By Dr. Terry Rials
December 21, 2014
One could hardly deny that there is a grand new movement in the American church, which crosses geographical, socio-economic, and even denominational boundaries.
Interest in the Church Revitalization Movement can be found predominantly among the smallest churches, which are struggling to survive; but there is growing interest in the movement with the leaders of the largest churches, as these leaders have noticed a halt in their church’s growth. In short, the smaller the church, the more interest exists in revitalization with laypeople; conversely, the larger the church, the more the interest is found with the church’s leadership.
Perhaps not since the beginnings of the Church Growth movement has there been such an excitement among church leaders about the prospects for the church. Admittedly, not every church leader has embraced this new movement, but a substantial percentage see the importance of addressing the decline of the existing church.
It is important to keep the Church Revitalization Movement going and not allow this work to fall prey to the errors that will kill it. If we are wise, we will look to the mistakes of past movements and put safeguards in place now to prevent the premature death of the Church Revitalization Movement. I would like to enumerate six, specific dangers to the movement.
The first danger, as we learned from the Missional Church Movement, is that any true movement in His church must be founded upon a correct Christology. If we get the our theology wrong, our ecclesiology will be wrong. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost say this well in The Shape of Things to Come. They argue that our Christology informs our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. If we allow our notions of what the church should be to taint our understanding of what the church should do, we are not authentic disciples of Christ. In essence, if the church’s concentration is on its forms, leadership style, governance, furniture, worship style, Bible translation, timing of its services, etc., it is not concentrating on the headship of Christ and His mission for the church. Put simply, how can the church be the church if a church does not do what the church does? What we do and what the church looks like must be based upon our theological beliefs.
A plethora (and I use that word intentionally) of mistakes were made in the Church Growth Movement, and yet it is still with us. One of these mistakes is the second danger – an unhealthy concentration on numbers for numbers’ sake. Wide is not deep. Bill Hybels confessed that while his church became broad in numbers, it was not composed of vast numbers of healthy disciples. As an alternative, we should concentrate on developing discipleship in the church. Wouldn’t we as church leaders prefer to have a smaller group of dedicated disciples than a larger group of shallow attendees? Church leaders always desire more, that is a natural desire, but how we get more is also a critical concern. In the case of the church, the ends do not justify the means. How we get there is just as important as getting there.
The third danger affronting the Church Revitalization Movement is one that plagued other movements – the rampant development of the personal interests of those who led it. In the past, key leaders in thriving churches received an inordinate amount of praise and recognition. They were invited to write books, speak at conferences, and teach in academia. Many of these leaders prospered professionally and financially from their success. This is what Thomas O’Dea called the “dilemma of mixed motivation.”
Not that any of those things is wrong or improper in itself, however they can be improper motivation, and they often lead to squabbling among leaders about the meaning of words (e.g. revitalization, renewal, refreshing) and the future course of the movement. The surprising thing that I have discovered while working in the field of church revitalization is that no one person has all the answers. Like a jigsaw puzzle, there are a thousand pieces to the complete picture and no one has all the pieces. I genuinely like the personalities who are leading the Church Revitalization Movement, but I intend to help keep all of them firmly grounded in humility, so that the only entity that prospers is the church, and the only one glorified is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The fourth danger I mentioned briefly before. One way that a movement begins to wane is when it is moved into the academy. Church Revitalization is a ministerial practice that involves copious amounts of prayer, personal sacrifice, and personal leadership development. I confess that I went to the seminary to understand church revitalization, earning my doctorate in that concentration. However, I can assure you that academia is not a cure for pastoral frustration; the demands of academic pursuits may take a serious toll on your ministry; it did in my setting. Allow me to say it this way – church revitalization cannot be just an academic pursuit. Instead, it is an applied ministry pursuit, requiring the heart of a pastor and countless hours of hard work on the church field, not just in the church office.
The fifth danger occurs when methodology and pragmatism, rather than the dictates of scripture, determine the movement’s course. Concentrating on the process of revitalization can even lead to sequentialism, the belief that if one follows linear, step-by-step processes, then revitalization will occur in the church. It is common for church leaders, many of whom are excellent strategic planners, to think, plan, and act in sequential steps. This kind of thinking will be deadly to the Church Revitalization Movement. Our job as church leaders is not to grease the machinery in order to keep the organization going and growing; instead, our job is to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Our job as leaders is not to lay out step-by-step directions for other to follow. Our job is to lead others back to the heart of God and trust His leadership in their lives. If the church comes back to life and vitality, it will be a spiritual process, and not a mechanical one.
The sixth and final danger is obvious to me. If the Church Revitalization Movement is to survive and thrive, we cannot ignore the work of God in the process. Let me emphasize, there is a work that we do (revitalization) and a work that only God can do (revival). I define revitalization as the work we do to ensure the conditions of God are met for revival, so that the people of God are prepared when He begins to move. We need a genuine, Spirit-led revival in the church – we need God to do what only God can do, revive the church! I believe in the importance and need for both revitalization and revival in the Lord’s church today. Revitalization is preparatory to revival and subsequent to it. Borrowing from G. Campbell Morgan, we must put up our sail and wait for the wind to blow. When the wind begins to blow, we make use of the wind and allow it to drive us.
I am not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet, but I predict that there will be difficult days ahead for the Church Revitalization Movement, primarily because the enemy will be actively attacking those associated with it. This should not dissuade us from the work at hand, if anything it should compel us to press on with an even greater fervor. we should take our enemy’s opposition as proof that we are on the right track. If we are wise, we will recognize the dangers that lay ahead. Those who stand in the pulpit should know this intuitively, but if not, let me remind you again. Sailors who stand out on the pulpit of the ship were placed there to recognize the dangers under the surface of the water as the ship comes into the harbor, and to warn others about that danger. May we as church leaders watch vigilantly for these dangers and stand ready to ring the bell.
. Thomas F. O'Dea, “Five Dilemmas in the Institutionalization of Religion” in Sociology and the Study of Religion (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1970), 244.
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