Church Revitalization

Effective Strategy? Biblical Mandate? Both! 

In 1980 a young Pastor, fresh from seminary, arriving at his first pastorate encountered some startling realities. Thinking he was informed as to the condition of the church, he soon learned just how uninformed he was. When you get "onsite" you soon gain "insight." Church attendance had diminished from over 1,000 to an average of 55. There were no children's Sunday School classes because there were no children. The average age in the congregation exceeded 70 and its past had become glorified nostalgia. On his first Sunday, the service ended at the expected 12:00 hour. As he and his wife made their way to the lobby. Amazingly, in spite of the infirmities of age, the congregation had exited and rapidly emptied the parking lot. The church attendance box for the week had been checked and they were ready to move on. There were no sounds of fellowship from lingering crowds only an empty sanctuary and parking lot within five minutes of the benediction. He went outside to try and speak to the departing congregation before and found himself embarrassingly locked out of the church building by the equally rapid exit of the part-time church janitor. After breaking into his own church to obtain his Bible and car keys, the pastor and his wife looked at each other with the sudden realization of just how enormous this pastoral challenge would be. But, there was more to come.

While all other churches in the area had monthly accounts at the local office supply store he soon learned his church was excluded and designated as "cash only" due to past payment delays. The first Session meeting revealed that not all of the elders had a personal saving relationship with Christ. They seemed to be well-meaning but did not "know the Lord." Of the two elders who exhibited some spiritual maturity, one was transferred within three months and the other died of leukemia. The church had not met its budget in years. Perhaps the most startling event was a phone call from one of the previous nine pastors revealing a tumultuous past. This pastor, while graciously welcoming the new pastor to his charge asked a strange and probing question. "Did you pray before you accepted this call?" After answering "yes" the obvious question was, "Why did you ask?" The answer was stunning. He informed the new pastor that he believed the church "had the mark of Satan upon it."

He then began to share the "horror stories" of what had happened to the previous pastors. All of which was not encouraging for a new pastor in his first pastorate. So what do you do?

While grateful for his seminary education he realized he was unprepared for this moment. But thankfully his seminary preparation had been framed by a relentless commitment to the inerrancy and the sufficiency of God's Word. So to his study and to the Scripture he went. I can verify all of the above since I was this young Pastor. So how would God's sufficient Word (which cannot be broken) instruct me to respond?

Here was a church in decline and its demise imminent. It could be said one flu season would put the church out of business. The Presbytery's counsel was to sell the property and use the proceeds to plant another church. Yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The daily vandalizing of the church revealed two factors. One, the neighborhood viewed the church as a derelict unused building. Two, there were people to be reached. Could this church be revitalized?  The Word of God was clear that I must preach and pray for revival but only the Lord could bring it. But I soon discovered a Biblical roadmap from Christ as to how pastors can lead a church back to spiritual vitality? Here is how that happened.

As mentioned, this took place in 1980, a year which also witnessed the rise and proliferation of "church growth" publications. Clearly, these resources were of interest to me and I devoured them. In doing so a few things became obvious. First, the writers of these publications were intelligently insightful and well-meaning. Second, most of the proposed remedies were "best practices" drawn from psychological, sociological and demographic ministry analysis. Of course, all of the recommended practices were "checked out" against the Scripture to make sure that no Biblical truths were being violated. Yet, few were actually derived from the Scripture. They were commended with the assurance that they would produce "statistical church growth" which surfaced another concern. While the Bible, in the book of Acts, records "statistical growth" in the church there is no indication that the leadership focused their ministry philosophy upon statistical church growth. The clear evidence is that 1st century church leaders focused on the spiritual vitality and health of the church with "statistical growth" recorded as a consequence of the apostolic ministry, not the objective of their ministry.

Furthermore, in my study, I was intrigued by the recorded expansion of the Kingdom of God through the church and the strategy employed by the Apostle in the Book of Acts.

First, the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed in Jerusalem by the Apostles established the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1-8). Then the Kingdom powerfully expanded as promised by the Lord to Judea and Samaria resulting in the church at Antioch (Acts 9-12). This eventually expanded the Kingdom to the world through another key church at Ephesus (Acts 13-28). At each step of the ever-expanding Kingdom through vibrant and healthy churches, statistical growth was a result of Gospel vitality furthered through the effective ministry of Gospel-healthy leaders and churches.

In Acts 13 Saul (soon the Apostle Paul) along with Barnabas are sent by the Church at Antioch on the first missionary journey. They employed a four-fold Gospel ministry strategy expanding the Kingdom to city after city. This recorded strategy was:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel Church planting
  3. Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice
  4. Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized (at times they would leave leaders from their team because of the importance of leadership in the church.)

Later in Acts 15:36-16:5, after the conclusion of the first General Assembly of the New Testament Church in Jerusalem, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they take a second missionary journey. The narrative records their "sharp disagreement" as to whether John Mark should accompany them. The result was two mission teams instead of one. John Mark and Barnabas depart on their ministry while Paul takes Silas and later recruits Timothy on his second missionary journey. Now what would he do on this second missionary initiative?

Paul, repeated his four-fold strategy of expanding the Gospel of the Kingdom and he intentionally added another strategy - Gospel church revitalization to fulfill his repeatedly stated objective "let's return and strengthen the churches" - the same churches they had planted on their first missionary journey.

Gratefully Paul's strategy of church planting has been received and embraced with passion and energy but his emphasis on a strategy of intentional church revitalization is not embraced by today's denominations. For the most part struggling churches are left to fend for themselves and in some cases I have encountered they are encouraged to close the church while the denomination energetically pursues the planting of churches. But Paul, while remaining committed to church planting also intentionally and strategically sought to "strengthen the churches" who were stalled, plateaued or declining by leading them to spiritual health and vitality.

A Closing Challenge

In the book of Acts there are thirteen words uttered in frustrated anger from an enemy of the Gospel in Europe less than 25 years after the Ascension of Christ which I would love to hear once again - "these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also." We know who turned the "world upside down" - the people of God empowered by the Spirit of God. We know what turned the "world upside down" - the power of the Gospel. We even know how they turned the "world upside down" -- Gospel evangelism and discipleship; Gospel church planting AND church revitalization; Gospel deeds of love and mercy; and Gospel leaders multiplied and mobilized. We are not in need of new strategies we simply need to implement the Apostolic strategy to "turn the world upside down." So let's be specific. To reverse the two decade decline in the number of churches each year the evangelical church needs to do two things.

Focus upon the means of grace to produce Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, prayer-saturated Bible-shaped, Gospel-healthy churches which are on mission, message and ministry.
Every church, presbytery, association and denomination ought to be fully committed to a two-fold Gospel ministry of church planting AND church revitalization. Not to do so is to embrace continued failure. More importantly not to do so is to at best ignore Christ and His Word and at worst to disobey Christ and His Word as well as the tried and true Apostolic strategy to fulfill the Great Commission. Let's plant more by closing fewer.

So what is church revitalization and how is it done? Glad you asked. In the next blog let's examine the church revitalization roadmap revealed by Jesus for us in His sufficient Word.

Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Churchas well as a number of other published works.