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To Die or Not to Die–That is the Question

Church Revitalization involves more than getting some new people to attend a declining congregation. It involves spiritual renewal. Spiritual renewal begins when people become passionate about God's Word; when they are burdened for those in their communities who are spiritually disconnect from God; when they manifest mutual love and care; and when they wholeheartedly commit themselves to be obedient to Christ and his commands.

When leadership merely takes an organizational approach to renewal it may gain short-term success. But if leadership desires lasting results that bring long-term health to their congregation they will require inward transformation as well as outward organization. While organizational restructuring is important and beneficial, the final determination of the church's future is always in the hands of God. Neither the congregation nor its leadership can resurrect a dying church without God’s intervention.

The task of the leadership is to carefully seek the direction and will of God, making sure they are fulfilling God's purpose for the church. Congregational renewal is not a matter of numbers and rolls; it is a matter of the heart. It is not an event, but an inward process conducted by the Holy Spirit within the life of each individual involved in the ministry of the church. The task of leadership is to develop an environment where the heart may be transformed.

While the renewal process stems from the work of the Holy Spirit within the community, God does use the church’s leadership and congregation to develop the “right setting”.

Robert Dale in his book, To Dream Again: How To Help Your Church Come Alive, presents a bell curve of a church’s history. Dale’s book helps us to understand just how a Spirit driven vision for the church is often replaced with man-made plans for its survival.

The lower left end of the bell curve represents the birth of the church. A small gathering of people had a vision and were highly motivated, energetic, and hopeful.

The incline of the bell curve represents the growth of the ministry and the growing number of people attracted to the ministry of the church. There’s excitement in the beginning about what’s happening at the new church. High expectations are clearly evident. Churches often go into debt during such growth to fund the expanding ministry. At this stage the church is vision-driven.

The church grows to a comfortable stage and then the people become content with the way things are. The main goal at this point is to maintain the church’s programs and meet the needs of the people in the church. This maintenance stance results in the church reaching a plateau. At this stage the church is usually program-driven.

When churches start to decline, vitality, hope and enthusiasm are in short supply. The goal now becomes survival. In the survival mode there is a yearning for “the good old days” which Dale describes as nostalgia. People yearn for the days when the sanctuary was once full, and the ministry was growing. A desperate desire for new members now exists. But new people aren’t being attracted to a church where they sense the only reason they are wanted is to increase the membership count, meet the budget and fill positions on boards.

Corporate questioning now begins. What is the church going to do to stay alive? The church in decline will often tinker with its structure, including its by-laws or constitution, thinking that surely this is the problem. (Have you ever heard of a person being attracted to a church because, “Hey, they’ve made some constitutional changes over at “First Church”? If there’s an endowment fund the church becomes dependent on it to meet the budget and the life support carries on for a little while longer. This means months and maybe years of more maintenance.

Finally, the church begins to polarize leading to people dropping out or continuing in a so-called living death. The church is usually beyond resuscitating at this point.

In order to revitalize a church, there needs to be a realistic assessment of where the church is on Dale’s bell curve.

Denial is often the first hurdle that churches need to overcome. When people are saying, “Everything is OK,” there’s a problem with denial. The congregation may be working very hard on their programs, which gives them a sense of normalcy, but the church can be slowly dying. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said to the church in Sardis, in Revelation 3:1, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead”. This church had a higher opinion of themselves and their health then the Lord himself.

If a church is be revitalized it will need to make changes. Here are some decisions a church needs to make:

1. Focus on Prayer.

Since the foundation of revitalizing a church is spiritual rather than organizational, prayer becomes the cornerstone for action. No amount of programming can be a substitute for a praying church. In Acts 4:31, we read, “After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.” Prayer “shakes” things up and gives people boldness for God.

2. Refocus Upon the Nature and Activity of God.

As people set about the process of renewal, they need to be reminded of God's inexhaustible empowerment. They need to be able to view the church and its ministry as God's work through them rather than their work for God. God does not need us to accomplish his ministry, but he does desire to use us for his ministry. It is important for A church that wants renewal to get this worked out and prioritized.

3. Identify and correct any cause of decline.

When a specific reason is identified for decline, and if that reason is within the control of the congregation, then steps should be taken to correct the problem. Some of the causes of the decline reside outside the control of the church (i.e. declining population within the community). The church needs to develop creative strategies to address their limitations. The church can address such things as the loss of evangelistic vision or any conflicts within the church. If a church attempts to bring renewal without addressing these issues, then their future success will be thwarted by the past mistakes of the congregation.

Perhaps the most critical is sinful behavior that hinders the effectiveness and growth of the congregation. The story of Achan in Joshua 7 illustrates that the actions of one can have an adverse effect upon the whole community. When this happens, the whole community must address the issue (see Matthew 18:15-17). Controlling people who want their way all the time are selfish people. Deal with the problem or everyone will suffer.

4. Decide to move beyond “playing church”.

Revitalized churches have a strong dissatisfaction with things being the way they are. Traditions cannot be considered so holy that they can’t be changed. This is especially true if they no longer meet the needs of people the church wants to attract. Can you put to death your desire to always want things your way. Jesus said in Mark 7:9, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions”! That wasn’t a commendation, it was a stern rebuke.

5. Decide to embrace the Great Commission as the core mission of the church:

A lot of churches craft very fancy mission statements. But, if they don’t contain the Great Commission, they are woefully misguided. Jesus gave the church its mission when he said, “Therefore, go and make disciples …” (Matthew 28:19). Churches need to see themselves as missional stations carrying out the Great Commission in their communities and nothing less.

6. Decide to return to and revisit the church’s original vision and mission.

Review the church’s covenant. Why was this church founded? Now ask why was it really founded? Check the church’s history well. Is the church really doing what it covenanted to do? Does the church still have that passion? Or does it perpetuate the attitudes and sins of the church’s founders? Many times, churches were started because of actions and attitudes like selfishness and rebellion or pride and arrogance? Does the church need to repent of unholy foundations that were established?

Develop a clear vision for the church long before the church actually dies. Churches do not close their doors because of a lack of finances or people, but because they no longer see what God desires to accomplish through them.

Dying churches can easily become inward focused. When renewing the ministry of a dying church, the church must develop a church-planting mentality rather than a survivalist mentality. Church planters are willing to risk the present to build the future, while survivalists risk the future to maintain the present. Survivalists try to resurrect the past; church planters try to build toward the future by ministering to the needs of the people within the community.

7. Decide to unleash the laity.

Scale down on the organizational stuff. Instead of asking, “What committee do you serve on?” We should be asking, “What ministry are you doing?” Committees are good at sitting around and taking notes and votes. People involved in ministries get the real work done. We need to get more people involved in “hands on” ministry instead of tying up so many of our people and so much of their time by serving on committees and boards.

8. Reorganize to adapt a simplified organizational structure.

When a church has declined from a larger church to a smaller congregation it can mistakenly maintain the past organizational structure. This hinders the ministry as people spend their time keeping the structure running rather than spending time reaching their neighbors and ministering to people in the community. A good book to read on how to do this is called, Simple Church.

9. Develop a strategy for becoming visible within the community.

People in the community need to be aware of what the church is doing, and the new ministries being planned. Send letters to people inviting them to come and see the church’s new beginning. Plan special events that engage the local community. Invite people to these special events in order for them to gain a fresh look at the church and see what is going on.

10. Decide that your legacy and the church’s is not about leaving bricks and mortar for generations to come but about influencing your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren for God.

Church revitalization is all about people being spiritually revived. Get revived, your church will love you for it.

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