By Dr. Terry Rials
July 29, 2020
In order for revitalization to happen in the church, the leader must be revitalized first.
This “best practices in church revitalization” article will introduce what I believe is a crucial first step in leading this process in your ministry context. God first needs to prepare you to lead revitalization. In essence, the revitalization process begins with God rewiring you. In high school, we boys used to prank each other by switching around a couple of spark plug wires on our old trucks, which would cause them to backfire and pop and smoke. It didn’t take long to realize something was terribly wrong when we tried to start our trucks, and it didn’t take long for us to learn to quickly rewire them correctly. I still remember the firing order on my old truck (1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2). In order for an engine to run correctly, it must be wired correctly. So many times, the problems that are manifested in the church are the direct result of miswiring in the life of the pastor. We may be active and busily engaged in ministry, and yet not doing exactly what God wants us to do.
You see, God has to change you first before He will change your church and ministry. This is a universal truth in the manner in which God works – He always changes us dramatically before He will use us; there are tons of biblical examples of this universal truth. The same truth is present in the church revitalization world. Again, God wants to change you before He changes your church. Put another way, if God isn’t at work in your own life, then He is not going to be at work in your revitalization efforts in leading your church. Of course, every leader is different and every situation is different, to be sure, but here is one activity that is extremely beneficial to the revitalization leader. I have prescribed this activity numerous times and have had a lot of success with it. Please let me walk you through this, and then I’ll explain why it is so important.
I Want You to Go on a Retreat with God
First, get out your calendar right now and plan a 48-hour retreat at the first possible opening in your schedule. Don’t look for the best time or the least busy time, find the first available time. If you put this off, you probably won’t do it. How long has it been since you’ve been on a retreat with God for the expressed purpose of just hearing from Him? In reality, you need this time of refreshing. You need wind in your sails again. Some of you are so frustrated that you are considering changing churches or leaving the ministry altogether. That’s how serious this problem is. Find the first available time to spend no less than 48 hours alone with God. Like I said, stop right now and plan a 48-hour retreat with God at the first possible opening in your schedule. Do it now.
Second, find a place where you will have absolutely no human contact for the 48 hours, for example, a church campground, retreat center, or hunting cabin may be ideal. It is very important that you are completely alone with God. Find a place with no television and no internet. This is not a retreat for you to go fishing, hunting, or hiking either. Think of it as a spiritual retreat. The only person that you should interact with for the next 48 hours is the Lord. Take your Bible, but not your laptop. You will leave your cell phone locked in your car. Leave all your other books and reading materials at home. Take plenty of writing paper and some pens, and that is all. Take your food with you on the retreat, so you don’t have to go out for meals. Don’t order in a pizza – remember, you have to be alone with God. It’s not a time to focus on food either. Many leaders find it beneficial to fast during this time to focus their hearts on His will during this retreat.
Third, after you arrive, spend the next 48 hours praying, reading the scriptures, reflecting, and writing what God lays on your heart. Block out lengthy times to get down on your knees and pray. Prostrate yourself and pray aloud if you want. You are alone with God and no one will hear. Praying aloud often helps us to articulate our frustrations and concerns, and it also helps keep our minds from wandering. Concentrate your scripture reading in the book of Nehemiah, which is a book about revitalization, particularly revitalization leadership. Read, reflect, write, and pray. Don’t skip over any of the chapters of Nehemiah, though I know that some of it is challenging to read. There are nuggets of truth in every single chapter. Write down what comes to you as soon as you think it. Jot down the buzz words quickly because ideas will pop into your head in bunches. Then, you can go back later and fill in the gaps in your journal. Write down what you believe the Lord has shown you in His word. Write down what God wants you to do and to be. This is not a time for writing sermons or developing future Bible studies. This study is designed for you personally, not for preaching when you get back home. Instead, write what God lays on your heart in journal fashion. This is not the time to write out your grand vision and strategy for church revitalization either. Just write what God is revealing to you and about you. It is for you and you alone. Sharing comes much later.
Fourth, plan another retreat after you get back home. You will both want it and need it after the first one. Same rules apply as before, only plan to study a different book (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, or Ezra). I believe you will find these spiritual retreats so beneficial that you will want to plan them into your yearly schedule.
Why is a retreat like this so important? You will rediscover that you really need time alone with God. Delmore Schwartz said, “Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn.” Time is our most treasured commodity today. The great leaders in scripture made time for God. Jesus is the greatest example – He would go off by Himself alone to pray, do battle with the enemy, and prepare for the hour to come at the cross. Moses would go up on the mountain for weeks at a time, learning to lead God’s people. Daniel would retreat into his closet and pray three times a day, facing toward Jerusalem from Israel’s captivity. Paul went away into Arabia for two years in order to prepare himself for his ministry. Nehemiah sat down and prayed and fasted for days, which end up lasting for four months. God did something amazing in each man’s life in each case.
You will be reminded of the serious lack of prayer in your life. Jesus taught us to pray at all times and not lose heart, yet we like His closest disciples fail miserably when we should have been praying the most. I know we all pray regularly, but we do not always pray faithfully, sincerely, or deeply. If pastors are going to be refreshed and churches are going to be renewed, they must rediscover the intimacy with God that prayer affords.
You will also discover this about yourself – that you were very tired. You will probably discover exactly how tired you were when you think about how much time you spent sleeping on the retreat. I think that many pastors hover on the verge of exhaustion most of the time. Like Paul, we too are burdened by the daily concerns of the church. Those concerns can interfere with our ability to rest and refresh. Part of the wisdom of this retreat is that we rediscover the old work smarter, not harder principle. When we are well-rested and fresh, our minds are clearer and ready for God’s work.
You will become intimately acquainted once again with your sins and shortcomings. Hopefully, you will experience the conviction of the Holy Spirit and spend a considerable amount of time in confession of sin and repentance. Throughout the Old Testament, shepherds were decried for their short-comings and selfishness. I have to believe that same problems persist today in the shepherds of the church.
You will discover that what happens in you during the retreat is noticeable by others – certainly your spouse with notice, but your friends and your church will too. People can tell when you have been with God. Your preaching with have power, passion, and conviction like never before. You will preach as if you are trying to change the world again.
Henry Blackaby reminded us that God has always been speaking, but I believe we have not always been listening. When we stop long enough to listen to the Lord and reflect on how He has moved in us, we begin to experience a time of refreshing. Refreshing is the activity of God that happens in the life of an individual, revival comes to the church, awakening comes to the nation, and reformation comes to the world. Revitalization is the leadership we provide to the church after God has refreshed us.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.