Revitalizing a Local Church

Conference notes on how leaders and members can revitalize a church.

Each year, Southern Baptists birth 1,000 local churches per year and bury 900 local churches. Membership numbers at churches within the Southern Baptist Convention lag the population growth in the US. In part, this is because formerly Baptist churches no longer wish to be associated with the name Southern Baptist, which has unfortunate connections to American slavery.  Many of these churches change their names and continue with solid Biblical teaching as before. Christ is still being proclaimed, and there seems little reason for concern.

In America, sadly, fewer people, Protestant or Catholic, are attending church at all. Secularists rejoice, believing that religion is inherently bad.[1] Some hope that religious beliefs of all varieties will wane as science advances, personal freedom increases, and economic conditions improve around the world.[2] This hope is not new…people like Voltaire held it centuries ago.

Followers of Jesus Christ seek revival, a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit which turns the hearts of many towards God. Revival refers to the individual hearts of men, while revitalization refers to local churches. Both are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. Revitalization is defined as the process by which the local church learns to embrace the changes necessary to get it growing and keep it growing. All local churches can benefit from revitalization.

The Root of the Problem

Churches never have a giving problem or an attendance problem, they always have a discipleship problem. Congregations get into trouble when they do not disciple their people, when they do not lead fellow Christians to become more like Christ. Jesus’ schedule might be seen as wasteful by modern time management specialists. He spent hours alone in prayer with the Father and dedicated most of His time to His disciples. Many modern leaders invest little or no time in prayer and would rather give a speech to 5,000 than mentor 12.

Jesus also served his community by teaching, healing, and performing miracles. He was an integral part of His surroundings and was important even to those who did not follow Him. Local church leaders should ask themselves, their church members, and those in their community, “Would anyone care if our church closed its doors today?” If the answer is “no,” the church needs to be revitalized.

Expectations are a problem. The American church, like American culture, values things that we can count, and the number of people in pews and dollars in the offering plate are the easiest things to count. Americans like big and flashy over small and plain. The Bible disagrees – most of the churches referred to in the Bible were house churches. Consider the normative size of Southern Baptist Churches today:

Normative size of a church
1. Less than 299 in gathered Worship
2. 90% of SBC churches have fewer than 300 people on average in gathered worship
3. 83% have under 200
4. 63% have under 100

Put another way, if you gathered all SBC pastors who preach to more than 2,000 people every Sunday, they would fill a medium sized passenger airliner. If you gathered all SBC pastors who preach to fewer than 250 people every Sunday, they would fill a major league baseball stadium. Historically, the local church has never been large.

Americans have more big churches today than ever, and yet more Americans are lost. Smaller churches have carried the gospel for as long as the church has existed. A successful normative-sized church is not a smaller version of a larger church, with all the same programs, flashy services, and coiffed congregants. Rather, it is a church carefully modeled to care for the needs of its community. Church success is making disciples in one’s own community… a community should be noticeably better because you are there.

Another factor in the twenty-first century that contributes to weak churches is reduced membership expectations. Christians in hardship, especially those under persecution, take their faith more seriously, and live it more powerfully, than those in abundance. In the modern day:

  1. Churches get a sense of self-worth centered on how many people come rather than how many are discipled in Christian maturity.
    2. Leaders and congregants find self-worth in the results of ministry rather than in God, who the ministry is for.
    3. Hoping for more attendees, leaders don’t want to frighten people, so they expect less from those who are there.
    4. Membership meant more in earlier generations than it does now. For example, in the past, people had to receive a Communion Coin from the pastor to be allowed to take Communion.
    5. The purpose of the church letter was to get reliable information on people coming into a community to decide whether to admit them to membership in a new church.

As persecution against Christians grows in the US, the costs of being a Christian rise. Expectations and dedication rise with them. For example, several churches opposed the forced church-closings during the COVID pandemic, and a group of high-ranking Catholic bishops are deciding whether to deny communion to Catholics who violate key Catholic beliefs on life and sexuality.

Life Stages in a Local Church

Every organism and organization has life stages. Unlike biological organisms, which progress inevitably from birth to death, organizations, from local churches to nations, can rebirth themselves on earth. Unlike humans, which after death will live again, organizations only live in this world. Once gone, they are gone forever.[3]

  1. Birth

Every local church is founded by the vision of a group of people, often during a crisis. The history of each church records who the church and its people were and are, what they have done, and what they are likely to do in the future. Leaders hoping to revitalize their church must learn this history and use it to educate new generations and plot the course for the future. The relevant question is, “what did God do in this local church in the past, what is He doing now, and how can we use these facts to inform our future?”

My family and I attended the First Baptist Church, Alexandria, Virginia, for nine years during the end of my time on active duty in the Army. The church was founded in 1803 and had photographs of its senior pastors dating back more than 150 years. My children and I sometimes gazed at the pictures, thinking about what happened during each pastor’s tenure and discovering more, from the church archives, about the pastors themselves. People and churches exist in a context, a time and place in which God wants them to serve Him. In our day-to-day struggles, we may not see our context and therefore be unable to best use our resources for His goals.

Birth and young life are times of freewheeling and rapid growth. Church is exciting and new. Anything seems possible, and even probable. Parishioners expect that such eye-popping growth will last forever. Rules are few and therefore instability can be a problem, but conflicts are young and not yet intractable.

  1. Adult Life

Once the church is established, it must transition from birth to adult life. Excitement wanes, but so does confusion and instability.  Growth slows but usually remains steady for a while. Churches must continue to update their strategies or they will maintain the status quo. Leaders must continue to think in terms of ministry and mission, or they will become focused on the survival of the church.

Believers in Jesus should never, ever worry about survival. God Himself is the grower, protector, and sustainer of the Church, and the sun will stop shining before the Church stops growing. As Charles Spurgeon said, “the gospel is like a lion in a cage. It does not need to be defended but let out.”

  1. Older Age

Excitement wanes further and the church structure, including bylaws, committees, financial status (debt or abundance), and physical structure (including buildings and grounds), can impede church goals. Early members depart, either leaving or dying. A big, expensive building can impose a heavy financial burden on a smaller congregation.

The characteristics of the Downward Spiral, as noted below, begin to show. At this point it is often not enough to change strategy to revitalize the church. Leaders and members must change the church structure to improve outcomes. Changing structure is necessary because communities continually change, and other community organizations are themselves at different stages in their lifespans.  The facilities, finances, polity, and processes that worked well in the church and community in the past may no longer serve. For example, our church in Germantown, Tennessee, had to reevaluate its committee structure as attendance dropped. Some of the policies and processes that were needed for a church with 3,000 members were not needed for a church of 800 members. In old age, if the church maintains its status quo (often including increased control by special interests in the church), it is likely to deteriorate.

The Downward Spiral

Churches that enter the downward spiral are similar to planes that enter a spin, people may notice it late, and the longer the church is in it, the harder it is to pull out. The key is to notice while the local church is still in the plateau stage and make changes. Churches should regularly assess themselves and their communities and look for early signs of deterioration.

Plateau – The church seems to be doing well, but it is no longer growing. It takes a long time before parishioners realize what is happening, a longer time to agree on what to do about it, and a long, long time to do anything. No one is sure if any given plateau portends a downward spiral or if it is a lull before further growth. Many congregants will oppose any change.

Decline/nostalgia – Most people realize that the church is declining and remember, “how sweet it was.” Churches are deep into the downward spiral by this time, although a few members may still deny it.

Questioning – Leaders and involved parishioners ask, “what caused the problem?” Prayer diminishes as people want to do something, anything, to bring back their church. Parishioners forget that Christianity is most importantly a spiritual battle which must be waged with prayer. One speaker said, “The last thing any church needs is anyone’s unprayed over opinion.” Leaders must carefully lay out the situation, demonstrating clearly that the church is in a downward spiral and act decisively.

  1. Prayer, and lots of it.
  2. Evaluate the church and the community.
  3. Review existing facilities, finances, polity (committees, other groups, ministries), and processes (bylaws, standard operating procedures).
  4. Change the existing church structure to better meet the needs of the congregants and the community.

Polarization – Based on their backgrounds, people give different answers to what caused the church to decline, and what to do about it. Disagreement and resentment grow.

Death – Churches can linger for years with only a handful of members if they have enough money to maintain their facilities. The final blow occurs when the church runs out of money or the last remaining members can no longer attend, typically from relocation, sickness, or death.

Characteristics of Dying Churches

How can leaders and parishioners tell if their church is beginning to die, if it needs revitalization? Dying churches have the following characteristics:

  1. They rely on Programs and Personalities.

Some of the sickest churches are the busiest. Members watch the pews slowly thin out over the years, so they start another program to hopefully bring people back. Programs multiply but spiritual maturity stays low. Eventually the overworked members get discouraged by the lack of visible fruit (meaning attendance) and they stop leading programs and participating in committees. Some even move to a different church. Dying churches have an overabundance of activity, but the activities are less meaningful.

In addition to relying on programs, dying churches rely on personalities. “If we only had a young, dynamic pastor,” you might hear a faithful old saint say, “he would fix everything.” Except, he wouldn’t, because no individual can. Psalms 118:8-9 tells us, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” Churches held together by big personalities fall apart soon after those people leave.

  1. Resent the community for not responding as they once responded.

Dying churches once thrived. A church that has 50 members today may have had 400 members thirty years ago. Old timers think of the olden days and wonder why their neighbors stopped coming to their church. Sometimes we resent people who have left our church, or even those who have never come. Every existing church had a time of success with what they considered a tried-and-true formula. Over time, such formulas always fail.

Churches must sincerely and deeply explore their community to see what people’s needs are today. To use a theological term, they must exegete the community. First, we break the community into small pieces to analyze it. This includes pride (what they are proud of as a community), shame (what they are ashamed of as a community), and how they live. Second, we figure out how our church can serve the community…how we can build bridges. Third, we realize that there may be a big disconnect between the church and the community, and that it is our responsibility to bridge the gap. Once a church understands the needs and aspirations of those around them, they can begin to meet those needs, and to make disciples for Christ.

  1. Value process of decision over outcome of decision.

Lots of people in a dying church can say no to any initiative but no one can say yes. In any organization, including churches, everyone does not necessarily need to be heard. Leaders should lead, and be allowed to lead.

Church planting is often easier than church replanting because planters begin with a clean slate. There are no bylaws, no long-term members, no power structure, no debts, no long-nursed grudges, no unforgiven injuries, and no building. Leaders trying to replant a church encounter all these issues and more.

  1. Value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.

No one in a faltering congregation wants to admit that their church is dying, but they can’t help but sense it. When faced with a frightening new situation, people naturally revert to what they know, what they think they know, and what is comfortable for them. So, members of a dying church try to return to what worked in the past, including governance, programs, and leadership. When congregants should be going out to find out what their neighbors need, they are hunkering down within the walls of the church.

  1. Inability to pass meaningful leadership to the next generation.

People rarely admit that their days are passing. We work hard to get the positions that we want, both in our careers and in our churches, and act like we can keep these positions forever. As our moments slip away, younger men and women in Christ want our guidance, but we are too busy “serving the church” to disciple our younger leaders. Jesus never made this mistake. Our Lord intends current leaders to disciple future leaders, and expects current leaders to consider when to step down. Younger Christians want and need the opportunity to fill our shoes in the years to come.

One elderly preacher in the United States had a son was also a preacher and a faithful young Christian grandson. He said, “Opposition is coming to us in America. I will die in bed, my son will die in prison, and my grandson will die in the fires of persecution.” The next generation of Christian leaders will likely face far more opposition in ministry than we have faced. Thus, the need for good discipling is even greater for them than it was for us.

  1. Cease to be part of the fabric of the community.

Hundreds of years ago, the church was the largest building in the town or village. It became the main community meeting place, a place for school, politics, assembling groups such as militia, as well as the center for spiritual growth. Today, churches have lost most of those roles in the community. Often, churchgoers don’t even want these roles. Hosting community groups brings in dirt, causes damage, increases liability, and can potentially bring in a host of other problems that the church has to deal with. Working with the community can be a source of great expense to the local church. But that is what we are for. God did not save us to stay in a quiet, beautiful church, enjoying our peace and affluence. He intended us to glorify and enjoy Him, for bless others, and to win spiritual warfare. British missionary C.T. Studd wrote, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”

No one has been given more than the redeemed. We should bless the socks off the community. We serve the community; they do not serve us. Though people in the community can be skeptical of the ulterior motives they expect in the church, we persist in loving them. Some will understand and believe.

Types of Revitalization

  1. Restart or replant

Some churches need to completely shut down and restart or replant. Parishioners often believe that selecting a new name, choosing a new pastor, and finding new leadership will do the trick. They are usually wrong, as such changes are usually neither sufficient nor necessary to restart or replant a church. Having a “reclaimed” name, “reclaimed” pastor, and “reclaimed” leadership. To reclaim a name, pastor, or leadership is to rededicate all the service of Jesus Christ in the local church and to do the hard work necessary to restore the church to health. Sometimes it is best to simply let a local church die and have the congregation move to other local churches. A church which was once in a populated area may now find that its community has moved far away.

  1. Legacy replant

A common way to revitalize a church is to merge with or be acquired by a local church which is growing. Merging two church cultures is hard, but a legacy replant can be easier and more effective than other methods.

  1. Targeted revitalization

Older churches were frequently established in and near residential neighborhoods. As time passed, people moved into the suburbs or elsewhere and the areas surrounding the churches became commercial or even industrial.  Churches whose people left them for geographic reasons may find that relocation to a new site helps them to grow again.

Some churches may pick a specific area to revitalize, such as their children’s ministry, before moving on to another area. All such techniques are useful provided they are done prayerfully, wisely, and energetically.

Spiritual formation for the pastor

Some pastors have never been discipled. Discipleship requires time and is organic and natural, not contrived. No matter how old or experienced in ministry, every Christian should be mentored in some way by other Christians. Older, more experienced pastors have a wealth of gifts they can bestow on others, but younger pastors can teach older pastors to use new technologies and adapt to the changed world. Younger men can encourage older ones in the faith, since years of ministry can sap the energy and enthusiasm of the strongest Christian.

Exhausted and discouraged pastors make for exhausted and discouraged churches. It is a sin for churches to demand everything from their pastor, pay him peanuts, and then become angry when he fails, at least in their minds. Pastors need revitalization and soul care. The man who teaches others every Sunday needs good Biblical teaching himself, improving his knowledge and hope. The man who visits, counsels, marries, buries, and fixes the furniture in the church from Mondays to Saturdays needs laymen and women in his church to encourage him and help do some of the work. The man who holds everyone else accountable through his preaching and teaching needs some close friends to hold him accountable. Churches should consider offering their pastor a sabbatical, in which he gets several months for rest, study, and research, at least every seven years.

Pastor’s families are often neglected. Expectations are high and friends may be scarce, especially if pastors frequently move from church to church. Humans lack staying power. Paul told Timothy to remain in Ephesus though Timothy seemingly wanted to move to “greener pastures.” Timothy needed to stay there to preach the gospel.

It is normal and often advisable for a church to raise up its own pastors. Churches can develop a training track for youths interested in ministry. Formal training such as a Bible certificate, undergraduate or graduate work would be a part, as would guided leadership experiences such as teaching Bible studies, leading special events, and preaching. The pastoral staff and the congregation would be the teachers and evaluators and would ultimately decide whether to ordain candidates to ministry and where to use them in the church.

Pillars of Revitalization – Strategic relationships and a Personalized plan

For a pastor sitting alone in his study, knowing that his church is dying and knowing that his personal energy is sapped, revitalization looks impossible. The North American Missions Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention can help. Strategic Relationships with local churches, NAMB, and other Christian groups are a key.

  1. Leadership – The NAMB can provide churches with specialists in church revitalization including regional catalysts, revitalization strategy leaders, and interim or transitional pastors.
  2. Consultants – Most of their work can be done over the internet and it is much cheaper to have consultants work online than to pay for transportation and housing.
  3. Partnering with a local church or churches and a network of pastors helps everyone in the area revitalize
    4. Interns may be available from the North American Mission Board. For example, Liberty University may provide youth interns to West Virginia churches in need.Once a pastor or a congregation finds people to help, revitalization experts can help the church develop a personalized plan. A church can be re-engineered using the same leadership. It can be changed with a transition to a new pastor and/or other leadership. Finally, some churches need a combination of both.

Reversing the decline by defining a new direction

Churches that do not want to change will not change, so the first task is to identify where the church is, and then communicate that reality to the remaining parishioners. Leaders and parishioners can follow these steps to help turn their church around:

  1. Reacquire buy in. Every church has victories. Celebrate those victories.
  2. Reassess identity. Who do we say we are? Who does the community think we are? Who are we really? The Church needs to rewrite the narrative.
  3. Repent for the sins that the church has committed. Churches sometimes fire pastors, abuse families, and otherwise do terrible damage to each other. While the individuals involved have to repent and reconcile, the church itself has to do the same. Even if the leadership team is completely new, corporate guilt remains, and a church with such sin will never be healed until it makes things right.
  4. Restore relationships. Repentance is not complete until the offending party tries to restore the relationship.
  5. Rethink vision. what does God want us to be? The Church sees the vision, and the community sees the mission.
    6. Realign strategy to accomplish the mission to achieve the vision.
    7. Revise structure.
    8. Reaffirm buy in.
    9. Repeat forever.Post COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the confidence of many people, including pastors and church attendees. Many churches are just regaining their pre-COVID membership, and many are not. As a guideline, NAMB is finding that up to 20% of members will not come back to their church, and some won’t return to any church. Most of those who have left were already in the process of leaving before COVID, so this drop in attendance is not the fault of the church or leaders. Many volunteers and teachers will not return to their previous level of commitment. Pandemic severity, masking, social distancing, and vaccination issues have provided another source of conflict in the church. Finally, small churches could not provide the same online experience as big churches, so some people have migrated to permanently watching church online, and have moved to larger churches.

Replant imperatives

  1. Pray without ceasing. This is essential. Revitalization requires strategic patience. Leaders must love their congregations and tell them that they love them.
    2. Love and shepherd the church’s remaining members. They are not an obstacle to your ministry. They are your ministry.
    3. Preach the Gospel all the time. The gospel is not the diving board into the Christian life but is the pool in which we live.
    4. Exegete and serve the community. Let them use your church facilities. Ideas – Kitchen for events, birthday party room, clothes washers and driers in the church for free laundry. Buy gift cards from small local businesses and give them to needy families in the community. This helps the local businesses and the needy families. Do not be selfish with the resources God has given you.
    5. Make church structure and strategies simple and biblical.
    6. Focus on discipling young men, ages 18 to 30, rather than trying to attract a crowd. Make disciples who will make disciples. Great movements of God in history have come from young men. If you get the young men, you get their families also.
  2. Kill the Queen. The queen is the most powerful piece on the chess board. Removing her is the best way to learn how to use the other pieces. In the local church application, do not focus on changing the Sunday morning service, but focus on the other six days of the week.

Conclusion

The Church founded by Jesus Christ will prevail, no matter what any human being does. God’s will does not rely on our actions. On the other hand, ministers love their churches and their people. It is awful to see a local church perish. The notes above, taken from the SBC Revitalization Summit at the Parkview Church in Bluefield VA, in May 2021, will help pastors revitalize their local churches for the ministry of Jesus and the betterment of people.[4]

[1] Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are examples.

[2] This belief, formalized in the Secularization Theory, has never proven accurate in broad experience.

[3] The notable exception is, of course, the Church. While every human church and group of churches will end, the body of Christ, comprised of every Christian, will never end.

[4] Presenters included Jim Drake, Bill Henard, Mark Clifton, Rusty Small, and David Jackson

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