3 Lessons I’ve Learned from the Reformation

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door and, as they say, the rest is history. That act ignited what may be the most revolutionary movement in the history of Christianity since Pentecost.

In 2017 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this landscape-changing event. But to be a kingdom people Christians cannot and must not live in the past, lest we become a museum. Still, we should learn from the past to live effectively in the present and impact the future. We move forward by first going backward. That’s why God called the Israelites to raise an Ebenezer—a stone of remembrance—and to recount to their kids all his marvelous acts.

When we know what God has done and why, we can celebrate those great acts in worship and learn to implement biblical principles in our commitment to expand Christ’s kingdom to all nations.

Over the years I have been privileged to lead a number of Reformation tours, taking fellow believers to sites in Europe where God brought about one of the most profound revivals in church history. Along the way, I’ve learned some helpful insights. Here are three, each with a “life takeaway”:

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1.The Reformation was the result of divinely called, equipped, empowered, and sent leaders.

The Reformation evoked a gospel awakening that spread through Europe and overflowed to North Africa, South America, and beyond. It was heaven-sent through the ministry of prayer and the Word from a Spirit-revived and Bible-renovated church.

Without a doubt, the Reformation came from the Lord through imperfect but impassioned leaders marked by courage and compassion. The simple fact affirmed in both Scripture and history is that when God sovereignly moves, he raises up and sends out leaders with a calling that becomes their relentless passion.

Life Takeaway: We need to pray for and intentionally cultivate godly leaders in the church, for the church, and from the church into the world.

2. When God calls, equips, and sends movement leaders, he calls, equips, and sends other leaders alongside them, creating a team of leaders.

This is not an exhaustive analysis, but in following the steps of the Magisterial Reformation, history confirmed what I had always believed: To ensure the Reformers’ perseverance, effectiveness, and maturity, God called and deployed other leaders to work in tandem. This was true of Luther in Wittenberg, Bucer in Strasbourg, Zwingli in Zurich, Calvin in Geneva, and Knox in Edinburgh.

I praise God for Luther, but I also praise God for Melanchthon, who complemented and enhanced Luther personally and ministerially. God gave us Zwingli, and he gave Zwingli the indefatigable Bullinger. He gave us Bucer, but he gave Calvin to Bucer at the right time and for the right season. He sent Calvin back to Geneva, the citadel of the Reformation, and gave him Theodore Beza. From the womb of Geneva and the mentorship of Calvin, he gave us John Knox. And he gave to Knox the ever-faithful Christopher Goodman.

The magisterial Reformers were magisterial because the hand of God’s providence was manifest in multiple ways and for multiple reasons. One of those ways was the gift of competent leaders to complement them personally and ministerially.

These Reformers were leaders with unbelievable passions, gifts, and devotion, but magisterial gifts and strengths inevitably come mixed with significant weaknesses and blind spots. God addresses these shortcomings by providing leadership plurality, resulting in a team of leaders who not only exercise complementary gifts but also forge relationships of personal accountability.

Life Takeaway: Effective leaders reject solo leadership for the sake of increased effectiveness and accountability. They also reject leadership teams that ultimately serve the primary leader. Instead, they developed “teams of leaders” which the primary leaders serve in order to multiply, mobilize, and motivate leaders in the church and from the church into the world.

3. Christian education is a priority that will bless both church and community.

In my study of the American colonial period I was struck by the consistent action of the colonists: on arrival they immediately built a church—a place for worship and thanksgiving. Then they built a home that would initially be sufficient for the bare necessities of family life. Then, before establishing a reliable community infrastructure or reliable food supply, they built a school. Not only did the school educate church members, it also provided an initiative to educate the entire community.

It struck me that 17th-century colonists were doing what the 16th-century Reformers did while in exile. The Reformers established a robust gospel church for worship and discipleship as the first priority, one matched only by the need for a family home. Then Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and Knox established schools to educate both the covenant community and also the general population.

They were committed to carrying out both the Great Commission (“teaching them to observe all I have commanded you”) and to the Great Commandment (“to love the Lord with all their mind . . . and to love their neighbors”) by providing public education from the church to the community. They launched a school to train leaders for the church and the family, and also to prepare leaders from the family and church to serve the community.

Life Takeaway: Christian education is not just a parental commitment to our children, it’s also a gracious gift from the church to benefit the community. It should be designed to educate the public in general and mentor civic leaders as well from a biblical worldview.

Toward a New Reformation 

These insights are selective but by no means exhaustive of the many valuable lessons embedded in the Reformation. In many ways the cultural climate for today’s gospel ministry is similar to that era, revealing the need for another gospel awakening.

National gospel awakenings only come through robust God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, prayer-empowered, and gospel-saturated churches. This needed revival awaits a reformation among pastors—one that will provide the church with ministers committed to the mission, message, and means of ministry prayerfully focused on God’s unstoppable Word.

As written for The Gospel Coalition and published originally on May 12, 2016

INEVITABLE SIDE EFFECTS OF A CHURCH GROWTH MINISTRY MODEL

athletesSome athletes, fascinated with body growth, employ “biological steroid enhancement.” Why? Because they know that it works…at least for a while. They will get bigger, stronger and faster…for a while. But soon they discover injected steroids also bring the side effects inevitably leading to death. Interestingly, the Church is called “the body of Christ” in Scripture. When a church becomes preoccupied with “body growth” it becomes susceptible to a temptation to employ “cultural steroid enhancement.” But the inevitable side effects are soon manifested- worship becomes entertainment, discipleship becomes therapy, evangelism becomes self-esteem and the Gospel becomes a self-help prosperity message. Like biological steroids, cultural steroids work—for a while. The church grows numerically and is applauded culturally while dying spiritually.

Though not growing statistically at the rate that it did in previous years, the numerical size of the professing evangelical church in the USA is significant. However, the waning witness of the contemporary church is painfully obvious. The documented decline of personal evangelism, life-changing discipleship and cultural influence reveals a spiritually impotent and Biblically illiterate church. So why is the church corporately—and professing Christians individually—failing in the God-given mission to be “salt and light”? Let me propose one reason with seven consequences and conclude with a single analysis.

THE REASON

For 40+ years the evangelical church in the USA has fully embraced the presuppositions of the “church growth” philosophy and dutifully implemented and mainstreamed its mandated practices in life and ministry. On the one hand, this has resulted in a glamorized, marketed yet culturally tamed church that is five miles wide and one inch deep. On the other hand, it has resulted in an inevitable reactionary, critical and cynical church that is at best one inch wide while claiming to be five miles deep. In addition to offering a multitude of unfulfilled promises, there are multiple observable consequences of this ministry model. Here are seven inevitable side effects of the “church growth” model that has infected the contemporary evangelical church in America:

THE SEVEN CONSEQUENCES

    young-people-sitting-movie-theater-auditorium-watching-33785779 1.  Program and personality dependency in place of persistent intercessory prayer. Instead of programs designed to facilitate church growth, there is an insatiable search for programs promising to create church growth. The absence of persistent and protracted prayer in dependence upon God is the casualty.

     2.   Celebrity pastors with self-esteem therapy and/or success in life crowd-attracting “talks” in place of celebrated Biblical expository equipping and evangelistic preaching. In his 2011 Themelios article, “A Preacher’s Dialogue,” Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

 “As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow they have not first invaded and gripped them.”

     3.  Missional drift from “Making Disciples.” Personal evangelism is now replaced by event evangelism where there is a lot of event but little evangelism. Small group life on life transformational disciple making is lost to crowd attracting, life success and self-esteem therapy support groups.

4.   The disastrous novelty of our (at best misguided and, at worst, arrogant) efforts to “re-invent or re-engineer” Christ’s “prevailing” Church that transcends all ages and cultures. While it is true that the Church must be contextualized into every situation, location and generation, it does not need to be reinvented. Whether Kansas or Kenya, 800 or 2100 AD, the Church rightly contextualized is singular in its Christ-designed and Biblically revealed mission, message, ministries and means. Christ called us to pray for laborers not architects.

5.   The gravitas and density of the Lord’s Day “gathered” worship of the Triune God of Glory in “spirit and truth” has been exchanged for choreographed superficial entertainment events. Such events are designed to attract and manipulate the emotionally empty men and women of our age while promising to fulfill their self-assessed religious needs and preferences. Seeking to please the attending “worshipper” now supplants the true objective of Biblical worship—the adoration of the Triune God of Glory as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. One devastating result is the loss of the majesty of God that forfeits the blessing of God-centered “scattered” worship where God’s people present themselves as “living sacrifices” in all of life to the glory of God. What is lost is Trinitarian worship “in spirit and truth” by true worshippers in “gathered” worship which sets the thermostat of lifestyle “scattered” worship by which God is glorified “in whatsoever we do.”

biblical-road-map6.   The church, as an outpost of the Kingdom of God, inexplicably effective because of the presence and power of God has been refabricated into another “business enterprise.” This, in turn, has rendered the church as one more institution shaped by the culture in the name of relevance. Godly pastor-teachers are no longer sought to lead Christ’s church. In their place the church now seeks CEO’s profiled by personality evaluation instruments guaranteed to produce statistical growth, instead of God-gifted pastor-teachers who are marked by Gospel holiness.

7.   The essential commitment to Holy Spirit-empowered and Biblically defined contextualization is now perverted. Rightly understood, contextualization is the necessary effort to speak to the culture in terms that the culture can understand and to the issues it needs to hear. True contextualization has been exchanged for cultural accommodation where the church speaks only on the terms the culture affirms and the issues it allows. This is profoundly obvious as today’s church—in the name of “social justice”—rightly addresses issues that the culture applauds (e.g. sex trafficking, misogyny, racism). Yet the same church is conspicuously silent on the blasphemous issues the culture promotes, namely, sexual perversion and promiscuity, gender autonomy, marital and familial anarchy and the industries of death through abortion, infanticide and assisted suicide.

AN ANALYSIS

Let’s be clear. The Bible in general and the book of Acts in particular records and affirms the expected and desired dynamic of statistical growth in and through Gospel healthy churches… and so do we. But whenever statistical growth becomes the focused objective of a church’s ministry (instead of a valued consequence of its ministry), it is simply a matter of time until church leaders exchange Biblically defined principled faithfulness for worldly defined pragmatic success. The former brings the applause of heaven. The latter is always numerically measured and prized thinking it will bring the applause and approval of the culture.

In other words, if the world’s metrics become the ministry objective then the Biblical message we proclaim, the Biblical means we are to employ and the Biblical mission we are to engage will inevitably be compromised to gain what the culture accepts, applauds and attends. Church growth is a wonderful blessing from God but it cannot become our god. Rather, God-exalting faithfulness is the Biblical metric of divinely defined success.

church-revitalizationThat metric is not the applause of the world leading to a Biblically illiterate and spiritually impotent Body of Christ but the applause of heaven. An applause that joyfully echoes into eternity whenever the lost are found, sinners saved and discipled throughout the world by a Gospel-healthy Body of Christ built up, equipped and growing by staying on mission, on message and in ministry.

                                                                          

 

 

THE ADVENT SEASON IS NOT JUST CHRISTMAS

THE ADVENT SEASON IS NOT JUST CHRISTMAS

The Advent is a work of God’s grace whereby God Himself has come to us, to be among us and become one of us in order to save us from our sins and will come again for us to be with us forever.

Early in my pastoral ministry a thoughtful young man came with an interesting question while our congregation was in the midst of celebrating the Advent season. The question arose from a hymn sung during a Lord’s Day worship service. The hymn was the Isaac Watts classic “Joy to the World.” The question was, “Pastor, why are we singing a hymn during Christmas containing lyrics that refer to the 2nd coming of Christ?” My pastoral response was twofold.

First, together we examined the hymn. It soon became obvious the hymn actually contained lyrics that referred to both the 1st Advent (i.e. His Incarnation and Birth) and lyrics to the 2nd Advent (His Second Coming). Furthermore, the hymn, verse by verse, traces the triumph of Christ as the Redeemer of His people from His 1st Advent to His 2nd Advent.

Secondly, we noted there are multiple hymns sung during the Advent season which exalt the Lord for His redeeming work in both the 1st and 2nd Advents. Then, it was my turn to ask a question. “Why do you think so many Advent hymns sung at “Christmas” extol both Advents of Christ?” The answer though simple has been lost to many. But, if recaptured can lead us to a profound blessing.

The reason so many hymns and confessions associated with the Christmas celebrations reference both the 1st and 2nd Advents is because the early church intentionally designed the Advent Season to celebrate both the 1st and 2nd Advents of Christ. Why?

The Old Testament, through types, symbols, prophecies and Christophanies (pre-incarnate appearances of Christ) anticipated the coming of the Messiah – the Promised One – in whom “all of the Promises of God are yes and amen.” Those Messianic prophetic Promises can be summed up with two specific Promises.

  • The first Promise was that the Messiah would “save His people from all of their sins” and deliver them from all of His and their enemies.
  • The second Promise was that the Messiah would not only defeat these enemies but would ultimately destroy them and deliver His people into a glorious forever Kingdom.

But when the Messiah came into the world to fulfill God’s promises He revealed a surprising yet Biblically consistent truth. The Epiphany of the Messiah was not one Advent to accomplish two Divine Promises but two Advents, each one designed to accomplish one of the two Promises.

The 1st Advent or the Incarnation when the Son of God humbled Himself by taking upon Himself true humanity through the prophesied Virgin conception/birth was designed to fulfill the first Promise that God would “save His people from their sins” and defeat all of His and their enemies. The second Promise that He would receive His people to Himself and destroy  His  defeated enemies in His 1st Advent would be fulfilled by a 2nd Advent when He would “come again” in that same incarnate body now resurrected and transformed for all eternity – Two Epiphanies – Two Advents.

For the grace of God has “appeared” (epiphanos – 1st Advent) bringing salvation to all men; disciplining us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age; looking for the blessed hope and “appearance” (epiphanos – 2nd Advent) of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession zealous for good deeds. Titus 2:11-14

Gradually for multiple reasons the Advent season initiated by the celebration of His 1st Advent – Christmas – when He was born “to save His people from their sins” and to defeat His and our enemies at the Cross, became the singular focus of the Advent season. One reason is that the 1st Advent is the occasion of His humiliation which was accomplished, not by the subtraction of His deity but, by the addition of His humanity. Another reason is that the 1st Advent celebrates His Incarnation, a necessary act of God to save sinners – “by a man came death, by a man comes the resurrection of the dead.” Yet another reason is that the triumph of the 1st Advent assures the 2nd Advent and the 2nd Advent consummates the victory of the 1st Advent. A final reason is the 1st Advent is a fact of history while the 2nd Advent is a prophetic promise which makes it  pre-written history.

But pastorally, while not being enslaved or conscience-bound to observe a church calendar, I would suggest that if we intentionally returned to the historic emphasis of the Advent season which intentionally celebrates the 1st Advent while also anticipating the 2nd Advent we could add a theological focus which would enhance our pastoral ministries of both celebration/worship and discipleship/equipping. So, here is a pastoral recommendation.

START RECLAIMING THE VIBRANCY OF THE ADVENT SEASON FROM SECULARIZATION BY ENHANCING OUR COMMITMENT TO THE GREAT COMMISSION OF MAKING DISCIPLES THROUGH EMPHASIZING THE INSEPARABLE DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP OF BOTH ADVENTS OF CHRIST.

In a word, let’s return to the historic objective of using the Advent season to affirm both the victory of Christ in His 1st Advent and our longing for the consummation of His victory in the 2nd Advent. In so doing we would not only minister to a heart-felt need in the lives of God’s people we would also more effectively disciple God’s people and more effectively proclaim the Gospel of Hope to the world.

The Advent season, historically, was designed to minister to the grace-implanted and grace-nurtured heart of every Christian. A heart which both “rests” in the joy of our Savior’s victorious 1st Advent and yet a heart which is also “restless” in the anticipation of our Savior’s 2nd Advent to receive us to Himself that we might be with Him in a New Heavens and a New Earth forever.

I go away to prepare a place for you and if I go away to prepare a place of you I will come again so that where I am there you may be also… Even so come quickly Lord Jesus.”

CHURCH REVITALIZATION-Pt.2

The Christ-designed Biblical Roadmap to Church Revitalization!Paul2

The last post was an attempt to document three Biblical axioms concerning the ministry of church revitalization. Briefly let’s review them.

  1. Church revitalization was an Apostolic ministry strategy initiated by the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-16:35). Then it was not only affirmed but also defined by the Ascended Christ as He addressed the Seven Churches in Revelation chapter two.
  2. The objective in church planting and church revitalization is not church growth, which inevitably leads to mission and message drift, but church health and vitality.
  3. Every local church, presbytery, and denomination ought to implement the Apostolic strategy which “turned the world upside down” as they sought to fulfill the Great Commission. This strategy was repeated in city after city as they extended the Kingdom of Christ through four Gospel ministry initiatives…

    #1. Evangelism and Discipleship

     #2. Church Planting and Church Revitalization

      #3. Deeds of love and mercy

      #4. Leadership multiplication and mobilization

    Since church revitalization and church planting are Apostolic strategies designed to fulfill the Great Commission after the Ascension of Christ and the blessing of Pentecost are revealed in God’s Word, the information as to how they are to be implemented will be found in the same place. Not only is a Gospel-driven, Spirit-empowered and Christ-exalting ministry of church revitalization found in the Word of God, even more impressive if possible, is the fact that Christ Himself reveals the three step church revitalization roadmap. Where? Revelation 2:1-7

 REMEMBER – REPENT – RECOVER

 The book of Revelation is addressed in the immediate to seven churches. The first church mentioned is the Church of Ephesus that was likely the mother church of the other six, all of which would be located on a major trade route into Asia Minor. Unsurprisingly the same heart of the Great Shepherd who would leave the 99 to pursue one sheep who wandered from the flock is displayed as he pursues four wandering flocks of the seven churches who were in need of revitalization. He does not “write them off”, nor ignore them, nor does He simply focus on planting another church. What He does do is call them back to Gospel health and vitality and even identifies what the leadership of the church must do to implement a ministry of revitalization. He begins with the church at Ephesus. It is there that He reveals a three-step roadmap to implement the ministry of Gospel revitalization. So where does He reveal it?

After identifying the commendable traits still resident in the life and ministry of the Church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-3, Christ incisively addresses the reason of their spiritual impotence in verse 4 – “you have left your first love.” After His diagnosis in verses 5-7, He gives the solution and then the stark prognosis if the solution is neglected – “I will come and remove the lampstand from you.” So what is the solution for the revitalization of the church at Ephesus so that they are once again a “first love” church? Christ’s answer is – “Remember, Repent and Recover the deeds you did at first.” Simply but profoundly the Savior “who purchased the church with His own blood” outlines the road map to spiritual health and Gospel vitality to produce a church that once again would be able to say “the love of Christ compels us.” So just how do you implement the revitalization roadmap “Remember, Repent and Recover”? The implementation answer is found not in Revelation 2 but in the Epistles of Paul in general and I Timothy and Titus in particular.

The fact is this was not the first time that the church at Ephesus was in need of a ministry of revitalization. At the conclusion of Paul’s 3 year ministry he warned the elders of Ephesus in his farewell sermon (Acts 20) that Satan would attack the church by infiltrating the leadership with false leaders and false teachers. The leadership did not heed the warnings of Paul. The result was that when Paul who had spent years incarcerated first in Jerusalem, then Caeserea Maritima and ultimately in Rome, was released, he was informed of their decline. Paul like Christ does not “write them off”, nor does he simply ignore their plight and plant another church. What he does do is send them his best disciple – Timothy – with a handbook on Church revitalization – I Timothy. By the way he also gives another handbook on revitalization to Titus – note the overlap of content within I Timothy and Titus – who was also sent on a mission of church revitalization to Crete with instructions “to set in order what remains.”

Obviously the Lord blessed Timothy’s ministry since the church was still viable five decades later as they receive another epistle – Revelation. But now they are in need of another ministry of revitalization – this time under the leadership of the Apostle John. So how does a church follow the three-step roadmap of “Remember, Repent and Recover the first things”? The answer is found in the Epistles of Paul, who had revitalized churches and who mentored both revitalization pastors Timothy and Titus. It is there that the ten strategies to implement the three-step roadmap of Remember, Repent and Recover are found.

 THE TEN STRATEGIES                                     briarwood facade_web

 REMEMBER

Strategy #1 – Connect to the past.

Learn from the Past – to live in the Present – to change the Future

REPENT

Strategy #2 – Godly Repentance

If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9

 RECOVER THE FIRST THINGS

Strategy #3 – Recover: Gospel-Driven and Christ-centered Ministry

The Gospel is the foundation, the formation and the motivation of a “first-love” Church where the Christ is the sum, the circumference, the substance and the center of all things.

 Strategy #4 – Recover: Personal Spiritual Formation

Gospel healthy leaders influence others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.

 Strategies #5&6 – Recover: The Ministry of Prayer and the Word

The Ministry of Prayer and the Word are the essential lifelines of Gospel health and vitality.

 Strategy #7 – Recover: Mission and Vision

Mission is what God’s people are called to do while Vision is what they are to be as they fulfill the mission by the grace of God to the Glory of God.

Strategy #8 – Recover: Leadership Multiplication and Mobilization

A Gospel healthy church defines leaders, develops leaders and deploys leaders for the church and from the church into the world.

 Strategy #9 – Recover: Small Group Discipleship.

A knowing and growing fellowship intentionally implements relational and informational small group disciple-making.

 Strategy #10 – Recover: The Great Commitment

To live you have to give, therefore, the giving church is the living church.

 ON MESSAGE – ON MISSION – IN MINISTRY

CHURCH REVITALIZATION

Effective Strategy? Biblical Mandate? Both!

In 1980 a young Pastor fresh from seminary arrived at his first pastorate encountering startling realities. Although thinking he was fully aware of the issues at hand, he soon learned how wrongly informed he was. When you get “onsite” you soon gain “insight.” Church attendance had diminished from over 1000 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. They were rapidly emptying the parking lot. The box of church attendance for that 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. The pastor had gone outside to try and speak to the departing congregation before they left 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, along with his wife’s belongings, the pastor and his wife looked at each other with the a sudden realization of just how enormous this pastoral challenge would be. But, there was more to come.briarwood facade_web

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 who exhibited the most 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 begin 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 pervasive 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. Even the Presbytery counseled us to sell the property and use the proceeds to plant another church. Yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The daily vandalization of the church revealed two factors. One, the neighborhood viewed the church as a derelict unused building. Two, the neighborhood knew of its presence. Could this church be revitalized?  I knew that revival is God’s work and I could preach and pray for revival but only the Lord could bring one. I also found a Biblical pathway to lead a church back to spiritual vitality? Let me explain.

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. 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, very few were actually derived from the Scripture. They were commended on the assurance that they would produce “statistical church growth.” That 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 Divinely-called and equipped leaders.Apostle Paul

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 epicenter at Ephesus in Asia Minor (Acts 13-28). At each step of the ever-expanding Kingdom through vibrant and healthy churches, statistical growth was the result of Gospel vitality furthered through the effective ministry of Gospel-healthy leaders.

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 (if prohibited they would leave behind leaders from their team knowing the importance of leadership for 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 suggests to Barnabas that they take a second missionary journey. The narrative then records their “sharp disagreement” as to whether John Mark should go with 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 departing upon his second missionary journey.

Interestingly, Paul, on this extraordinary initiative, not only repeated the four-fold strategy of expanding the Gospel of the Kingdom but he intentionally added another – 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.

Interestingly while Paul’s strategy of church planting has been received and embraced with passion and energy his stated 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 as I encountered they are encouraged to close the church while the denomination energetically pursues planting of churches. But Paul, in contrast, intentionally and strategically sought to “strengthen the churches” who were stalled, plateaued or declining by leading them to spiritual health and vitality.Paul2

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 revitalization; Gospel deeds of love and mercy; 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 of the number of churches each year the evangelical church needs to do two things

  1. 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.
  2. Every church, presbytery, association and denomination ought to be fully committed to a two-fold Gospel ministry of church planting AND revitalization. Not to do so is to embrace continued failure and 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.

So Biblically what is church revitalization and how is it done? Glad you asked. In the next blog Jesus, who purchased the church with His own blood and is unalterably committed to church revitalization will reveal His church revitalization paradigm to us from God’s sufficient Word.EMBERS BIRMINGHAM 2015 (2)_Page_1