Leadership Development in Local Church Revitalization: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Further Research

by Bart L. Denny This article identifies a gap in the existing literature concerning leadership development in the context of local church revitalization. The article further suggests how existing leadership and leadership development theories could be applied to church revitalization and proposes further investigation and research areas. Observers and practitioners in the field of church revitalization unequivocally make the case that for a local church to reverse its decline, the pastor must develop a new generation of leaders (Clifton, 2016; Davis, 2017; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2020; Stetzer & Dodson, 2021). The extant literature links the decline of churches to a lack of leadership and identifies renewed leadership as a vital component of church revitalization. However, little has been written, theoretically or practically, about the process of leadership development as it applies to local church revitalization. Moreover, little empirical verification supports church revitalizat

Why I Love Church Replanting

Church revitalization and replanting—the effort to bring struggling or even dying churches to new health and vitality—positively excites me.  Why? Because church revitalization and replanting showcase the miraculous work of a God who turns crucifixions into resurrections. When you look at a struggling church, you may see a church stuck in the past, a church whose facilities have become unappealing, or a church whose members have long ago ceased to be outwardly focused. Many times they have little hope and have resigned themselves to the idea that they are a few years of funerals away from closing. Perhaps some remember the glory days. They recall a time when teens and children were a presence in the church. But that was a long time ago. Surely, those days can never come back.

What is Church Replanting?

So, you’ve seen me use the terms “revitalization” and “replanting.” What’s the distinction? Basically, the difference is in how much runway you have to get back off the ground. How long before the church is going to be forced to close its doors? If you have more than five years and can do it with the people and resources you have, it’s a revitalization. If the church is in more imminent danger of death, and cannot regain health without outside help, it’s a replant. I’m a huge fan of replanting because, in my view, a replant puts God’s miraculous, restorative powers on display for all to see. Replanting is difficult, laborious, but oh, the satisfaction to see God work so powerfully!

A church that needs replanting—a church that is, in essence, on life support—got that way for many reasons. The decline was probably slow, at first, though the downward spiral began, at some point, to accelerate (COVID-19 has probably been a recent driver). The church has become inwardly-focused and preference-driven. The past and its attendant traditions are celebrated. The leadership has failed to pass the baton to the next generation. Discouraged and marginalized, capable younger adults have moved on to serve and worship where their contributions are both meaningful and appreciated. Those still left can be argumentative, combative, and staunch advocates of the status quo, even with the existing state of affairs is not worth defending.

The church in need of replanting likely has facilities (like parlors and flower rooms) that, in their current form, are no longer serve a clear ministry function yet are inviolable. Members cling to outdated décor. The church seems to wander aimlessly, without purpose. Such churches have become “pastor eaters,” running off a new pastor every few years. In age, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the congregation looks nothing like the neighborhood. Deferred maintenance abounds. Cleanliness and even basic safety have slipped, and the church is cluttered.

The Satisfaction of Replanting

Turning that around is hard work. Some people will resist you at every step.   Others will just stomp off.  As a leader, you have to be okay with people leaving. That’s gut-wrenching because we pastors will all (at least secretly) admit that we hate to lose people. But when you’re tenacious, when you just determine to outlast them, the “energy vampires” will ultimately move on to other places where perhaps they can push others around. Eventually, the people who remain, and the people you reach in the interim will be onboard with the vision.

Bringing vision in a church replant is extremely satisfying. I challenged the church to think about what ten years of revitalization looked like in our context. Some of them had some pretty good ideas and they’re still with us as we have been adopted by a larger church and gained new life. I painted a picture of what I thought it would look like, and I think they liked what they saw in their minds. And the ones who didn’t have any imagination as to how the church could look and didn’t seem excited by a vision of a church that actually serves its community, well I think they’ve all pretty much moved on.

Preaching on the purpose and mission of the church and imagining how it will look when the church is firing on all cylinders—that’s fun. For those with a country club view of the church (you know, “I pay my dues, so you need to cater me”), I don’t think they liked it. The idea that sinners would come into the building scared some off. The idea that lives would be transformed, that excited those who stayed.

God's Glory Reclaimed

Church replanting reignites the long-dimmed torch of a Gospel lighthouse in the community. It declares that the church is moving back into the neighborhood to retake territory long held by our spiritual enemy. Church replanting prevents Kingdom property from being surrendered to purposes outside of the Gospel’s advance. Church replanting reclaims glory for God for all of the community to see. That excites me! That’s why I love church planting.


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