church health and vitality. Churches wishing to strengthen their ministries of welcoming and incorporating newcomers, and to help members discover and use their gifts in ministry will find helpful ideas. Those who have not done a lot of reading in the area of church health and vitality might find these chapters especially useful.

Second, the final chapter includes some very practical evaluative surveys to help a church determine its level of health for each of the four systems outlined. These could be adapted and used by boards, committees, planning groups.

Southern and Norton conclude the book with an eight-step process to help congregations develop a “strategic map” for the future. This might help congregations in developing their own process for planning for future ministry.

Southern and Norton have consulted with hundreds of congregations in the United States and Canada, which they note range from 25 in Sunday attendance to several thousand. While the concepts presented here apply to congregations of all sizes, those twenty-five member churches would have to do a lot of “translating” of the details to make this book fit their situation. Medium-sized churches and larger will find this book more helpful than small (60 or fewer member) congregations.

Cracking the Code reads well and includes some helpful illustrations. Clergy and congregational leaders interested in church health and vitality, area ministers and other denominational leaders with responsibilities for church planting and revitalization will find Southern and Norton’s work useful.

Churches looking at streamlining or updating their organizational structure might consider doing so around the four systems discussed here.

Dave Russell is pastor of FirstBaptistChurch (ABC/USA) in Ames, Iowa.

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