For the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would try to revitalize a church. But I did and I’m glad I did. Still, when I consider that the vast majority of pastors who try either fail or lose their job, I have to wonder why they would try, or why I tried? I guess we all have a lose screw … or maybe, just maybe, God calls us to not give up on a Church, even when they don’t want help. And believe me, most members don’t want help revitalize their church, no matter how bad the situation is. So if you’re one of those folks with a lose screw like me and you want to take a stab at revitalization, read on.
Step One: Make Sure It’s a God Thing
Before you attempt to revitalize a church let me repeat – the vast majority of pastors who try it fail or lose their job. They fail for a variety of reasons: People don’t like any kind of change; the pastor isn’t totally committed; the pastor takes the wrong steps; the pastor doesn’t handle conflict well; or the pastor blinks when the bullies try to derail your attempts to revitalize the church. Any one of these five issues is reason enough for a revitalization to fail. So make sure it’s not about you, but about what God wants you to do.
So before you begin the process consider the following:
- Are you willing to deal with conflict head on? Because you have to.
- Are you prepared to lose some friends? Because you will.
- Are you willing to stay ten years? Because that’s how long it takes.
Keep in mind that in 25 years of consulting I’ve never seen a church revitalized without losing members.
Sounds sinister, doesn’t it? But let me assure you if you pull it off nothing compares to the fulfillment you’ll experience when you revitalize a dying church. So let’s take a look at how revitalization normally happens
Step Two: Cast a God-Sized vision.
People need something to believe that is stronger than what they are experiencing at the moment. I remember my first attempt at revitalization. There were thirty-seven people in worship and I cast a vision of a church of thousands of people who would change the face of San Antonio. I could see the disbelief in their eyes. I spent the next twenty minutes painting that vision for them by using Acts 1:8 which I called the Ever widening Circle. By the end of the service I could tell the vision had captivated some of them.
Step Three: Gather Your Allies and Apprentice Them
At the end of that first sermon, I issued an invitation. I told them if they resonated with God’s vision join me that night at the parsonage to talk about it. Twelve people showed up and we were on our way.
Right away I began apprenticing those who showed up. We met every Friday for about nine months and studied the Book of Acts and prayed for each other. This formed a bond that would help us survive the coming conflict. They became my support as well as a wedge between the bullies and me. Please don’t attempt to revitalize a church alone. If you can’t find a healthy remnant in the church, get out of Dodge.
So what is your vision? Craft it and start living it before you start the revitalization.
Step Four: Define the Reality
People tend to change in direct proportion to their discontent. So fan their discontent by showing them how bad it really is. Most denominational officials will tell you to spend the first few months getting to know the people and nothing else. That is the worse advice a pastor could be given. The longer you wait the less chance you have of bringing the church back to life.
In my consulting ministry, I’ve found there are three types of churches, and each one requires a different revitalization strategy. There are (1) dead, (2) almost dead, and (3) in need of a tune up type churches. Deciding where youR church falls on this continuum is one of the keys to bringing new life to your church. Let me explain.
If a church is dead, you can’t revitalize it. Can you revitalize a corpse? I don’t think so. I wrote a book a few years ago titled, The Second Resurrection, in which I said revitalization isn’t the answer to what ails many churches in the U.S. Instead, the hope for many churches in the U.S. is resurrection. By that I mean they are so dead that it will take a totally new direction and new set of leaders to bring about new life.
A church that is almost dead is harder to revitalize because the decline has been slow and steady. Like the frog in the kettle, most people know the church is smaller but they have no idea it is on its way out in a few years.
A church that is in need of fine-tuning is a piece of cake with the right pastor at the helm. Usually either the introduction of a new form or worship or the tweaking of the present worship will jump start the process.
Step Five: Reach Out to the Unchurched of the Area
Never underestimate the power of twelve committed lay people. Those twelve that met in my home that first Sunday knocked on 2000 doors over the next nine months. Our goal was to create visibility for the church and to discover a key need in the area. We accomplished both. People in the area now knew who we were and we found the key to unlocking the area – one out of six people we interviewed needed quality weekday childcare. We borrowed the money to start the preschool. When we did, over one-half of the members left the church the next month. But twenty-four years later nine hundred kids populated out weekday childcare system every day.
- Every city has a key that unlocks a way into the homes. Find it, till it, and harvest it and revitalization begins.
- Revitalization takes 70–80 percent of the pastor’s time visiting in the community and strategizing how to reach the community.
Step Six: Initiate Change
Introducing change is dependent on the type of church. The goal in any revitalization is to unfreeze and destabilize the underlying systems long enough to cause change.
In a totally dead church, everything they have been doing needs to be totally stopped because it obviously isn’t working and totally new systems need to be put in place including a new form of worship. Incremental change will not work in a dead church.
All the leadership needs to be changed including the pastor. Now take a deep breath. There are two ways to change pastors – figuratively and literally. I consulted with one church where the pastor had been there over twenty years and watched it decline all that time and the pastor had an Aldersgate experience and the next ten years the church grew like a weed.
In an almost dead church change must be incremental so that you don’t lose your church. The place you begin is with a few key leaders who understand the problem. Spend time with them helping them to see both the problems and the solutions. Then prepare them for the inevitable conflict. Use graphs and charts to show how over the past decade the church has declined and what will happen if it continues. When you are ready institute change, destabilize the systems and make changes before the bullies can respond.
In a church that is in need of fine-tuning the fastest route to revitalization is a totally new worship service designed to reach the “Nones” and “Dones,” accompanied by a strong marketing program and faith sharing training for the membership.
When Should I Start?
Every study I’ve seen on the subject of when to start revitalization says that the vast majority starts in the first year of a pastor’s tenure. The longer a pastor waits in his or her tenure the harder it will be to revitalize a church. Authentic leaders will lose confidence in you and the bullies will think they have you under their finger. And put this tidbit on your fridge – if you succeed in starting a revitalization, count on years three and four being filled with conflict unless you are blessed to be in a church that only needs fine-tuning.
So How Did My Revitalization Go Using These Steps
Twenty-four years later I left a church of over 2200 that had changed the face of San Antonio on the West side of town as well as the racial make up of the City Council. These steps worked for me and they will for you.
Great word, Bill. Sometimes the new pastor of a church that needs revitalization can being leading BEFORE he gets there! I will use this teaching in my international training in the coming year. Grateful.
Rich in clarity, thank you!