By Dr. Terry Rials
Dr. Terry Rials serves the Western Oklahoma Baptist
Church revitalization is an important work, yet it is only a stepping stone to something greater. It is a stepping stone that leads to revival.
The Psalmist reminds us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, They labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1). The end goal of all the work that we do in the ministry of revitalization is to see God move in a supernatural way, to see true revival come to the church. The best example of the role of revitalization in revival was given by the famed pastor, evangelist, and scholar G. Campbell Morgan. He was lecturing a group of young preachers on the John 3 passage, related to the moving of God’s Spirit.
He used an illustration that highlights the importance of revival in the work we do in revitalization:
You put the boat upon the lake, and hoist your sail, and wait for the wind. Now it is blowing – that is a fact. You do not know whence it comes, nor whither it goes – that is a mystery. But you do not sit down in the boat, and say, ‘I decline to make any use of this thing’…You put up your sail, saying, ‘I will take advantage of the fact in order that my boat may be driven over the lake and postpone the solution of the mystery to further knowledge and understanding.’
Dan Jarvis, formerly of Life Action Ministries, adds to Morgan’s illustration:
Sailboats are powerless. In and of themselves, they can only claim the title of organized driftwood. They have no engine, no motor, and no oarsmen. Such a boat is useless in itself…But now raise the sail. The sailboat is completely dependent upon the wind for its progress. Notice that a sailboat is designed to harness the wind. It would be foolish for such a craft to claim independence, to seek passage across the waters on its own. Inevitably, it would end up drifting in the doldrums of defeat or dashed against the rocks of discouragement. Sailboats must yield themselves to the power of the wind. The Holy Spirit is the "wind" of revival. Peter and John sensed that wind was blowing in the temple courts of Jerusalem, so they took action. They raised the sails, depending on God to provide the breeze. We, too, need to raise our sails to catch the heavenly winds that will renew, refresh, and awaken the church of our day.
I developed a working definition of revitalization for my doctoral project that included the importance of the work of man and the work of God, “Revitalization is the work church leaders do to ensure that the conditions of God are met for revival and in order that the people of God are prepared when God begins to move.” In case we need reminding afresh – the work of revitalization is dependent upon God and the results from it belong to God. We are merely workers in this process and the glory belongs to the Lord. Our job is to put up the sail and it is God’s job to cause the wind to blow. Without Him nothing happens of eternal consequence.
There is a huge need for church revitalization, just look at the Sitz im Leben of the church. Churches in the United States (and elsewhere) are declining, in all denominations not just Southern Baptists. There is no real consensus about the percentage of decline because statistics are often manipulated to provide more favorable results, but if one were to look only at the sharp decline in the number of church members and baptisms, one would be left with little choice but to conclude that the church is in big trouble. On average, 3,500 church members leave the church every day in America. Ministers are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate of 1,700 per week and it is estimated that 60% of pastors will retire in the next decade. Where will their replacements be found? There is one ironic exception (the COVID pandemic aside) to this downward trend. Giving remains high, not necessarily an indicator of health. There is a parallel in Jesus’ Letter to the Church of Laodicea, whose most memorable issue was that they were lukewarm, however, Jesus chides them for boasting that they were rich, when in fact they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). A lot of dead churches have money in the bank and fall into this category.
The church in general has forgotten the teaching of Jesus about self-denial, suffering, and the priority of putting others first. Rather, the church today has succumbed to the strategy of appeasement, just doing the things that keep the sheep happy rather than doing the things that make the Good Shepherd happy! Preferences have priority over the progress. Few are asking, “How can I serve?” Even fewer in the church see that their lives, at the moment of salvation, were forfeited for the life that Christ intended for His followers. Jesus explicitly stated, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Where is the denial of self being demonstrated in the church? Who is modeling this form of humility? If the priorities of the church are about “us,” then the priorities are not about Christ and making Him known. Paul’s instruction to put others before ourselves skips right over our heads today (Rom 12:10; Eph 5:21; Phil 2:3).
Many of the aforementioned pastors are afraid to preach what God really puts on their hearts and are afraid to confront sin in their churches for fear of losing their positions. Older pastors are afraid to create conflict that will disrupt their plans for retirement. Weaponized social media can create massive challenges for an unpopular pastor. The gossip of the church has moved from the telephone to the internet at the speed of light. Social media is the platform for those who wish to be heard. There, they can express their displeasure with the way things are going to the masses. It is terrible that God-called men are fearful and anemic. It is sadder still that so few pastors are willing to suffer, to take up their crosses, for the cause of doing what is right in the eyes of God. Three things are a danger to pastors: 1) Leaving their church fields for greener pastures before the call of God leads them away, 2) staying in their churches longer than they should because they need the job and God has not called them to another ministry, and 3) staying where they are because they are satisfied and want nothing more, regardless of the will of God. This writer has seen these scenarios so many times over the last three decades of ministry. When is the last time you witnessed a pastor do something adventurous or dangerous because it was the will of God and he was acting by faith? Early church pastors were run out of town, beaten, imprisoned, and even executed because they would not stop their obedience to Christ Jesus.
The glory of God may no longer be present in your church. This writer has been in enough churches to spot a dead one! To borrow from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, “I see dead people, and they don’t even know they’re dead.” The body dies when the breath of life is gone. Some revitalizers have suggested that many churches need resurrection instead of revitalization, and they may well be correct. Think for a moment of the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. The prophet is taken to an unnamed valley somewhere in Babylon where he sees a vast multitude of scattered, dry bones, the remains of the unburied, fallen in battle. Scripture omits exactly how they died, but Ezekiel 37:11 explains “these bones are the whole house of Israel,” dried up and without hope after the fall of Jerusalem. Judah was defeated, scattered, dispirited, in exile in Babylon, and completely cut off because they forsook the Lord their God.
An earlier vision in Ezekiel describes how the Babylonians were able to capture, plunder, and destroy the city so easily (Eze 10-11). The city fell, not because of the overwhelming numbers of Babylonian soldiers, but because God had departed the city. In that earlier vision God stands up from His throne, still the people did not repent. Then God walks to the door, still the people did not repent. God walks to the Eastern Gate, still the people refuse to repent. So God leaves the city, accompanied by the attendant seraphim and the whirling wheels, crosses the Kidron Valley and stood over the mountain to the east of Jerusalem. Only then did the army of Babylon top the hill and invade the city. The Babylonians were able to conquer Jerusalem because God was not in it!
Churches would not be in decline if they were filled with the glorious presence of God. There would be no more empty parking lots, empty pews, empty altars, empty offering plates, and empty lives if God’s glorious presence were still in the church and in the lives of the believers. Sadly, the church has refused to heed the admonition of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus – that He was about to remove their lampstand unless they repented (Rev 2:5). The good news is – there is always hope. Look again to the Valley of Dry Bones. When Ezekiel obeyed God and prophesied over the bones, winds from the four corners of the earth rushed into that valley. Then there was a noise and a rattling and the bones miraculously came back together. God promised those bones that He would enable them to live again by His Spirit. He would put sinews upon them and cover them with flesh. Then, before the prophet’s eyes, a multitude of living beings stood up, a vast army (Eze 37:11).
The process of revitalization addresses the problems of the church that prevent it from experiencing revival. There is a plethora of reasons for churches to experience decline. Many churches struggle with an entrenched leadership, changing community demographic, loss of financial base, aging congregation, membership losses to other churches, and a dearth of quality, pastoral leadership. These are substantial obstacles to overcome to be sure, but there are other issues that rarely ever get addressed in the lives of church members. Revitalization looks at these issues and biblically confronts them.
Many churches cannot even be honest with themselves about who they are and what is going on in the church; this would include their pastors. It is called the Halo Effect. When speaking about the church, people often baptize their conversation and present a more positive picture than actually exists. The classic example of this is the exaggeration of numbers when reporting about church attendance. The number is frequently rounded up, but rarely rounded down. Revitalizers quickly spot falsified or estimated numbers on reports because they are round numbers.
There are only two causes of the church’s decline. The first cause of decline is the presence of sin. Churches are not honest about the “sin in the camp.” I worked with one church where the Chairman of Deacons and the Church Clerk were living together in sin right across the street from the church! The church never confronted either of these leaders for over a decade. I ask churches what event precipitated their decline. They can often take you back to a situation where God seems to have stopped blessing them, often when the church made a decision to live by sight instead of faith. It is cathartic for a church to verbally confess this to each other. Admittedly, the New Testament equates confession with repentance, as is the case in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The church today separates these two things into distinct and separate acts. In the technical sense, confession of sin is not the same as repentance of sin. Even a drunk knows this. A drunk is willing to admit that he is a drunk but he is not willing to leave a life of alcohol. Churches will sometimes confess their problems but do nothing to address their problems, as if confession is as far as they need to take it. Confession and repentance are just a sample of the issues that churches should be examining. Vance Havner’s classic definition of revival lists several of these: ”Revival is a work of God among Christians, bringing them to conviction, repentance, confession, restitution, reconciliation, separation from the world, and submission to the lordship of Christ.” When was the last time you heard a sermon on the topic of restitution or separation from the world? Little wonder that our churches are in the condition they are.
The only other cause of decline for the church besides sin is opposition. There are those who oppose the church; sometimes those who are opposed to the progress of the church are found inside the church. Jesus warned that there were false prophets, whom he called ravenous wolves, who come to you in sheep’s clothing (Mt 7:15). The Apostle Paul warned that after his departure savage wolves would come in among the church, sparing no one (Acts 20:29). Luke records two forms of opposition to the gospel – Jewish and Roman, or put another way, religious opposition and civil opposition.
The religious opposition that the early church encountered in Jerusalem came from the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus Himself sparred with these groups frequently in His ministry. Both parties were responsible for the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6-7). One particular Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus (Paul), was particularly feared among the church prior to his own conversion (Acts 9:26-27). In the Galatian region of Asia Minor the church’s opposition again came from Jews, known as Judaizers, who were legalistic rule-makers. Paul refers to them as false apostles, deceitful workers, and those who disguised themselves as apostles of Christ (2 Cor 11:13). In Western Asia Minor the churches were confronted by the opposition that came from the Nicolaitans, the so-called “synagogue of Satan”, those who held to Balaam teaching, and those who tolerated Jezebel’s teaching, as referenced in the Revelation. Those from the synagogue were considerable foes in Ephesus, even running Paul and his followers out of the synagogue (Acts 19:18ff). Religious opposition exists today and you can find it in the teaching, preaching, and attitudes of the other churches in your city. I still hold to the belief that if it were not for Southern Baptists, a few other denominations would have nothing to preach against! Some other very sick churches would rejoice if your church had a problem that would cause your members to come and join their churches.
Civil opposition was often encouraged by the religious leaders, who expected the Romans to enforce the law. One can observe these evil oppressors’ work in the trials, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus and in the beheading of John the Baptist by the vassal leader Herod Antipas. Another Herod (Agrippa) was responsible for the killing of the Apostle James (the son of Zebedee). Later in the New Testament era, the opposition grew stronger; generally, the later the period and the closer to Rome, the more intense the persecution. Beginning with the reign of Octavius, Emperor worship was mandated, but the reigns of Emperor Nero and Emperor Domitian were particularly brutal to the church. The Romans arrested Paul in Jerusalem, beat him, held him in Caesarea Maritima, and eventually took him to Rome for trial, where history records that he and Peter were executed for their faith. If you wish to see if civil opposition still exists, you only have to lead your church into a building project. You will discover the vast opposition you will encounter from your city, county, and state governments. One friend’s church was required to pay for all the city’s utilities to be totally replaced up and down the entire street. Another friend’s church had to do an environmental impact study for months over the effects of their future sound system on the migration patterns of birds; their church sits by an eight-laned interstate highway. In my last church, we were required to install twenty tons of sheet rock in one wall simply because the inspector wanted us to do it, not because it was on the plans. His supervisor would not overrule his employee’s decision.
There is yet another form of opposition that must be discussed, opposition to pastoral leadership. We see opposition to leadership regularly in the scriptures. Moses certainly had his share of opposition from the sons of Korah and others, even those in his own family. The Israelites tortured and executed the prophets that God sent to them. Nehemiah had opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Greshem (Gashmu) as he tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In the New Testament, there was more opposition to the pastoral leadership than to the church itself! In Paphos the opposition came from Elymas the magician, in Syrian Antioch from Peter and the Jews from Jerusalem, in Jerusalem, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, Berea, Thessalonica, it came from the Jews. In Philippi the masters of the slave girl caused Paul and Silas to be thrown in prison. In Corinth one finds critics of Paul’s apostleship. In Ephesus the Synagogue Jews, Jewish exorcists, Demetrius, Alexander the Coppersmith, and the silversmiths persecuted Paul. John Mark and Demas abandoned Paul, and Barnabas parted company with Paul over a dispute related to John Mark.
Satan knows that the fastest way to stop the progress of God’s people is to attack God’s leaders. Job was not a pastoral leader, but look for a moment at the attacks that Satan leveled against him. Satan took away Job’s oxen, donkeys, and servants in the first round of attacks. He took sheep and more servants in the second and camels and more servants in the third. Job lost all his children and finally he lost his health. Job’s horrific suffering demonstrates the extent of the devil’s attacks on the man of God. In essence, Satan took away Job’s pocketbook, his trust in God, his profession, his family, and his person. Since revitalizers know this kind of spiritual warfare is coming, they can prepare for the inevitable attacks that come.
Revitalization is a biblical concept. Both Testaments of scripture argue for revitalization because spiritual degradation is common and universal. Churches tend to abandon the biblical ideals that God has set for them in order to pursue destructive endeavors, so destructive in fact, that not one of the churches named in the pages of the New Testament survives to the present. All the churches listed in the New Testament, including those in Judea, Syria, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, Mysia, Asia, and others, succumbed to stagnation, entropy, and death. This was certainly not Jesus’ intent for His church.
The decline of the church can happen quickly. Quickly the Galatians abandoned the one true gospel preached unto them by the Apostle Paul in favor of one that was false (Gal 1:6). Quickly the Ephesians lost their first love only a few years after the Apostle Paul commended their love for one another in his epistle to them (Rev 2:4; cf. Eph 1:15). Quickly the Corinthians departed after eighteen months of teaching from Paul in favor of quarreling, immorality, pride, and grievous doctrinal errors (including salvation, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and the resurrection) that degraded their testimony before the lost in Corinth (Acts 18:11).
The grace of God makes it possible to return to Him. The truth is that the people of God are living a life that is far short of all that God has planned for them. Life is never better away from the Lord than it is living in fellowship with Him. This truth alone should make God’s people desire to return to Him. God is not passive in this situation; He actively calls His people back to himself in both Testaments of scripture. Without an exhaustive study of God’s pleas, one can still see God’s intent built into the commands to return. For example, in the Old Testament, the Lord of Hosts calls for His people to return (שׁוּב) to Him in the obedience that the covenant required (Mal 3:7). One New Testament command to return (ἐπιστρέφω) is couple with repent and “before it is too late” is an implied (Acts 3:19).
The picture of a loving God who wants His beloved people to return to Him is painted multiple times in scripture. First, the deliverance of His people from Egypt after the descendants of Abraham failed to trust God for their provision is a powerful example. Even after 400 years, God still heard their cries and sent them Moses the Deliverer. Second, the beautiful and tragic love story portrayed in the Book of Hosea typifies God’s steadfast love. Though Hosea’s wife was an unfaithful woman, Hosea was commanded to take her back. Third, the story of Jonah begs the question, “what would God do to get us to respond to Him? God would go so far as to have a great fish swallow Jonah to bring him to repentance. Fourth, the Valley of Dry Bones – we have already seen. God brings His people back to life and back to the land after the captivity, which was due to their neglect of God’s statutes, ordinances, and commandments. Fifth, God uses Nehemiah the Cupbearer to rebuild the walls to protect God’s people. God used the most unlikely servant to address the needs of the most undeserving people. Sixth, what about the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son who forgave, restored, and blessed his repentant and lost son? What a beautiful picture of grace! The greatest and ultimate example is God sending His only-begotten Son to pay for our sins with His shed blood on the cross. Why would God the Father do such a thing? The Father did this because it was the only way for us to get back into a right relationship with Him. Jesus paid for our sins so we could have a relationship with God, no longer enemies, but friends, children, and join-heirs with God.
It is time to stop bringing reproach upon the name of Christ. Mark Dever is correct when he frequently describes church revitalization as a kingdom two-for-one, tearing down a bad witness and setting up a good one in its place. The Old Testament Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were places where God’s name would dwell (1 Kings 8:17-19). New Testament believers are themselves indwelt with God’s presence for our bodies; we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, so it is terribly sad that the church, a people who are called by God’s name, are devoid of any testimony of the presence and activity of God.
Has God become silent again as He did in the Intertestamental Period? I have had discussions with leaders about that very subject. Has God walked out of the doors of the church as He walked out of the Temple in the days of Ezekiel? It would not be out of character for our God to do such a thing, but there is no textual evidence to such an event; it is merely an observation, based upon the present reality. I am certain that the children of Israel felt that God was silent during their years in bondage under Pharaoh. Again, they probably felt abandoned by God in the years of exile. Finally, after the last of Malachi is penned, God goes silent again, this time for 400 years until the appearance of the herald John the Baptist and the appearance of Christ Jesus our Lord!
Let us explore just one of those periods of silence – the Exile. The Exile was predicted to be seventy years (Jer 29:10) and was repayment to God for the Israelite’s failure to keep the Laws regarding the sabbath years (2 Chron 36:21). Failing to allow the land to lay fallow every seventh year adds up to seventy years because the people were in the land for 490 plus years. Was God being silent or were the people just experiencing the punishment of a righteous God? It was such a terribly sad time for the Judahites. Perhaps to the people of Judah it felt like God went silent.
To make matters worse for the captives, they endured the relentless taunting of their captors. Psalm 137 is an Exilic Psalm that describes the terrible conditions they endured. The Israelites were despondent; they sat down and wept when they thought of Zion. They hung up their harps, but their captors demanded that they sing. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion,” their captives would say (Ps 137:3). The Israelites reported back, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Ps 137:4)? The taunting of the enemy grew so severe that the last verse of the Psalm exposes the hidden desire of the captives, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against a rock” (Ps 137:9). In essence, their captivity was so horrible that the captives wished the entire next generation of Babylon children would be killed in this manner so their taunting would cease.
Nehemiah experienced some of the same taunting from his opponents seventy years later during the construction of the wall of Jerusalem. The difference was that Nehemiah recognized that the condition of the people was not the fault of Babylon or Persia, but of Israel itself. The people of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, were a people of shame and reproach (Neh 1:3). When he heard of the condition of Jerusalem and his people, he sat down and wept and mourned for days and fasted and prayed before the God of Heaven (Neh 1:4). Nehemiah confesses the sins of the sons of Israel, his sins, and those of his father’s household (Neh 1:6). He explained to the people in Jerusalem that their condition was one of shame and they had become a “reproach” before the peoples and he told them so (Neh 2:17). In essence, their condition gave permission for their enemies to mock them and the mighty God they claimed to serve. Churches today give ample reason for the enemies of God to mock Him and His people. Have we not become that same people of shame? Our failure to obey the Lord and keep His commandments is a sin that we must forsake. Until repentance is once again upon our hearts and confession upon our lips, there will be little change in the future of the church.
Some would say that not all churches are plateaued, declining, or dead. When I ask some key questions, their boasting quickly fades. When I ask about how frequently they share the gospel or how frequently they baptize, they offer a quick answer. When I ask the pastor to share with me about the last person he led to the Lord personally, the conversation gets more tense. When I ask about the last time that public confession of sin was made or the last time they saw their people in repentance at the altar, they struggle to answer. Oh, for the days of Jonathan Edwards again, when people cried aloud during the sermon, begging him to stop long enough for them to repent. We see an occasional movement of the Spirit but those movements are few and infrequent. We hear of little pockets of revival, but nothing really that impacts our land. Like the old hymn says, “Mercy drops round me are falling, but for the showers we plead.”
I intentionally avoided the “do these five things to revitalize your church” type of work. The situation in the church is much graver because we are not attending to the relationship issues that caused the decline of the church in the first place. Jesus has an issue with the church in five of the letters to the churches of Asia Minor. The scripture and our experience has shown us that there are a number of issues that we need to address in the process of revitalization. If the church is to be of value again, it must be one that is filled by the Spirit of God and used by God to reach the lost world.
Just as a patient in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital cannot help others who are sick, so we find the church in the twenty-first century. We can be just like Judah and sit and cry over our situation or we can own it, repent of it, turn to God, and watch Him do something in our midst. There is great truth and a great promise contained in Malachi 3:7, where God said, “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts.” God may have a terrific refreshing for you, a great revival for your church, a great awakening for our land, and great reformation for our world, if only we will return to Him.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.