By Dr. Terry Rials
July 29, 2020
In the ten years that I have worked feverishly in the field of church revitalization, I have learned so much and I am learning more every day.
In the ten years that I have worked feverishly in the field of church revitalization, I have learned so much and I am learning more every day. I have to say that I have learned more working on the field in church revitalization than I ever did in the doctoral seminars or from reading books on the subject. Just about the time that I think I have seen and heard it all, I hear a new story that blows my mind. That said, there have been some incredible lessons learned in this experience of working with hundreds of churches, pastors, and denominational leaders. I would like to share just a few of those lessons with you.
Lesson One: Everybody is looking for a quick fix, which hardly ever happens. As we have said many times, revitalization takes a considerable amount of time to accomplish, at minimum it takes 1,000 days. Please don’t let that scare you off! There are some quick gains that will happen as soon as you begin to implement your strategy. These are very exciting and are a quick lift to the life and ministry of your church. They feel like the refreshing that comes to your church from a good revival. Please don’t stop there because there is much more to do and much more to come. Seeing a bump in attendance, involvement, giving, decisions, and member excitement will only be a temporary phenomenon if you stop there. It takes time to unravel the problems in the church and to address them biblically. You will attempt new ministry approaches, some of which will fail, which will cause you to have to go a different route. This just takes time. The Lord is patient, we should be patient too.
Lesson Two: Staying power is key to a successful revitalization. There will come a day in your revitalization project where you will want to abandon the whole thing and do something else. I think the desire to jump onto something new and refreshing is hard-wired into the hearts of pastors. Like a frog jumping from one lily pad to another, we jump on one interesting project after another. At first, this seems normal and comfortable, but if you were to look at the pattern of pastor leadership, it would meander more than anything else. Charting the path of most pastors in their leadership would look like how Stevie Wonder drives. My advice - get on this church revitalization project and stay on it. I know you don’t want to do that sometimes, but stay on it. It may not make sense to you at the time, but stay on it. I love the old Karate Kid movie, especially the part where Mr. Miyagi has Daniel-san wax on, wax off, sand the floor, paint the house, paint the fence. It made no sense to Daniel at all until one day, when Daniel was ready, that Mr. Miyagi brought it all together for him! The Lord will bring all this together for you too.
Lesson Three: Pastors are not soothsayers. They do not understand the mind of God nor can they predict the future. I wish I had recorded in a journal the number of times that a pastor has told me that he doesn’t know if he will be at his church for the next three years, so starting revitalization should wait until the next pastor arrives. I don’t have any way of proving this, but my guess is - a substantial number of those pastors are in their same positions three years later. This is especially true of pastors who are close to retiring. Many times we are convinced that we are about to be called to the next church, which seldom happens. Since when do we as pastors have the ability to predict the future? Only a very few prophets had the ability to predict the future, like Elijah in the Old Testament and Agabus in the New. Careful here, the demonic slave girl in Philippi also had the ability to predict the future! The point is - they could, you can’t. God has you where you are, and as far as you know, you’ll be there for the rest of your ministry. Stop trying to predict the future. Only the Lord knows what tomorrow holds, we must only hold his hand.
Lesson Four: Doing a little every day is better than a whole lot at one time. It is very possible to wear yourself out doing revitalization stuff. As you are working in it, you just see so much more that there is to do. Like working on the farm, there is always more to do, more work than daylight will allow. My great farmer/rancher friend has taught me, “It will be here tomorrow.” Some things you can’t get in when you want to. There are so many interruptions and unplanned events that enter the life of pastors, we can get over-worked and discouraged from the sheer quantity of responsibilities that come our way. Recently, I had four deaths in my church in the same week. Needless to say, precious little else got done that week. The important thing is this, get back on track as soon as you can and do something, even if it is seemingly insignificant. Let me illustrate this way - when I built my house, we put in our well and septic systems. The man who put in the lateral lines was not careful about where he dumped the gravel. I got so sick of picking up gravel. Then I decided that every time I went outside I would pick up one or two chunks and not try to do it all at once. Now, you cannot find any gravel in my yard, all because I picked up one or two each time. You can knock your revitalization project out-of-the-park if you will just stay on it and do a little every day.
Lesson Five: Be sure that there is sin in the camp. I am sad to say that virtually every plateaued and declining church has at its heart a sin problem. I visited with a church in need of revitalization last night (via conference call). When I asked what the sin problem was in their church, the phone line went very quiet. They obviously didn’t want to talk about that. They probably didn’t want to deal with it either. One church I worked with had the Chairman of Deacons and the Church Clerk living together across the street from the church, and they had been living together there for ten years and no one in the church said a thing to them, shades of 1 Corinthians 5! If you are wired like I am, you would rather not have to deal with confrontation and remediation of sin. That ministry task is not the most pleasant of pastoral tasks. However, we bring shame and reproach to the name of Jesus when we tolerate sin in the church. We might be able to talk about the sin, as long as no one uses the people’s names or looks in their direction when it is discussed. The fact is, these are evil people. Ephesus tolerated evil men (Rev 2:2), and Thyatira tolerated the evil Jezebel (Rev 2:20). Sometimes the sin is in the life of the pastor. We can become angry, bitter, hateful, and hurtful. We can be good a blaming others and deflecting responsibility. We can become slothful, unaccountable, and selfish. We must remember we exist for the church; the church does not exist for us. Find the sin in the camp and confront it.
I hope the lessons I have learned will help you as you progress in church revitalization. My hope is hat you will learn from my mistakes and learn from victories. I would love to spare you the heartaches that I have experienced and would love to see you have an outstanding example of a revitalized church. Blessings!
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