By Dr. Terry Rials
July 29, 2020
Small churches can be very stubborn when it comes to engaging the processes of revitalization, stubborn to the point of even strong resistance.
Revitalizers like myself would leap for joy if smaller churches would simply open their doors to us and embrace the help they need. Like a couple whose marriage is in trouble, small churches often wait too long to get help. Too much damage has been done. Too much time has elapsed. The window of opportunity has passed. We are always looking for new inroads into the struggling church, but we are restrained by local church polity and local church stubbornness. Perhaps they would be more open to the possibilities if we could make this process quicker, simpler, and without as much change, but we all understand that is not possible. So, this begs the question – when can we help the smaller church? I have a few thoughts that may help frame the situation.
First, you can help people if they are about to die.
The first thing they teach lifeguards is that you can only save people who want to be saved. If lifeguards swim over to a person who is still kicking and flailing, they can grab a hold of the very person trying to save them and drag them under, killing them both. Many church pastors have ended their ministries by staying at a church that did not want to be rescued, only to discover that the church tried to destroy them as well. I am convinced that a church can be helped but only when they discover for themselves that they are about to die. Oddly, one of the quickest ways to save a church from immediate death is to tell it that it is about to die. The very first church I ever helped with revitalization had that very scenario. They were in real trouble, very near death. I told them in no uncertain terms that they had twelve to twenty-four months before they would be dead, based on their trajectory. This made a couple of the people in the church so mad, that they stayed alive just to prove me wrong. I am so glad they did! They are still small, but are now much healthier and growing more than eleven years later!
Second, you can help people when they let you help them.
Let me tell you about my father-in-law, whom I love dearly. He is ninety years old, lives alone, but cannot do many of the chores physically around the house. His two sons and his two sons-in-law offer to do certain projects for him all the time. We really need to do some work on his roof, work on his plumbing, and we need to spray his yard for weeds, but there is one giant barrier to doing these projects. He won’t let us! He knows they need to be done, but for whatever reason he has in his head, he doesn’t want us to help him. You can chalk this mindset up to his generation’s thinking, if you wish, but he maintains control in his life by making decisions about how and when people can help him. Once again the stubbornness factor kicks in. Churches are autonomous so we revitalizers have no right to intrude or impose on the local church; we respect their autonomy too much to do that. Instead, we wait until they decide that it is time or the conditions are right for revitalization to begin. I was so excited a few weeks ago when I spoke to a leader from a church I have been trying to help who told me that they were now ready to have me come in and help them with revitalizing the church. They decided to let me help them.
Third, you can help people when they don’t even know they are being helped.
This sounds a little sneaky, and it may be, but I am willing to take the chance. If we are creative, we can find ways to engage our struggling churches and help them without them even knowing they are being helped. My dad had a very different way of teaching me auto mechanics that will sound very strange to you. He insisted that I learn how to work on my own car when I learned to drive. On occasion, he would go out and do something to my car that would keep it from starting. If I wanted to go someplace, then I had to go out and diagnose what was wrong and fix it. And he wouldn’t even help me. Bizarre right? Yeah. I used to get so irritated that he did this. He never denied doing it, but he wouldn’t tell me how to fix it either. By making me diagnose my car trouble, I was learning. Dad was teaching me to fix my own car. It must have worked because I was working as a mechanic before I took my first church as pastor. You can help churches by having individual conversations with pastors and church leaders. You can privately provide resources or offer ideas. You can befriend and train and coach. You can gain their trust over time and help them without being too overt about offering your professional expertise.
Finally, you can help when you demonstrate that you can help.
Churches want to understand that their efforts will not be in vain. Smaller churches frequently have low energy levels, so they do not want to expend unnecessary energy. They want to know that you know your subject well. Few small churches will run the risk of entrusting their future to a novice in the field of revitalization. They want to know if this revitalization business has helped others and to what extent. You will hear this question, “Can you give us examples of where this has worked?” Of course we can, and we better be prepared to answer those kinds of questions and give specific examples and contact information. They want to know how much time this will take and how much it will cost. They expect solid answers. We had better have good ones for them. Let me offer this word of caution, be sure to remind them that revitalization works, not because it is the product of our hands, but because it is the will of God and the product of His hands. We cannot revitalize a church. We can only do the work necessary to position the church to experience the mighty movement of God in their midst. Ask any pastor who has seen his church revitalized and he will tell you what GOD DID! The Jerusalemites only followed that foreigner named Nehemiah because he convinced them the God was at work and that God’s hand was upon him.
As we deal with the stubbornness of the small church, we could complain about it. We could get frustrated by it as well, but perhaps we should thank the Lord for that quality that kept them alive long enough to get the help they needed. I am thankful that God is raising up a generation of revitalizers to help His church, stubbornness and all.
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