By Dr. Terry Rials
July 29, 2020
In the process of becoming a successful church revitalizer, and it is indeed a process, certain disciplines need to be established in one’s life.
In the process of becoming a successful church revitalizer, and it is indeed a process, certain disciplines need to be established in one’s life. The word “discipline” comes to us from old Latin actually, from the word discipulus, meaning “pupil.” The same Latin word, with a slightly later nuance, shifts its focus to the pupil in the act of following, being a “disciple.” In other words, we in church leadership cannot claim to be followers of Christ if we are not incorporating the personal disciplines required to follow the Lord. These things you already know and prescribe to others, however, I find it refreshing to hear words of encouragement as a part of living the disciplined life. I find it also necessary to remind those who serve the Lord vocationally that there are key disciplines in ministry that need cultivating. Now, I will not bore you with lists, which I often find tedious and fruitless. Instead, I want to categorize the personal disciplines of a revitalizer. I think you may find some benefit from a look at these categories of behavior.
Speaking about Revitalization
The first category I will call speaking, which can be categorized further into preaching and teaching. I know that most people in ministry have no difficulty with speaking. Many in ministry have a spiritual gift from God to do so. Public preaching and teaching are fairly natural and easy for many of us.
The act of preaching is important, but the content of preaching is even more so. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher of the First Great Awakening, is widely reported to have preached arduously long and meticulous sermons in a monotone voice, the stuff that puts many modern listeners to sleep. So why was Jonathan Edwards so incredibly successful in his proclamation? The Spirit certainly used him to call a nation back to the Lord, and God can use the most unlikely servants to do that very thing, but perhaps we have overlooked something very important. Circuit preaching was customary due to the shortage of qualified proclaimers. Perhaps the people were just really hungry to hear the word. Perhaps it was something entirely different – perhaps it was the content of his message that resonated with his audiences, who are reported to have cried out in shame, pleading for Rev. Edwards to stop his proclamation because they were ready to repent. Too often modern preaching is thimble deep and designed more for the amusement of the listeners than to draw them to repentance.
Whereas sermons deliver a message in order to elicit a response from the hearers, teaching’s goal is to train, equip, and inform. Teach the disciples whom God gives you to follow the Lord and His ways fully. Teach with the same conviction with which you preach. Teach people often about what a church really is and what a church really does. The principles of revitalization are timeless and are not a fad. Teach about what repentance means, what forgiveness is about, what reconciliation is, what the mission of the church ought to be – making disciples, not just attenders.
Writing about Revitalization
Dr. Mack Roark admonished us in class one day to write and to publish. He told us that people with bad doctrine and heretical ideas publish often, but those who have the truth rarely do. I have taken my professor’s words to heart. Writing about what God has used your efforts in revitalization encourages others in the endeavor.
Any revitalizer will tell you that they hear this often, “Does revitalization really work?” The fact is – revitalization does work and people need to hear about it. Share your story, tell it often, find opportunities to tell the world that God is still at work and that the work we do as revitalizers really does make a difference. We are truly seeing churches turn around and become vital, healthy, and on mission.
If the church you serve is like mine, you will have more members gone on Sunday than you will have in attendance, which seems so wrong to me, but I know it is reality. How will the people for whom you are responsible hear what you need to say if that many are gone? The truth is they will not. The church I serve broadcasts its services, but looking at the analytics of our viewership, that improves the situation only slightly. Fortunately, with the advent of websites, email, and social media, we have the ability to communicate to incredible numbers of people, both members and non-members. Written communication has to be important to you in the world of revitalization! For example, if you could reach an additional 200-300 more people than the 100 you had in attendance Sunday, would that not be an incredible game changer? You can if you will write what is on your heart in the realm of revitalization.
Sharing about Revitalization
By sharing, I mean communicating the message of church revitalization in ways other than in public proclamation and in writing. Communicate one-on-one and in small groups. When you meet someone, tell them about Jesus and tell them about what He is doing in the church! The former mayor of Oklahoma City, Ron Norick, was leading a revitalization effort in our city to refurbish old buildings in a dilapidated part of town, riddled with crime and decay. Our city with divided in its support for this new initiative. The mayor and his staff campaigned hard and found ways to talk about this project everywhere they went. The mayor joked to me that everywhere they saw three people standing around, they would go over and try to elicit their support. They tried to get themselves invited to meetings and gatherings all over the city in order to give a positive word. It is a good thing they did; the revitalization measure passed by only a 0.5% margin. Today, our city has a new and revitalized section of town that is family-friendly and one that draws in lots of tourism dollars. The reason it passed was because individuals in the campaign shared the message everywhere they went.
One of the key activities associated with church revitalization is just keeping the process going, which we call the flywheel effect. A flywheel is used to help spinning objects continue in motion. One is attached to your car’s engine. Your car will run without one, but if your car backfires without one, your engine will be destroyed. Put another way, this effect tells us that it is easier to keep something going than it is to stop and started it again. Get the conversation about church revitalization going and keep it going in your ministry context.
Investing in Revitalization
Martin Luther is credited with saying, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” His point is well taken. We do not know what tomorrow holds, but we are still stewards of it. We may not think this way often, but we are responsible, at least in some part, for the future harvest. In church revitalization we hear pastors say all the time that they do not know if they will be at their churches very much longer. Many pastors are looking for other ministry opportunities, many are going to leave ministry altogether, and many others will retire from ministry. However, all three groups have the exact same responsibility – to leave the church they presently serve ready for what God will do next, after they are gone. Perhaps those pastors are correct – maybe they will not be at their churches much longer; they still need to invest in those who will continue on with the ministry after they are gone. It is pure arrogance to think or desire the church to crumble after we leave because the church could not function without us. The truth is – sometimes the church functions better (for a while) without its pastor because the membership has to step-up and do the ministry that the pastor used to do.
Investing in the lives of our successors is biblical. Moses invested in Joshua. Elijah invested in Elisha. Paul invested in Timothy. The best example is Jesus investing in His disciples, leaving His church in their hands. Pastors today need to invest in those who will succeed them in office. Who are you training? Mentoring? Who will you equip to step into leadership when you are gone? There is an added benefit for doing this besides what it will do for the church. Ronnie Floyd calls this reverse mentoring. This occurs when those you are trying to mentor learn from you and you in turn learn from them, resulting in incredible joy for you.
One church I was helping in revitalization had an obstinate woman who resisted all my attempts to help them. When I warned their church only had twenty-four months to live, so spouted, “This church will be here long enough to bury me!”
I quickly and sharply responded, “Is that the goal? Is that all you care about – that the church will be here long enough for you? Don’t you want to leave a healthy, thriving church to your children and grandchildren?” You could have heard a pin drop but I think I made my point.
These personal disciplines are essential in a successful revitalization project. I encourage you to speak about revitalization, both in the pulpit and in the classroom. Write about the need and the process of revitalization in your newsletter articles, your blogs, your social media posts, and in scholarly materials – people need to hear your heart and your story. Share with everyone in your church from the nursery to the senior adult department. Let them contribute to the conversation and listen to them closely. Invest in those who will take over the task of revitalization in the eventuality that God does change your life circumstances. Be sure that your successors know the job and have caught your passion for doing it. May God richly bless you for your personal disciplines.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.