Revitalization of a Church

Revitalizing a Local Church

After soliciting from his disciples the right response regarding his identity (“who do you say that I am?”), Jesus promises to build his church and guarantees its success (“I will build my church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it”). This is a rather stupendous statement. Christ will do his kingdom work on the shoulders of human beings. And it will succeed. A thought exploded in my mind… it will succeed in spite of us, not because of us. As a rule, we do a rather handy job of getting in the way. Yet, the church will always exist!

So, it is not surprising that local churches fall in the ditch from time to time. After all, there are no problem-free churches because there are no perfect people. Hence, there will always be a need to direct churches back to the Christ-intended path. The current buzz word for this phenomenon is “revitalization.”

At the outset, a nuance in the scope of revitalization of a church must be mentioned. On the one hand, revitalization is undertaken because of dysfunction, be it sinfulness or foolhardiness. On the other hand, revitalization is necessary for reforming purposes in order to move to a more biblical or more a more effective functionality.  Furthermore, sometimes revitalization is needed because of a combination of circumstances such as unbiblical or inefficient functionality breeding dysfunctional behavior.

I have found that any revitalization effort, whether for dysfunctional or reforming purposes, is really an exercise in change. And change is often difficult for all parties. Change is sometimes resisted simply on principle. So it is no surprise that, if not done properly, change can result in pain and harm to individual congregants as well as the congregation at large. And leaders are not immune to danger. If they fail to tread wisely, they might win the battle but loose the war.

Biblical change is in the final analysis a spiritual issue. At all costs, leaders must eschew the mentality that if they merely perform a series of items from a check list then genuine biblical lasting change will occur and Christ, the Sovereign of the Church, is pleased (see my studies of Romans 6 and 7).

Lessons I have learned about revitalization efforts were largely gleaned from my own pastoral experience. Significant issues I needed to address over the years included faulty views and/or practices of governance, evangelism, public invitations, divorce and remarriage, worship forms and styles, facilities, conflict resolution, the doctrinal statement, selection and function of leaders , organizational structure, paid and volunteer staff, church image, and soteriology.

So, I share the following suggestions for the revitalization of  a church. Generally, I use the terms revitalizing, reforming, retooling, and change interchangeably. In the main these remarks are addressed to church leaders, including vocational pastors. However, all congregants would do well to understand and value these ideals.

  1. Always ask if the contemplated revitalization adjustment is a smoke or fire issue; does it really matter? For example, what impact does a starting time of 9:30 instead of 10:00 make? What will happen if the issue is not addressed? Can you delay addressing the issue? Is there a better time to confront the issue?
  2. Along the same line, is the wisdom of fighting only battles you believe you will win. Count the cost before wading in. Of course, if a biblical mandate is involved then the projected outcome is not necessarily germane.
  3. Beware of confusing your personal preference as a biblical mandate. Biblical mandates must be implemented. Not so with personal preferences. Honestly evaluate whether your desire to make a change regarding some matter in the church is driven by your preference or by biblical mandate.  You might want to solicit outside advice if you find this difficult to do.  
  4. Be sure to identify sacred cows in the congregation. They are often embedded in the history or tradition of the church.    For instance, a wise leader will discover if there is a complex history behind the choice of the name for the church. In these instances, handle with great care.
  5. Time solves many sticky issues. Unless the issue is really urgent, change should be accomplished over time. For instance, when I tackled the issue of governance in the church I determined to take whatever time necessary. This turned out to be three well-worth-it years. Patience is indeed a virtue in matters of revitalization.
  6. Refrain from unnecessary confrontations. A wise pastoral mentor once advised me to “let the trouble maker take himself out of the play.” This principle is also applicable to strongly held differences of opinion. Forcing the issue often (usually) elevates the matter to the personal level. This is normally counterproductive.
  7. Refrain from using public forums such as the pulpit, popular social media, blogs, newsletter articles, and electronic messages to discuss, describe, argue, and solve issues.
  8. However, do not hesitate to exercise church discipline when unrepentant sin is present. (See my Church Discipline chapter in "Reforming Pastoral Ministry" (Crossway) for practical tips).
  9. Education is a key, if not the key, to ushering in revitalizing change. A pastor should automatically default to teaching. That is the lion’s share of what he does. And education requires clarity, compassion, practical application, and patience. Without exception, the revitalizing changes I undertook began with careful teaching. The one instance of failure lacked the necessary instruction (name of the church).
  10. Utilize  providential circumstances and events to introduce revitalization measures. A building project, staff changes, community happenings, and other similar events are golden opportunities.  As an example, removing the traditional statistics board happened without a hitch in conjunction with moving into a new auditorium.
  11. Think long term. Everything need not be accomplished all at once. Dividing the project into phases or segments may be more palatable to the congregation. Piece-meal progress is still progress. However, there may be times when the best course of action is to get it all over at once.
  12. Make sure the congregation knows the leaders are in it for the long haul. In other words, the should know that the leaders are planning to live with the changes too. Of course, the congregation is more apt to believe the pastor on this if they have witnessed him faithfully teaching the Scripture over time. If they come to trust him in handling the Scripture, they will trust him in both corporate and personal matters as well.
  13. Make unity the goal rather than uniformity. This is as much an attitude as it is action. Trumpet the virtues of liberty in Christ in matters where the Scripture has not clearly spoken. The Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals gets it right with its historic slogan, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”  
  14. Nearly every successful revitalizing change effort is a product of a team approach rather than a dictatorial model. I have found that a united front by the leadership of the church is a giant factor in making changes. Dictatorial changes, even by benevolent dictators, are usually doomed to eventual failure or repeal. In many ways this speaks to the value of multiple elder leadership in the church rather than a one-man-band model.
  15. Thus, selecting only qualified elders and deacons is essential. God has clearly spoken on this matter. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 leave little wiggle room regarding the qualifications for office bearers in the New Testament church. It is far better to do without officers than to appoint those not qualified. All officers must be qualified, willing to serve, and approved for service. If a church messes up in selecting its leaders, irreparable disaster often follows. If a non-qualified officer is serving in a term limit office, wait until the term is complete and don’t renew his term. If he is serving in an open ended term begin by privately confronting him.
  16. At all cost, avoid manipulation of people or facts. There is no room for politics in the life of the church. No back room deals.
  17. Always remember, the work of revitalization is never finished. Churches should always be both Reformed and reforming.
  18. Pray. This should be the first mode of attack. The Scripture promises wisdom to those who ask for it (James 1). So pray and then pray again.
  19. Frequently remind everyone why a church exists. First is the over-arching purpose is to glorify God. Then there are the specific purposes of edification and evangelism. But there are also distinctive purposes that are driven by the unique circumstances of the local church such as community, historical,  or geographical factors.
  20. Enthusiastically embrace the simple truth that faithfulness is the foremost component to success in the church. It is not money, or the number of attendees, or how many have been baptized, or who attends.
  21. All decisions, practices, and traditions should be Word driven. Always ask, “are we following the Word”? I always want the image of the church I pastor to be something like, "that is a Word centered church."  furthermore, at the end of the day, I want people to argue against God, not me.
  22. Be grateful for harmony. Conflict is normal in a church  populated with sinners.
  23. Keep the membership rolls up-to-date. This alone can mitigate some nasty scenes.
  24. Every member, whether leaders or minimal participants, must confront themselves with this penetrating question, “how am I part of the problem”? Be honest; you do have blind spots, so open up yourself to others for critique. 

For a  discussion regarding the related subject of the relationship between vocational and non-vocational leaders see my presentation, “Shepherding Your Leaders.”

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.