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.
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.
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:
- 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 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.
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
- 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 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.