The Ugly Babies of Church Revitalization
I know; you don’t want to hear it, and I get it. We’re talking about your baby, for goodness sake. She’s not stunning. But you love her, and you’d defend her from anyone, wouldn’t you?
Especially the guy who says she’s ugly. And I’m the guy who says she’s ugly.
No, I’m not talking about your kids or grandchildren—I’m sure they’re gorgeous.
I’m talking about your church.
Your church is an ugly baby.
Or, at least statistically speaking, your church is an ugly baby. Depending on the figures you look at, somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of churches are rather unattractive—ugly babies, at best, if not total dumpster fires. And these are "pre-COVID" numbers.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve seen it for myself in many geographical areas.
Your church is far less welcoming than you think, and your congregation is inwardly focused. Sure, you support “global missions,” but your church has delegated spreading the Gospel to the “professionals.” You aren’t making as many disciples as you think—maybe you aren't making any. And even if your pastor’s preaching is rich, layered, and highly expository, it isn’t reaching anybody. It isn’t changing lives. Your church members and the community surrounding your church are evidence of this reality. And it doesn’t matter that you used to pack the church out and fill a school bus full of kids headed to Vacation Bible School. What have you done lately? When's the last time you baptized someone who wasn't the child or (more likely) grandchild of a member of your church?
Perhaps you think I am simply a self-appointed critic who has made it my job to tell you how messed up your church is. And I also get that we’re all messed up to some degree. That’s why the Gospel is good news. Think of me what you like, but here’s the deal: if your church is like most American congregations, it’s on a death march. And some are on a faster track to closing the doors than others.
I’ve heard plenty of excuses for the mess.
“People just don’t want to go to church anymore.” No, they don’t want to go to your church.
I suspect the decline of the institutional church is more about the failure of the church to be the church than that people are no longer interested in spiritual things. People without Christ will always carry a void inside that only He can fill.
“Folks don’t want to hear the truth anymore. We preach the truth.”
Dying churches paint more prosperous churches as unbiblical and “tickling the ears" of people in attendance. The truth is, not only have I attended many dying churches, but I have also attended many large churches, even mega-churches. I haven’t visited every big church out there. Still, I have heard specific warnings against sin and clear Gospel presentations at every big church I have attended. And, at many small churches, the reality isn't that great.
At one dying church in Florida, I heard on Mother’s Day, “If your momma is still alive, you should visit her.” And that was the central message. I agree; you should go see your mother. But I thought perhaps the preacher—who could no longer make the climb up the platform steps to stand at the pulpit—might have found a way to the cross of Christ before the sermon was over. At other churches on the verge of death, I have heard it emphasized that only the King James Version of the Bible is the Word of God in English. All other English translations are satanic. Don’t get me wrong: the King James Version is a venerable, reliable translation. But, if that kind of idolatry and heresy drives your ministry, the Kingdom will be better off when your church dies.
One Easter Sunday, I heard an update on a dying Florida church’s search for a new pastor. If the deacon (the only church leader) saw a potential candidate had a drum set on the stage of his current church, that guy was out of contention. Guess that would’ve eliminated me—not that I’d have tackled that revitalization project.
I suspect many dying churches want a preacher who consoles the congregation. He assures them (and probably himself) they’re not dying but that they’re right—and you just can’t get that in a church thriving by “worldly standards.” After all, wide is the gate to destruction. Narrow is the gate to life and few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14). Or so the thinking goes (apparently).
If I sound, I don’t know, cynical, I guess, it’s not because that’s how I’m trying to come across. It’s just that I’ve lived it in ministry and seen it everywhere I go. This type of thinking is pervasive in American churches. I’ve seen it in every state where I have lived, visited, or ministered—and heard of cases throughout every other region in America (I network pretty extensively). So, you see, your ugly baby isn’t even special or unique. Change the names and the locations—even change denominational affiliations—and it’s pretty much the same in every dying church. Comfortable, inwardly focused, evangelistically apathetic, and run by a few influential members or families.
I recognize that I paint with broad brush strokes. That’s intentional. Honestly, though, if you just change some details, it’s the same story everywhere. People are people.
But the truth is, I love ugly baby churches. I love your church enough to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Your church can be a vibrant Gospel lighthouse in your community. Yes, I realize with America becoming increasingly postmodern and post-Christian, it will be more challenging than it used to be. Welcome to the reality that Christians worldwide have faced for the last two thousand years.
I love ugly-baby churches.
More important, God loves ugly baby churches. Warts and all, they are part of the body of Christ, His beloved Son. As much as for the most successful mega-church, Christ gave His blood for the ugly-baby church. Like any mega-church member, the ugly-church congregant is part of redeemed humanity—sinners reconciled to Almighty God.
Nothing about a dying church gives glory to God. I am convinced churches will see renewed life by humbly repenting and taking seriously Christ’s call to make disciples of all the world. They must forgo the cherished programs and the firmly held preferences they wrap in a scriptural veneer. Renewal will come when they recognize that Christ was serious about his call for faithful followers to take up a cross daily (Matthew 16:24-26). Church life is a call for sacrifice—daily and until one’s last breath.
Denying oneself means setting aside comfort and preference in deference to the needs of others. It means following the Apostle Paul’s evangelistic philosophy of reaching people where they are, of being “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV).
Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor diagnose our churches today and provide His prescription for revitalization.
Unlike what some have proposed, I don’t see the Seven Churches of Asia Minor (Revelation, chapters 2-3) representing different eras within the church age. Instead, I agree with those who say these seven churches describe every type of local church—both then and today. In my view, three of the seven churches most closely correspond with churches in need of revitalization today. Indeed many churches today represent the worst elements of all three of these churches. But we should remember that the Lord offered a path for repentance and restoration for each of these three churches. He provides the same to declining and dying churches today.
The Church at Ephesus
The church of Ephesus was as doctrinally orthodox as can be; they did not suffer false teaching. But the Ephesian church represented a dead orthodoxy. Christ accusingly stated, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4). The church at Ephesus might have well agreed with those church members today who excuse the sorry state of their fellowship by saying, “People just don’t want to hear the truth.” I suspect that, like so many dying American churches today, the Ephesian church was in total denial of its sad condition.
And our Lord tells the Ephesian church what will happen if they don’t repent and return to their first love. He says, if you don’t, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Rev. 2:5). Here is the only place the New Testament talks about a church closing, and here the Lord explains why churches close—He closes them. Return to your first love, Jesus says. Stop wasting Kingdom resources while refusing to do Kingdom work.
What is the first love the Ephesian church has neglected? The text isn’t specific, but I believe the context is. The Ephesian church is inwardly focused and unevangelistic. They are comfortable, doctrinally sound, and happy for the preacher to “feed” them weekly. My view of the Ephesian church as lacking in outward focus is not my invention, but several commentators agree with me. Other commentators have opined that the Ephesian church has lost its first love in failing to care for each other. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were part of the problem at Ephesus. Often, dying churches are disunified churches. Divided, self-centered church members do a poor job of loving each other—to say nothing of how they treat the community outside.
Declining churches today must repent. Repent!! Turn around. Go back to what got the church off the ground in the first place. The church needs to get out of its holy huddles, embrace church visitors and, more importantly, serve as the real presence of Christ within the community. Church members—the pastor and other leaders included—must set aside their personal preferences, never equating these with doctrinal soundness. The church must become a place that thinks of each other and the neighborhood outside. It must return to the mindset that launched it—or see Jesus himself close the doors.
The Church at Sardis
Christ could be describing any number of American congregations today that haven’t officially closed their doors. He says, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1). Evidently, people remembered a time when the church at Sardis was a vibrant spiritual presence. But those days are long gone.
Christ tells them to “wake up” to “strengthen what remains” (v. 2) and to “remember what you what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” The church at Sardis may have grown unevangelistic. But something else seems to be in play here. Christ says, “you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments” (v. 4). There seems to be worldliness or doctrinal impurity here. It seems like carnal Christianity could be in play here.
When I hear a church where the central theme of a sermon is, “You should visit your momma,” well, that’s nice. But it doesn’t seem that what should be the main thing is the main thing anymore. When I hear a church where preachers only badmouth other churches or spend their time harping on Bible translations other than the King James Version, that’s dead to me. When I hear nothing but legalist rules and “standards,” with little to nothing about the grace of God in Jesus Christ, that seems dead to me. When I listen to what amounts to a motivational speech rather than a Gospel sermon, it doesn’t seem to me there is much life-giving in the church.
I don’t know what the exact problem was in Sardis. Still, the prescription is the same as for the spiritually dead church today: Repent! Go back to the main thing, which is the Gospel.
The Church at Laodicea
Revelation chapter three represents the Church at Laodicea as lukewarm. It is neither hot nor cold. Typically, evangelical churches today exegete this passage incorrectly. You’ll hear preachers say that Christ wishes this church was either on fire for the Gospel or completely cold to it. When you understand the aqueducts supplying Laodicea’s water, you realize that cold water sources would have warmed up on the way. In contrast, hot water supplies would have cooled down during the transit. The water has neither the healing, soothing power of hot springs nor the refreshing nature of a drink from a cold spring.
Laodicea had disgustingly lukewarm water, and the church there was lukewarm, too. It was neither a place of spiritual refreshment nor healing. Unquestionably, the church at Laodicea was evangelistically apathetic. Doubtless, they cared little about the spiritual needs of others. Jesus says (Rev. 3:17), “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The Laodicean church was smugly self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency reminds me of many churches in need of renewal today. They have money in the bank and paid-for facilities. They spurn invitations from more prosperous churches to join forces to restore the church to a neighborhood Gospel witness. “We believe in the local church’s autonomy,” they say. “We don’t want to lose our independence.” There is no sense of Gospel urgency in churches like these, and the church may close its doors with ample funds still in reserve.
What is Christ’s prescription for the church of Laodicea and those of its ilk today? Repent! Jesus says (v. 18), “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” I see these words as Christ’s call to do the things needed to fix the church. The salve will look different, depending on the church. But it involves making the necessary changes to become outwardly focused.
Change your church or die.
Christ’s message to the Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea churches is the same word for dying churches today: Repent! Change or die. Change, or I’m personally going to take you out!
The good news is that your church can change. Your church can choose to take its call to Gospel witness in its neighborhood seriously. Your church can set aside its preferences for favorite worship styles and music, beloved English Bible translations, perennial programs, and types of furniture or décor. Your church can set aside human traditions and recommit to the biblical Great Commission. Your church can live. I’ve seen God work that kind of miracle.
Statistically, though, I’m not very optimistic about your church. Not because I don’t believe in God’s power to renew your church. The God who turns crucifixions into resurrections can revitalize any church—again, I’ve seen it happen. So, my skepticism comes from what I have seen happen more often than I was privileged to see in the church I pastored in Florida. More often, I have seen churches decide to die. They’re too comfortable to change. Many churches are like the heavy smoker who is too nicotine-addicted to renounce his cigarettes. Even in the face of late-stage lung cancer, he continues puffing. Likewise, many churches choose not to turn away from the bad habits that kill them. They won’t change. When a new pastor suggests change is in order, they run him off within a few years—or never hire him in the first place. They often say they are ready to change, but their actions soon show otherwise.
Death will be painful for anyone watching. The ugly baby evolves into a dumpster fire and then goes out in a smoldering whimper, often leaving structures behind that are a blight on the community they should have served.
What is your church’s choice? Will you move from ugly baby to healthy and vibrant Gospel witness? Will you repent and pray? Will you dare enough to trust God can renew your church? Will you obediently sacrifice to make revitalization a reality?
Are you ready to make the ugly baby pretty again?