A Fervent Plea for Church Revitalization

In my previous post, I spoke of ugly baby churches and the statistical likelihood that your church is an ugly baby. Sadly, most churches in America are ugly babies—plateaued at best or, more likely, in a death spiral after a decadal decline. In 2019 most statistics ventured that somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of churches were in a state of plateau or decline. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. By all indicators, most churches aren’t doing as well as before the pandemic—at least in worship attendance, programs, and finance.[1] In my previous post, I also said that, statistically, I am not optimistic that your church will do an about-face in its march down the road of decline.

Such a turnaround involves changes and sacrifices that most churches are unwilling to make.

Your church must staunch the bleeding and obediently return to the Great Commission call to make disciples and the Great Commandment mandate to love God and others. I can’t guarantee any church attempting a turnaround will be able to survive and return to health. However, if it does not act soon,  I can guarantee your church will close its doors more quickly than anyone thinks. Perhaps you’re worried about where your church will be in ten years. I’m more concerned about where you’ll be as a congregation in five years because, in a decade, your church will be a memory.

The great news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a statistic over which you have some control.

You can try.

Your church can decide to do what it takes to return to health. That decision will instantly raise your chances of revitalization success. The God who turns crucifixions into resurrections can undoubtedly revitalize your church. The letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation chapters 2-3) demonstrate that it is Christ himself who closes a local church. Christ removes a congregation because it no longer serves as an incarnational expression of His body in the world. It isn’t a church anymore. I believe that—strongly. But I also trust that Jesus loves your church. I am convinced that if you do it His way, He will bring renewal to your church.

Did you catch me there?

Jesus Christ loves your church! He wants it to succeed!

 Consider this a passionate plea for revitalization—specifically for you to revitalize your church!

 I get it. Gone is the culture of American Christendom, which saw most people at ease in a church, even if they didn’t regularly attend. Today, traditional church buildings seem alien to an increasingly never-churched population. Your church represents a culture shock to people who feel out of place because people wear suits for no apparent reason. And, if you’re not big into dressing up, I guarantee there’s some cultural habit you have that people from the outside find uncomfortable. Maybe your music seems strange…even a little depressing to them. (Don’t get me wrong—traditional music, done well, can be uplifting and attractional.) Methods of evangelism and getting people to the church building don’t work as they used to. While you think you’re friendly, visitors are uneasy and often feel you are judging them. Your jargon is difficult to understand, and your customs are strange. Cultural Christianity in America is extinct, and your neighborhood increasingly resembles a foreign mission field.

 “Doing church” in America is not as easy as it once was. And church revitalization is exceedingly tough—for pastors and their congregations alike. And not every church that attempts revitalization succeeds. What if it doesn’t work? That’s a scary thought. But here’s a simple truth: the track record among those churches that attempt to rise from the ashes is far better than the dismal rate (zero percent) among churches that never try. (Let’s be clear: A declining church choosing not to revitalize is a church electing to die. It’s also a church in defiant disobedience to its Great Commission mandate.) And when God brings a dying church back to life, you’ll know you’ve seen something miraculous. And it’s an enormous blessing to have been a part of it.

 So, I’m pleading with you to try. Make the necessary changes. Believe it or not, the Kingdom needs your church to survive and to be all that God desires for it to be. The Kingdom needs your church to be a beachhead for spreading the Gospel into enemy territory—neighborhoods in spiritual darkness and desperately needing a vibrant witness for Christ.

I’m pleading with you to cooperate with God in revitalizing your church!

So what does it look like to cooperate with Him? How do you get out of God’s way as He revitalizes your church?

Begin with Prayer.

The first, middle, last, and continuous step to see revitalization is to pray.

I know you’re praying for your church. I hope you are praying for your church. If you aren’t, that’s where renewal starts. I’ve never seen or heard of a great move of God’s Holy Spirit where prayers of His people didn’t come first. Revitalization only comes after everyday saints beg the Lord to use them to work a spiritual miracle. But prayer for renewal is more than the hope that God will make things like they used to be twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago. Prayer ought to change your heart and the hearts of a congregation. Prayer ought to stir your church to a daring faith that brings about action—to a belief that God can and will use you and work miracles in your church. Prayer is the beginning of trust that God’s best days for your church are yet ahead. Through prayer, God will help you to put yourself, your preferences, and your desires for the church you want in favor of the church He will use to accomplish His purposes.

Second Step: Repent, individually and corporately

Repentance is a change of mind, a reversal from one’s present course. Repentance always involves a shift in thinking that leads to a corresponding behavior change. Church revitalization is heavy on change. Don’t get me wrong: the Gospel message never changes.. We must never yield our firmly-held conviction that the Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. But all of the human traditions attached to the way we do church ought to be up for discussion. For over two thousand years, the (capital “C”) Church has repeatedly shown a willingness to adapt its methods without changing its message. The Church has adapted to changes in culture, technology, and society—not to conform to the world’s ways but to effectively meet people where they are.

Don’t understand me as saying tradition is necessarily useless. Tradition can help anchor us in our faith. But, if we were completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that many of our beloved customs and practices are, in reality, matters of preference. Look at the average church building to see the most glaring example of deeply held preferences. Members want their choice of colors and decor and often resist the slightest remodeling, no matter how dated things have become. It sounds far-fetched, but churches have split over the color of new carpeting. What a splendid Gospel witness (NOT)!

Preferences are extra-biblical—unbiblical, sometimes. When we put our priorities first, we have failed to live as Paul urges. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, NASB).

More directly, repentance means turning away from disobedience. For the declining church, the most apparent disobedience is to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The two go hand in hand. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Go—and as you go—make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

The good news is that we can repent as followers of Christ. The Holy Spirit empowers us to change. And remember, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting…and in most churches in America today, that’s more decline.

In true humility, ask for help…and accept the help that’s offered.

I’ll be blunt here. If you, as a church, knew what you were doing or what was best for your church, you wouldn’t be in your current position. Your church would be healthy. I’m not faulting you—not entirely, anyway. It’s human nature to be comfortable with people who are like us. Without meaning to, we get into a Christian bubble. Undoubtedly, when your church started, it saw some vibrant, evangelistic years—times filled with fruitful ministry. Then the community changed, and the culture changed. Surefire methods of doing ministry no longer worked. You’re not about to compromise on biblical truth—and you shouldn’t (provided your preferences aren’t masquerading as scriptural mandates). But, frankly, you don’t know where to turn. Nothing works anymore.

Other pastors, church leaders, and their congregations have been where you are. The factors leading to church decay—and to subsequent renewal—have been well-studied, both biblically and social-scientifically. Much in the way of data exists. While your church is, in an authentic sense, unique, it is not all that special or different. Change the names and locations, but the underlying causes for the decline are the same—lack of vision, prayerlessness, inward focus, disunity, and failure to make disciples or leaders. And the path forward is broadly the same—vision, prayer, repentance, unity, a shift to an outward focus, to making disciples and future leaders. Outside eyes might better help you see the problems and connect those to concrete plans or advise how others have proceeded in similar circumstances.

I recommend fostering or adoption for churches well on their way to death (that struggle to pay bills or with a membership composed principally of octogenarians or older). In fostering, a more prosperous church of similar doctrine comes alongside the struggling church for a specified period. The fostering church may provide a variety of most-needed help. Assistance may include such volunteers as youth and children’s workers, musicians, teachers, handymen, and any number of other bits of help. Sometimes this help can even include pulpit supply preachers and finances, coaching and training, materials, or equipment. In adoption, the struggling church takes on the name and becomes part of a more prosperous church. They become one church in two locations and are subject to the same leadership.

Now, this is going to mean you swallow big chunks of pride. No leader in a prosperous church views propping up a failing ministry model as good stewardship of the Lord’s resources. Even in fostering, there will be a demand for progress—which will require change. In adoption, you’re not going to simply change the sign out front. The expectation is that the adopted church will become an extension of the adopting church’s culture. Your church will lose its autonomy, more or less, but hey, you’re welcome to go back to your original plan—which seems to have been to let the church die.

Is it bad to let our church die? 

And what about church death? Is that always a bad thing? If it's years of pitiable decay and agony, I'd say, "Yes, it's bad. It's horrible! It brings no glory to God!" However, in my estimation, the answer is that it’s not bad if we’re talking about death with dignity. Before the facilities get unmanageably rough, decide to gift the building to a church plant and disband as a congregation. Emotionally, this will be no easier than other options. But the chance of your buildings becoming a place of renewed Gospel witness in your community beats seeing its flickering light extinguished forever.

 Trust God…really!

What do you have to lose? Church the way you remember it? That’s already gone. Some disgruntled members so against change that they'll, well, change by moving on to another church? More than likely. You have more to lose by staying on the same path.

By doing nothing, you remain in disobedience…and I’ll guarantee that what you have to lose is your church—and sooner than you think (in case you were hoping not to live to see it). But I believe you can see young people and families start coming in. I think you can start seeing more baptisms. Your church can return to health.

Renewal won’t happen overnight. But, remember that God has all the resources your church needs. Psalm 50:10 reminds us that God owns cattle on a thousand hills. And he owns those hills, too. Your church treasury is broke? God has all the money, people, and resources your church needs to see renewed life and health.

 Is it going to be difficult? Yes! But remember that nothing is too challenging for God! As we read in Jeremiah 32:27 (NIV), “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”

 God’s question is rhetorical here. As we already know, the answer is, “Nothing is too hard for the LORD.” Not even revitalizing your church where the faithful remnant has given up hope.

 The God who turns crucifixions into resurrections can save your church from death. Trust Him and obey Him. You have everything to lose, and everything to gain!

 Your neighborhood needs your church!

 God is sovereign in salvation. So I don’t think someone in your neighborhood will go to Hell because your church closed and that, therefore, someone missed out on their only chance to hear the Gospel. But think about that Kingdom influence your church could have. Imagine people not only reached with the Gospel and saved eternally but becoming devoted followers—disciples—of Jesus Christ? That certainly has an eternal impact, but even in the temporal world, don’t you think your neighborhood would be a better place?

 I believe that the more disciples of Christ your church develops, the more significant the impact on your neighborhood. Perhaps your church’s influence will see fewer marriages fall apart and fewer broken homes. Perhaps your ministries will help the addict find freedom or will facilitate a neighborly neighborhood.

 But my church is one of those doing well!

 Awesome! If your church is in the statistical minority—that is, it is vibrant, healthy, and making disciples for Christ—then read this as a warning; continued health isn’t guaranteed. Don’t let it happen to your church. If your church is healthy, I ask that you pray about how God would use you and your church to help turn this entire situation around. Maybe you can foster or adopt a struggling church. Perhaps you can encourage a pastor attempting to lead a church through revitalization. The Kingdom needs healthy, vibrant churches of all sizes!

[1] It is possible, of course, that COVID-19 provided a healthy culling of programs and, frankly, people, who were a drain on the spiritual health of many churches. Such a pruning may allow churches to grow back healthier—if they can see the “loss” for the opportunity it really is.


Popular posts from this blog

I'm going to try writing a book: Here's the 1st draft of the introduction

What’s more important in ministry: Faithfulness or fruitfulness?

10 Critical Barriers to Church Revitalization