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 you should join the church replanting movement.

 

Churches in America are dying at an alarming rate. That’s the stark reality, and Christ-follower, you need to do something about it. Yes, I’m talking to you! Christians in America should be sitting up, taking notice, and urgently acting to stem the tide of dying churches.

Estimates of how bad the problem really is are varied. Pre-pandemic, most experts said that between 65 and 90 percent of all Protestant churches in America were plateaued or declining.[1] Many of the same experts said that around ten percent of churches were in imminent danger of death. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, reported that about 900 churches affiliated with the denomination would close every year. Extrapolated across Protestant denominations, that could mean that upwards of 4,000 churches in America were closing their doors every year. 

That was before COVID-19 hit, and no one really has a handle on just how desperate things are in a new world of pandemic and social distancing.  What most observers of the Church know for sure is that the problem is worse than before COVID.  What’s more, smaller churches—those under 100, which are actually the majority of American churches—were already at greater risk of decline or death.

The tragedy of church death.

Statistics are sterile. That’s probably why many members of healthy churches don’t even think about this problem or even understand why it’s a problem. In fact, many church-goers who worship at healthy churches may ask, “So what?” I have certainly heard it said that “Some churches need to die.” I think that’s a pretty cynical view. It’s also one I used to hold, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps this idea is borne out of a misinformed notion of the staggering consequences of local church death and decline.

To see a local church close is to witness a tragedy. The end of a local church robs God of His glory. When a church located in the heart of a neighborhood closes its doors, the Kingdom of God loses a Gospel outpost where it’s most needed. One might argue that the church in question stopped reaching their neighborhood years before they closed. Probably true, but no less tragic. While a declining church is still open, there remains a chance to reverse the tide. When the property is sold to a developer and becomes a gas station, a neighborhood Kingdom beachhead is lost forever. Gone is a property that Christians once used, and could have done so again with renewed vigor, to engage a community with the life-changing Gospel and love of Jesus Christ. Gone is a place from which Jesus followers could have made a radical difference in a neighborhood’s life. More heartbreaking still is that the church won’t be missed because it long ago ceased to be such a place.

How to spot a dying church.

How do you recognize a church that is about to die? Really, you don’t need to do an in-depth analysis of a church to see that it will close in a few years. Often insiders won’t see the signs, but an outsider can attend for a Sunday or two and see it as plain as day.  Dr. Thom Rainer, the former CEO of LifeWay, provides a few indicators that a church may be terminal.  The first is quite apparent: worship attendance has been on the decline for four or more years. Second, Rainer says, the church doesn’t look like the community. The racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic makeup of the congregation does not match the neighborhood. Third, the membership is composed mainly of senior adults. I love senior saints! But the sad truth is that none of us survives old age and the local church can only last as long as our members do.

According to Rainer, dying churches focus on the past and not the future. They are inwardly-focused—and their budgets represent this reality. They are intensely preference driven. Members of dying churches care more about their preferences for music, programs, facilities, and schedules than they do about reaching the lost with the Gospel. (Personally, I would observe that they are often generous to missions—the ones that align with their preferences, at least—feeling good that they have delegated evangelism to the “professionals.”)  Dying churches have “sacred cow” facilities and furniture. Most of all, says Dr. Rainer, dying churches meet any change with fierce resistance. They choose church death rather than church change.[2]

Have you seen it before?

I’m grateful to have been involved with a church that decided to change rather than to die. However, I can’t say that throughout the four-year journey to new life, not everyone was onboard with the direction we headed.

Replanting is the Fix!

What’s the solution for churches in their death throes? It’s something known as church replanting. Church replanting is something more than church revitalization. If the statistics are correct, most churches could use some revitalizing. If they make relatively small and incremental changes throughout several years, they can return to health. When a local church seems destined to close its doors within five years, without some radical change, that church needs to be replanted.

The North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Mark Clifton is a Southern Baptist replanting pioneer.  He speaks of several types of replants.[3]  The most difficult is “replanting from within.”  The church radically reinvents itself with the people and resources it has, along with the people it reaches.  Some outside resources may become available if the replanting pastor can cast a vision for change that other ministries want to buy into.  This is really hard—I’ve tried it.

Other times, churches may choose to merge with other congregations of similar size. However, the merger often combines both bodies’ dysfunction. Another very biblical alternative is to join with a church plant. The dying church gives its facilities to a church plant. Many of the dying church members may choose to remain with the new church, but to work, it must be clear that it is a new church, and the leadership of the church plant is in charge.

A model that I have seen work is replanting by adoption. A healthier church nearby takes on the dying church, likely as a satellite campus.  The adopting church invests in facilities, leadership, volunteers, and outreach. The satellite church becomes part of one church in two (or more) locations. While this is one of the most practical and effective means of replanting, it is by no means easy.

The Church Replanter’s Challenge

While the replanting pastor’s goal may be adoption, it’s by no means a guarantee going into a struggling church. (It wasn’t my goal, though I wasn’t opposed to the idea.) The struggling church still has a say. Often, the replanting pastor will need to go into the church and lead it to a state of change readiness. He will need to go in and first gain the people’s trust—to let them know he is not out to build an empire for the adopting church but to build God’s kingdom. The replanting pastor knows that he can’t just go into a church with many people from the healthy church. Why? Because the struggling congregation will see such a move for what it is—a hostile takeover. The replanting pastor will need to develop a leadership team from the “remnant” remaining in the struggling church. At the same time, he’ll need to slowly incorporate new leaders from among the adopting church and those the replanting pastor reaches in the community.

The church replanting pastor will need to balance the pace of change. Move too fast, and everyone will leave, and the church will die. Move too slow, and many of the senior saints will also pass away or become homebound—and some people will still leave—and the church will die. The challenge is to get momentum and get the plane off the ground without dumping the passengers onto the runway. The replanting pastor needs to cast vision and generate some tangible wins that create momentum. He must also help the struggling church to sense that God will reward their change efforts. He must understand the power groups, learn the neighborhood, and exercise extreme patience. The replanter will confront the kind of theological error that seems to embed itself into dying churches. The church replanting pastor must be okay with delayed gratification and realize that it may take five years to really feel like he is gaining traction.

The church replanter must often deal with scarce resources, outright opposition, general dysfunction, inward focus, and rampant apathy. He may get the feeling that some people have stayed in the church just to see him fail. He has often left a healthy church where he and his family were happy to take a full-time pastorate that cannot pay him his old salary. He usually has to work a second job. He will become pastor, janitor, bookkeeper, handyman, electrician, carpenter, plumber, Sunday School teacher, song leader, evangelism leader (often the only one on the team).  His wife will probably run the children’s ministry, and his children will do what they can with music, computers, or grunt work—at least mine did. It may be years before someone at the church ever says an appreciative word to him or his family. The replanting pastor is likely to experience anxiety and depression, weight gain, and exhaustion. He gets beat up. People treat him like he is the Devil incarnate, and then they walk away from the church.

 What does this have to do with you?

This has everything to do with you! You can help a replanter. In fact, I want you to consider coming alongside a replanter who is working to rebirth a church in your area.  Sometimes just seeing more people consistently in the seats is a big morale booster. You can be a friendly connection point for new people. Maybe you can do handyman work. Perhaps you’d be willing to cut the grass. It may be that you can lead a small group, or you know how to sing or play an instrument. Even your willingness to empty the trash after a church service is a big help! Just about anything you can think of that needs to be done around the church would be something you can probably take off the pastor’s hands. Maybe you’d like personal discipleship. Church replanters are willing to give such attention—though you might have to do it while both you and the pastor are holding paintbrushes!

You wouldn’t believe what an encouragement you can be to a church replanting pastor! You might sacrifice being at a healthy church—and if so, you will miss good quality music and children’s ministry. You will not usually see God work dramatically overnight (not to put Him in a box, but He just usually doesn’t work that way in a replant). If you wonder what’s in it for you, let me just tell you this: After investing years emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually, I get to see the God who turns crucifixions into resurrections do His work! He can raise a dead or dying church to new life, and I got to be there. I got to be a part of something incredible.  I got to see dear, sweet people determine that their church wasn’t going to die on their watch!  Indeed, many fulfilling experiences accompany replanting—witnessing life change are at the top of the list.

So think about it! If you want to help a replanter, you can contact your denomination’s offices. Sometimes church planting organizations also know of replanters. In Southern Baptist circles, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) is a great resource that you can reach at churchreplanters.com. Or, more broadly, Dr. Rainer’s Revitalize Network (www.revitalizenetwork.org) may be able to plug you in with a church replanter in your area.  If you live in Tampa Bay, contact me, and I can tell you about my church’s vision for replanting struggling churches in our area.



[1] The differences in numbers seem to be related to whether one considers only evangelical churches, where the numbers are not as bad, or both evangelical and mainline churches. Mainline churches have been out at the forefront of the decline for a long time.

[2] https://churchanswers.com/blog/eight-signs-church-may-closing-soon/

[3] Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory, B&H Publishing, 2016.

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