By Dr. Terry Rials
August 3, 2016
How do you know when the time has come to begin church revitalization?
Perhaps a better question is, “When is it not time to work on church revitalization?” As we know, our churches are in serious trouble. I have done some research into my own state – our total church membership is down more than 22%, Sunday School attendance is down 24%, baptisms are down 28%, and the number of those joining the church by ways other than baptism is down 37% over the past fifteen years! I would say that now is the time for revitalization! If you need a little further convincing, please consider using one or more of the following approaches to determine if the time is right for church revitalization in your ministry.
Whenever I think of the word logical, I am immediately transported (pun intended) back to the days of my youth watching Mr. Spock on Star Trek. I admired his ability to think rationally, even in the most critical of moments. At this critical juncture of church life, maybe, we need to stop and think about church revitalization in a logical, Spock-like manner. The logical approach involves clear, sound reasoning. The logical approach is the natural or sensible approach, given the present circumstances. The church does not appear that it will accomplish the task of perpetuating itself or its mission without making serious adjustments to its trajectory. Think of it this way, if the doctors told you that if you did not have a critical surgery you would die in a very short time, you would give that surgery some very serious consideration. There are an untold number of churches that will be dead within two years if something is not done.
I have tried this approach with several denominational leaders, most of whom still do not have a cogent strategy to address church revitalization. I posed the question in this way, “What if 25% of your churches were revitalized and were able to give 10% more to your cause? Or what if 50% of your churches were no longer in danger of dying but are now healthy, thriving, and contributing handsomely? Would revitalization be worth it then?” You would think that most denominational leaders would leap at the prospect of having new funding resources, but sadly, I have never had a denominational leader commit to leading church revitalization based entirely upon the logical argument, which is, as Spock would put it, “Illogical.”
This approach requires a careful consideration of things that are. A look at the numbers is telling, especially when they are analyzed over time. When you look at numbers over time, you can spot significant trends and predict future scenarios. For example, a look at attendance or the number of baptisms over the last five years or ten years will provide a very clear picture of the church. Another significant number is the number of people involved in mission projects. I realize that this is not a number that most churches track, but it is an excellent indicator of the missional heart of the church. Take a look at median age of the church; many churches have a median age in the 70s, which is a disaster about to happen. How old is the youngest father in the church?
One word of caution – when churches begin to be in trouble they tend to minimize the importance of numbers or they cease to track them altogether. To make matters worse, they can no longer report their numbers either to the church or to their denomination. Long gone are the Sunday School boards at the front of the church. In my state, we used to post attendance reports from the churches in our state newsletter. When the newsletter stopped reporting attendance numbers, attendance dropped significantly. Do you see the correlation? Numbers are a form of accountability and they can even provide motivation for churches to do better. One may say that this is ministry for numbers’ sake, but I would argue that if ministerial pride makes us work harder for the Lord, then so be it.
When I came as pastor to the church I serve presently, I did a historical study of the church. I noticed a sine wave that repeated itself every two years or so. I asked a lot of questions and determined that when the church began to grow, the old guard felt like they were losing control of their church, so they would run off the preacher, which made the attendance drop back down. The church would call a new pastor and the cycle would repeat again. I am still serving the same church twenty-five years later, partly because I did a historical study of the church and knew what had to happen if the church were to break its cycle.
Look at the history of your church and determine when the church was at its peak in terms of ministry and effectiveness. What caused it to experience its valleys? Listen to your most senior members and hear their heart for the church to return to its heyday. Look at the size of your church building. Many times, the building will hold several times the number of people who attend presently. I work with churches all the time whose sanctuary was built to hold 900 to 1,200 people, but they are running less than 70 in attendance now. If your church does not fill the space it has presently, it may be time to make history and begin revitalization.
Many pastors know that revitalization needs to happen, but they do not know what to do or where to start. Others are afraid to do something that may upset the equilibrium of their church. When peace, not progress, becomes the goal, we are in big, big trouble. Remember when we, as pastors, preached the truth so hard that it looked like we were trying to get fired? Whatever happened to the prophet in us? When did our fear of getting fired overcome our desire to make Christ known? Why do we settle for personal comfort rather than the furtherance of the gospel?
Pastors have a high degree of intuition about the health of their churches. No one understands the church quite like the pastor does. In the same way that pastors sense their direction in preaching and leading, pastors have the innate ability to sense the need for church revitalization. The problem is not getting pastors to sense the need, but getting them to do what is required to see church revitalization happen. Without a significant lay-leader who will help the pastor motivate the people, the pastor may not feel that he has the clout to get his church to move. The truth is – pastors have all the clout they need to move their church into revitalization from the authority of the Word of God!
The Spirit of God will lead us toward revival and revitalization. He can break our hearts, humble us, and inspire us to venture into the amazing world of church revitalization. Through prayer and fasting, Nehemiah became so convinced that God was leading him to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls, that he was willing to risk his life to accomplish the plan of God. He knew that the true King would convince the earthly king he served to allow him to go. He knew that God would give him success.
The spiritual process is not just dependent upon the pastors either. The letters to the churches of Asia Minor serve to remind us that revitalization is always a spiritual endeavor that can begin in the hearts of the churches. To each of the seven churches Jesus says, “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus’ message is especially aimed at lethargic, spiritually complacent believers who have allowed their personal comfort and personal preferences to replace His commission to make disciples of all the nations. It is doubtful that some ecstatic experience will draw you into revitalization. Like Nehemiah, at the Spirit’s leading you will see the need, be broken from it, and be compelled to do something.
The changes are, if the church you serve is not plateaued or in decline already, it will be within the next five years. It is preferable to be ahead of the wave and get started on your revitalization project now. However you determine your need for revitalization, the need for it is unmistakable. Prepared yourself today to hear God’s voice and condition your heart to follow Him when the time comes. It is never too late to start the process of revitalization.
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