By Dr. Terry Rials
February 2, 2016
It is my conviction that the book of Nehemiah is a divinely-inspired handbook on Revitalization Leadership.
In this book, the Lord God provided the most extraordinary example in the person of Nehemiah and provided the proof that He can use anyone to lead enormous projects. God used the Cupbearer Nehemiah to lead an amazing revitalization project in the ancient city of Jerusalem. There were two distinct needs in that city. First, the wall, destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, needed to be rebuilt in order to give security to the Jerusalemites, and second, the discouraged people of Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt because they had no hope, no security, and desperately needed something to remove their despair and shame. God used the most unlikely people to accomplish something great!
Nehemiah, God’s Unlikely Leader
Nehemiah was God’s unlikely choice to lead the rebuilding of the expansive walls of Jerusalem. Amazingly, he did so without the benefit of blue prints, modern surveying instruments, earth moving equipment, over difficult terrain, in a hostile environment, with immense opposition, and in a time of extreme famine. Perhaps an even greater feat was that he did all of this with nothing more than volunteer laborers and the commission of God. Think about this phenomenal accomplishment – Nehemiah led an untrained group of disheveled and dispirited people to repair their city wall, overseeing forty-five separate construction sites and ten gates simultaneously, and they completed this project in just fifty-two days! Nehemiah led one of the greatest revitalization projects in recorded history.
One should recognize the numerous parallels to the task of Church Revitalization in the Nehemiah project. Rebuilding the walls parallels the task of rebuilding the church today. The role of a revitalizer is to marshal the troops that God has already assembled, inspire them to accomplish God-sized tasks, and go to work. When the pastor of a plateaued or declining church thinks that he cannot lead a revitalization project – that is exactly the right way to think! Jesus said that He would build His church. We are just the laborers for the project. Our skill sets, experience, and knowledge are just the items in our lives that God uses to accomplish His tasks.
Too often, Christian leaders who experience success are exalted to hero status, but Christian leaders should know that any success they experience is from the Lord and the Lord deserves all the credit and all the praise. When did Nehemiah receive credit or praise in his book? He never did. In fact, Nehemiah states on three occasions that he only hoped that the Lord would remember him for good. In other words, he hoped that God would only remember that he tried. Hermeneutically, the hero of the story of Nehemiah could not be Nehemiah; the Lord God is always the hero of Old Testament narratives. In addition to Nehemiah, God used some other unlikely choices in accomplishing His tasks.
The Priests, the Unlikely Ministers
Often in scripture, priests and Levites are mentioned together; in fact, they appear together sixty-three times in the Old Testament. In Nehemiah, all the priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. Priests could have no physical defect or malady because God demands wholeness and holiness from those who would serve Him. The priests in the book of Nehemiah had only two functions, to officiate worship by offering the various offerings and to lead the people to confess their sins. God’s commandment for the Levites was that they should teach the people to distinguish between what was holy and what not; what was clean and what was not (Leviticus 10:10). The very presence of the priests in Nehemiah represented a message of hope, a second chance, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. According to Ezekiel, a primary reason for God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the destruction of the city by the Babylonians was because the priests had profaned the holy (Ezekiel 22:26).
The message of revitalization is the message of second chances and hope. The people in the pews need to hear, “We may have blown it in the past, but through repentance God will forgive and restore.” Honesty demands that we proclaim that restoration does not happen until we seek God’s forgiveness for our past failures. The decline of the church is evidence that God disciplines His children and His church. If we have been to the far country in exile, and if we have learned our lesson that God demands holiness, then God will hear our prayers, forgive our sin, and heal our land.
The Levites, the Unlikely Helpers
Levites were God’s helpers. They were merely assistants to the priests. They looked after the Temple and performed menial tasks that freed the priests to perform their duties. The book of Nehemiah reveals that there were 284 Levites in the holy city at the time of the work, compared to 973 priests. Much of the work of the Levites was performed behind the scenes, but that does not mean that their work was unimportant. One very important service they performed was to receive the contributions, the tithes and the offerings. Though their work was menial, the Levites employed Temple servants to help with heavier duties, such as cutting wood for the altar or carrying water for the laver.
The work and frequent mention of the Levites in Nehemiah is a reminder that much of the work of revitalization is tedious and menial, but not unimportant. There are tasks that we, as church leaders, are too busy to perform or should not perform. However, the temptation is simply to drop these tasks from our “to-do” list. Big mistake! There is nothing unimportant about the work of God. What seems insignificant to us may be very important in the eyes of God. The principle of delegation is so vital to good revitalization leadership. The New Testament tells us that God has placed a variety of gifts within the church. The good news is that everything you need to revitalize your church God has already placed within it or will soon bring to it!
The Gatekeepers, the Unlikely Soldiers
Most of us would see the Gatekeepers in Nehemiah as those who have a very menial and unimportant position. But Gatekeepers are so important! They guarded the city by monitoring those whom would go in and out of it. If even one of the ten gatekeepers of the city failed to do his job, the city could be invaded by the enemy and destroyed…Again! Nehemiah gave specific and wise instruction to the gatekeepers. They had to guard a gate by their house so marauders would not enter an unguarded gate on the other side of the city and quickly depart, leaving the guilty gatekeeper’s house untouched. The gatekeepers could only open the gate while the sun was up, so the people could see who was entering their city. One day each week the Levites would guard the gates to allow the gatekeepers to worship. An important principle is at play here – revitalization leaders must ensure that everyone in the church worships, for if people do not, unfaithful people are leading your church.
How important are the gatekeepers? Remember the Great Wall of China? That wall is a thousand miles long, and it was built to keep out the Mongol armies. The Mongols never breached the wall by force, but they did bribe a gatekeeper on four separate occasions. The church you serve is only as strong as its weakest link. Find the weakest part of the ministry of the church and guard it. Find those who gossip, those who do not serve, those who do not give, those who do not pray, and those who do not worship.
The Singers, the Unlikely Joy Givers
The Singers are mentioned fifteen times in the book of Nehemiah, so they must be important to revitalization. What did the Singers do (besides sing)? They gave hope and much needed joy to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Remember, for seventy years there was no singing for the inhabitants of Judah. Babylon had destroyed their city, their Temple, their homes, and their way of life. Their loved ones were marched away as captives of the Babylonian Empire, leaving only the very young, the very old, the sick and the weak behind in Jerusalem. There were no worship songs in Jerusalem on that day. While the exiles were held in that distant land, they had no songs to sing. They were taunted by their captors, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion,” they would say, bringing even more shame and reproach.
Now in the city of Jerusalem, with progress being made on the wall, the people once again had something to sing about, something to celebrate. Be sure to celebrate each tiny milestone on your journey toward revitalization. Never underestimate the value of singing and rejoicing to your people. The Singers took the people back to the place of joy!
You, the Unlikely Revitalizer
Harry S. Truman is credited with saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Nehemiah received no praise for his work. The priests, Levites, Gatekeepers, and Singers received no praise either, but there are 268 individuals and forty-five groups mentioned by name in the book of Nehemiah. Because God’s word endures forever, the mention of their names is a lasting tribute to their contribution to the revitalization of Jerusalem. When you lead your church back to faithfulness, I assure you that your name is written down in Glory and God will remember you for good.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.