I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it’s like to be part of revitalizing a church, compared to starting one. Both ministries are needed. We need new churches planted, and we also need to see lots of churches revitalized. The two, by the way, go really well together.
I have the privilege of watching some gifted revitalizers at work in my city. I take off my hat to them, because I know that the work they’re doing is both hard and important.
Here’s what I wish someone had told me years ago when I first pastored an established church.
Revitalization is hard. Ed Stetzer writes, “Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs” (Planting Missional Churches). Read that over a few times. Thom Rainer says that the most common method of revitalization succeeds only 2% of the time. I wish I’d known that earlier.
The most important issues aren’t what you think. The issues go much deeper than updating the worship or making some cosmetic changes. Common issues include spiritual lethargy, dysfunctional patterns of relating, and spiritual pride. Unless you’re willing to confront deep issues, and to be unpopular, don’t take on this ministry.
Revitalization begins with spiritual renewal. I like what Bill Hogg says: “It’s not about coming up with a plan. The first order of business is to surrender to Jesus. The idea is not to work a plan but to hear from the Lord, and then from dependence upon Him walk in obedience to what he speaks into the life of the church.” Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life and Jack Miller’s Outgrowing the Ingrown Church are great resources here.
You can’t do it alone. Just as you can’t plant a church alone, you can’t lead a church revitalization alone. You need a core group, or as John Kotter calls it, a guiding coalition. These people can be inside the church, or they can come from outside the church, although they would first have to earn trust. You need 10-20% of the church’s core engaged in mission and ministry. Never try to lead a revitalization alone.
Look up and outside. Church renewal doesn’t happen by pursuing church renewal. It happens by pursuing God and joining him on mission. Get the focus on God and the harvest. Plant a church, or at least partner in doing so; serve the community; lead the church to risk and sacrifice; focus on God and his greatness.
Get your identity from God. If you get your identity from how well the revitalization is going, you will not survive. Get your security from your union with Christ. Go deep into the gospel. The renewal project may fail (see my first point), but the gospel will still be true. Dwell in God’s love.
If you’ve been part of leading a revitalization, I’d love to get your thoughts.