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 this was not the case. When you get “onsite” you soon gain “insight.” Church attendance had diminished from more than 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 were rapidly emptying the parking lot. The box of church attendance 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, who had gone outside to speak to the departing congregation, was 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, they looked at each other with an increasing realization of how enormous this 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, the pastor soon learned his church was excluded and designated as “cash only” due to past payment delays. The first Session meeting revealed the likelihood that of five elders, only two had a personal saving relationship with Christ. The other three, while well-meaning, did not savingly “know the Lord.” Of the two who exhibited spiritual maturity, one was transferred within three months and the other died of leukemia. The church had not met its budget in seven 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 do 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 revealed his reasoning. One pastor had been attacked publicly with a knife by his wife after she discovered his marital unfaithfulness with a church member. Another pastor had demitted the ministry due to prescription drug addiction. Yet another pastor had left the ministry because of his wife’s alcoholism. The caller declined to describe his own experience except to say, “you really don’t want to know what happened to me.” This information, along with other “horror stories,” obviously 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 had not been prepared 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 the Scripture he went. I can verify all of the above since I was this young Pastor. Only space limitation prevents an even more astounding profile. So how would God’s sufficient Word 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? Knowing 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 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 well-meaning. Second, most of the proposed remedies were “best practices” drawn from psychological, sociological and demographic analysis. Of course, all of the recommended practices were “checked out” against the Scripture to make sure that no Biblical truths were violated. Yet, very few were actually derived from 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. But, the leadership did focus on the spiritual vitality and health of the church with statistical growth recorded as a consequence of the apostolic ministry, not their objective.
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.
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. Closer examination not only verifies this observation but actually reinforces it.
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:
- Gospel evangelism and discipleship
- Gospel Church planting
- Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice
- 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, 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 is 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 – fulfilling his repeatedly stated objective “to return and strengthen the churches.”
Paul’s strategy of church revitalization is clearly not embraced by today’s denominations who for the most part leave struggling churches to fend for themselves or superintend their closing while pursuing the planting of other churches. 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.
Furthermore, my study uncovered an intriguing case study of church revitalization by focusing upon the checkered history of the Church at Ephesus. Paul, at the conclusion of his three year ministry, warned the Ephesian Church leaders that Satan would attack the flock by infiltrating the church leadership with false teachers and leaders (Acts 20:17-35). Paul’s warning went unheeded and in the coming years the church found itself in rapid decline propelled toward extinction by the prophesied false teachers and leaders. Upon Paul’s release from the first Roman imprisonment, when informed of the predicament in the Ephesian church, did not ignore the problem or leave the church to its soon demise but instead sent his best disciple/pastor,Timothy. He also gave him a handbook on church revitalization identified in the Bible as I Timothy. Interestingly, he also sends Titus on an identical ministry of church revitalization with similar instructions found in the book bearing his name. Timothy’s ministry obviously met with success as Ephesus regained its noteworthy and statistically verified effective ministry even producing multiple churches throughout Asia Minor some later numbered with the churches under the charge of the Apostle John in the book of Revelation 50+ years later. Yet, as Revelation 2:1-7 reveals, the church at Ephesus is in need of revitalization again. Our Lord informs John, by the Holy Spirit, that Ephesus still has the forms of faithfulness but is now missing the passion of its “first love.” In fact, four of the seven churches listed are in need of church revitalization. Christ, the Great Shepherd, who would leave a flock to search for one wondering sheep now shows that He will pursue a wondering flock as well.
While sitting in my study facing the challenge of a dying church, the Biblical roadmap to revitalization given by the Head of the Church Himself, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit and a pillar of the church, the Apostle John, seemed to leap off of the pages of Scripture. There in Christ’s passionate call of revitalization to the Ephesus Church, a three-fold paradigm (roadmap) for leaders is delineated.
Remember – Repent – Recover.
- Remember from where you have fallen.
- Repent of your sin.
- Recover the first things.
Interestingly, this Divinely-designed three-fold revitalization paradigm consistently reflects the Divinely-designed three-fold emphasis in the Covenant Meals of Renewal. From the Old Covenant, the Passover meal called God’s Covenant people to “remember” the Lord who delivered them from bondage, “repent” (cleaning out the leaven) and “recover” the first things by taking up their staff to follow the Lord of Glory. Likewise, the New Covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper, commands His people, “remember” our Lord’s atoning sacrifice, “repent” through self-examination and “recover” the first things through the vitality of a Gospel proclaiming life until He returns.
How does a Pastor lead a church to embrace this Biblical paradigm of church revitalization? Again, the sufficiency of God’s Word manifested itself readily. Christ who had promised – “I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” and had prescribed how He would build His church and how the leaders whom He had called could lead His church back to the foundations of Gospel health and vitality also profiled how this three-fold paradigm of “Remember, Repent and Recover the first things could be implemented.
The ten Biblical strategies employed by Paul, John, Timothy and Titus affirm how the three-fold paradigm of church revitalization was to be implemented.
Strategy #1 – Learn from the Past to live in the present and lead the change to the future.
Strategy #2 – Godly repentance modeled by leaders and penetrating the congregation. Almost always when churches are in decline there is “sin in the camp” that is being covered up that needs to be confessed up.
RECOVER THE FIRST THINGS
Strategy #3 – Christ-centered and Gospel-driven – the First of the First things (I Cor. 15:1-5)
Strategy #4 – Personal Gospel-saturated spiritual formation of the leaders and the leadership
Strategy #5 – The ministry of persistent intercessory and protracted revival prayer
Strategy #6 – The ministry of the Word preached
Strategy #7 – The Biblical mission and vision
Strategy #8 – Leadership multiplication and mobilization
Strategy #9 – Small group disciple-making
Strategy #10 – The Great Commitment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment – to live you have to give.
In summary let’s establish three church revitalization maxims distilled from God’s Word and discovered in the crucible of life while facing the leadership challenge of a dying church.
Church revitalization is not simply a good idea – it is a Biblical mandate affirmed by Christ and demonstrated by the Apostles as a ministry strategy which was used to “shake the world” with the Gospel of the Kingdom.
The evangelical has a net loss of 3500 churches in North America over the last 20+ years with 88 to 91% of the churches demonstrably in decline, stagnant or dying. While church planting is crucial to the strategy of fulfilling the Great Commission so also is church revitalization. Instead of closing more churches than we are planting why not close less which then allows us to plant more because there are more healthy churches to reproduce new ones.
The objective is not church growth. It is church health.
The church is called the Body of Christ in Scripture. To illustrate, think of your children. You know God has put within their body a DNA which determines their measured bodily growth. Your responsibility is not to alter their DNA but to lead them to health and vitality through a three-fold parental paradigm of nourishment, rest and exercise. Churches like people can become fascinated with bodily growth. Note how athletes obsessed with growth use steroids to increase their size and strength. As they inject the steroids they are ultimately injecting death. In contrast, some churches will say “no” to the church growth mantra that “big is good and small is bad” by believing the inverse, “small is good and big is bad.” When we do that with our physical bodies this results in hospitals containing entire wings caring for those who believe that smallness is desirable and consequentially are dying with eating disorders which eventually lead to their body actually eating itself to death, organ by organ. If church growth becomes the objective it will eventually leads to the pragmatic decisions of injecting “cultural steroids” into the church body. So worship becomes entertainment. Membership becomes customer service. The salvation message becomes the prosperity Gospel or the self-esteem Gospel. This will likely result in a statistical increase initially but a compromised message and methods for growth will eventually destroy the church body. Churches that react to such compromised pragmatism by taking pride in their smallness will soon turn upon themselves and be destroyed by implosion. The answer is not a church that is five miles wide and one inch deep nor a church which is one inch wide and five miles deep. The answer is a Christ-centered, Gospel-driven, Spirit-filled, Bible-shaped, God-glorifying church contextually growing five miles wide and five miles deep.
Statistical growth is a normal affirmation of the Biblical priority of spiritual vitality leading to functional effectiveness.
“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
The Spiritual vitality described as the Word of the Lord grew” leads to the functional growth of the church in worship, evangelism and discipleship which consequentially leads to statistical growth – “the numbers increased.”
The objective of the Biblical paradigm of church revitalization is simply yet profoundly a God-glorifying, Christ-centered, Holy-Spirit empowered, Gospel-driven and Bible-shaped church expanding not by a slavish faith in marketing plans but an intentional commitment to a disciplemaking spiritual fitness plan as described in the healthy vital church of Jerusalem.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any h ad need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number cay by day those who were being saved.”
Here is the profile of the Jerusalem Gospel healthy church distilled:
Worship – Our ministry of UpReach to God – praising God in the Temple
Evangelism – Our ministry of OutReach to the world – the Lord added to their number daily
Loving with purpose – Our ministry of InReach to one another – they were together, selling their property and possessions giving to any who was in need.
Learning with disciple-making – Our ministry of DownReach to ourselves – they were devoted to the Apostles teaching.
While we rightly value the highly acclaimed and pioneering ministries of church planters should we not also intentionally acclaim and equip those like Timothy, Titus and John who are called to the ministry of church revitalization which is not injecting the death of cultural steroids with a compromised message and thoughtless pragmatic methods but an intentional employment of the Christ-given church revitalization paradigm employed with the Ten Biblical Strategies that returns Gospel health and vitality to stagnant churches.
Remember – Repent – Recover the first things.