By Dr. Terry Rials
October 23, 2014
Shortly after I began to work in the field in church revitalization, a pastor friend and I went to lunch together to discuss this important work. He asked me one of the most probing questions that I have ever been asked, “Why should anyone listen to you about church revitalization?”
I was not offended by the question because I know my friend’s heart. It was a direct and honest question. I gave him this earnest answer, “Honestly, I am not the best person to lead this effort, but I’m like the guy who sees a child drowning in a pool. In that situation, you don’t seek out the most qualified lifeguard; you just jump into the pool and save the child.” There are more qualified people out there, to be sure, but here is the need and here I am.
The qualifications to lead something like church revitalization are important – I truly believe that, but it has been said that God qualifies the called, he doesn’t call the qualified. This aphorism sounds correct to our spiritual ears as we consider how God uses key individuals in scripture. Think about it, what qualifications did Noah have to build an enormous ark? What qualifications did Moses have to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt? What qualifications did the farmer-shepherd Amos have to preach against the wickedness of Israel? What qualifications did the cup-bearer Nehemiah have in leading wall construction? The answer is quite simple – each of these leaders was commissioned by God for a great work that could only be accomplished as he trusted in the Lord.
Please do not hear me say that qualifications are unimportant because they are. Each of the examples just mentioned possessed remarkable qualities of character, skill, wisdom, and faith. As we consider some qualities that are found in church revitalizers, see if these qualities are in you or can be developed in you. Here are a few, less-well-known qualities that are found in revitalizers that are substantiated by the revitalization leadership of Nehemiah:
Revitalization Leaders possess brokenness over the situation before them. Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, brought news that Jerusalem was still in distress because the walls were still torn down and the gates were burned with fire. The people there were suffering and apparently nobody was helping them. This news broke Nehemiah’s heart. This news should not have been a surprise to Nehemiah; the walls were destroyed and the gates burned some fifty years earlier. Ezra mentions a previous attempt to repair the wall (Ezra 4:12-23). Perhaps, Nehemiah was surprised because he had expected to hear about the wall’s completion, instead he heard of its destruction. The news caused Nehemiah great despair, causing him to weep and mourn for days (Neh 1:4).Revitalization starts with brokenness.
Revitalization Leaders seek God and get their vision from Him. Nehemiah was deeply moved when he heard the sad report about Jerusalem. For many days he mourned and prayed over the situation caused by the people’s sins, including his own. Out of his awareness of the need and his immersion in prayer, Nehemiah developed the conviction that God’s people, now returned to the holy land, must honor God and rebuild the city walls. As the vision formed, Nehemiah realized that he himself had been called to carry it out. Frequently those who form such a vision will be called by God to fulfill it. His calling came out of his vision! Awareness of need + Intense Prayer + Conviction + Vision = Calling
Revitalization Leaders need an active, effective and consistent prayer life. Nine individual prayers of Nehemiah are recorded in the book that bears his name. Nehemiah is well known as a man of action. He got things done – he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in only fifty-two days. He is known for cursing those who intermarried (against God’s commands), slapping them and pulling their hair out for it, and making them swear never to do it again. He was a man of action, but do not overlook the quality of his prayer life. He prayed for God’s forgiveness for the sins of Israel, his family, and especially his own sins. He never prayed for his enemies, but he prayed for God to fight for him when his enemies tried to interfere with his anointed purpose. Nehemiah prayed for success, strength, and that God would remember him for the good that he tried to do.
Revitalization Leaders are completely honest about their situation. Nehemiah was honest with God about sin, about the corruption of his people, and about their failure to keep God’s commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances. Nehemiah was honest with himself – he allowed his sadness to show to the king and even confessed that he was “…very much afraid” to do so. Nehemiah was honest with the King and asked permission to go and to rebuild the city, giving King Artaxerxes a definite date that he would return, which he kept. Nehemiah was honest with the people. He told them what a bad situation they were in and how the hand of the Lord had been upon him. Nehemiah was even honest with his enemies (Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem). He reminds them that the God of Heaven would give them success, and that these enemies of God would have no portion, right, or memorial in Jerusalem. In other words, “God will help us to rebuild the wall, and you won’t be invited to the party!”
Revitalization Leaders are patient plodders who understand the importance of timing. Nehemiah never enjoyed much fanfare during his life, nor was he ever accused of having a charismatic personality, but over time, he got big things done. He wasn’t a show pony, he was a plow horse! Nehemiah’s lasting legacy was not the rebuilt walls because the Romans tore them down again and nothing of them remains. His legacy was the hope that he gave to his people and the hope subsequent readers of his namesake book still receive when they use it as a model for revitalization. Perhaps Nehemiah knew Ecclesiastes 5:8, “He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.”
Revitalization Leaders are passionate people who are completely committed to their Lord, the church, and the revitalization process. What Nehemiah lacked in construction expertise, he made up for in passion. This passion found expression in two forms. First, we know that Nehemiah traveled 900 miles to lead the people of Jerusalem in the arduous task of rebuilding the walls around the city and repairing its gates. Nehemiah executed his plan was to raise the entire wall simultaneously at forty-five different sites, including ten gates. Nehemiah planned his work, worked his plan, and trusted the results to God. Second, Nehemiah addressed another serious problem, one that his brother reported at the beginning of the book – that the people of Jerusalem were in distress and were a reproach. The word reproach in Hebrew describes spiritual taunting. The enemies of Israel were taunting the people that their God was weak and uncaring, and that they were a disgrace to the name of their God. When the walls went up, so did the people. Nehemiah stood up to the enemies and the people of Jerusalem were never threatened by their enemies again in the book.
Church revitalizers are hopeful, and not just optimistic; there is a difference. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks says, “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.” Nehemiah was a hope dealer! God gave him hope in the midst of despair after hearing the awful news when he discovered that God’s hand was upon him. He gave hope back to the distressed people of Jerusalem as he led them to rebuild their walls.
Church revitalizers inspire more than they motivate. Nehemiah never intended to rebuild the wall as a monument to his own accomplishment, but rather to inspire and lead a dispirited and faithless people to accomplish something great. Nehemiah inspired them by relating how God had been at work in his own life. He knew the people would follow someone who had been with God. Perhaps the reproach of today’s church will inspire someone to lead the church to greatness once again.
Church revitalizers are able to take extraordinary risks in order to achieve their objectives. Nehemiah had the passion and personal commitment to respond to his life’s calling, despite numerous threats to his well-being. Nehemiah’s life was in jeopardy when he asked leave from the king to rebuild the walls. During the construction of the wall, Nehemiah endured conflict in the form of mockery, slander, threats, taunts, attacks, ridicule, intimidation, temptation, attempts at discrediting him, and false accusations against him. Nehemiah refused to be intimidated; he armed the people and kept them working. He even dealt with dissent among his own people, as well as a shortage of food that threatened everything. Nehemiah overcame each of these threats by keeping the objective in view.
The qualifications in Nehemiah that made his work successful centered on his ability to put his trust in the Lord. He allowed his life to be broken in order that it could be used. Nehemiah was a broken man for a broken city. He listened to the heart of his God and resolutely went about his work, inspiring others to join in this noble work. In the same way, churches today need selfless, broken, passionate leaders who love the Lord’s church to take on this great need in our day, so God’s people will no longer be a disgrace.
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