By Dr. Terry Rials
Dr. Terry Rials earned his doctorate (D.Min.) from Midwestern Baptist Theological in Church Revitalization
Those of us who work in revitalization hear the same question again and again, “What do we do?”
First of all, there is a problem with the question because it begins with the wrong premise – doing. I would argue that the starting point for revitalization is listening. Honestly, we all listen to statistics, critics, experts, and even to our own selfish ambition, instead of listening to God. Most of our prayer time consists of talking. Some in this field believe we can turn churches around simply by changing the quality of our preaching. Where is the listening in our generation?
I often prescribe a 48-hour retreat for leaders, with zero human contact, whether in person or electronically, just to read the scriptures and listen to the Lord. I tell them to pray and listen. Read the scriptures and listen. Write down what God says to your heart and listen again. Nothing I have done in the field of revitalization has had a greater impact on the life of the revitalizer than getting him to cease striving and begin listening. I have walked dozens of men through this process and it is life-changing.
You as a leader are responsible for listening and leading, listening to the Lord and then leading His people. We have no right to lead if we have not listened to our marching orders. I know God speaks to His shepherds. Please do not take this to mean that God does not speak to everyone, He does, but I do believe He speaks clearly to His shepherds, who have a greater responsibility than do most followers. The consequences of shepherds not listening and getting things wrong have disastrous consequences.
So, what’s the importance of listening to the task of revitalization? Listening is important on many levels. I was reading this very morning from Isaiah 40. The ending verse tells us that those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength and not faint. Strength is definitely required for the momentous task ahead of you. Another importance is waiting and listening until you have a clear direction before you act too hastily. Nehemiah waited, prayed, and fasted for four months before he broached the subject of rebuilding Jerusalem with his earthly king. It is unknown exactly how long Nehemiah waited before he knew what God wanted him to do. My educated guess is that he waited until he heard from the Lord. Nehemiah was certain and even tells the people on three occasions that the hand of the Lord was upon him. Too often leaders start the work without a clear direction and end goal in mind. If this were a shooting sport, then it would go like this, “Ready, fire, aim!” The final reason I would give you for listening to the Lord is get “us” out of the way. Our pride, our egos, our plans must all be out of the equation of revitalization. You know, never once has God ever asked me, “What do you want to do?” Instead, I am to ask God what I am to do.
God expects us to hear Him and listen to Him (those two things are different). Consider this – there are two common statements in prophecy, “thus says the Lord,” and “the word of the Lord came unto me saying”. Together they introduce declarative prophecy in formulaic patterns. The combination of the two statements occurs 476 times in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. I would call that significant! One can find this call to return in the Hosea, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah, and Zechariah, but by far, these occur in Isaiah , Jeremiah, and Ezekiel If you know your Bible history, you know the urgency with which God is calling His people to return to Him. How does God do this? He calls to His people through the prophets to repent and return time and time again. Sadly, they did not and they were destroyed.
Consider also, the call to listen in the New Testament. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus concludes the Parable of the Sower with the admonition, “He who has ears, let him heart.” Interestingly, Jesus Himself refers to this parable as the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Soils. There is no problem with the seed, and technically, there is no problem with the soils. It’s not the soils’ fault for being what they were. The problem is with the Sower. I say it this way – the problem was that the sower’s aim was bad. The point of Jesus’ parable is clear, if the good seed is not properly sown, it does not yield a harvest. Jesus says that we had better listen, lest we experience the same result. John records Jesus’ instruction to the Seven Churches in the Revelation. In each letter, Jesus instructs them to listen, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
God has something to say, something very important. He even commands His people to listen to the word of the Lord. Failure to listen is disobedience, plain and simple. I am confident that some who will read this article will experience disappointment that I did not provide some essential to-do-list, the magical keys to unlock the mystery of revitalization. However, I believe that I have given you some very sage advice that prevents you from starting your revitalization journey badly. Do not worry about what to do. God will show you what to do in good time, in His time. Wait, pray, and listen because it is far more important to know exactly what God wants you to do and when the time is right to do these things. You only discover these things by waiting and listening to the Lord. One more quick note - Jesus offers a hopeful “blessed are those who hear the word of the Lord and observe it.
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