I’m a church planter. Having planted two successful churches, my heart is to see more church plants launch and do well. I think once church planting gets “in your blood,” it’s always there.
A couple of years ago, however, God called me into an established church in need of some revitalization. (Actually, my first church was a revitalization church.) It’s been an incredible couple of years. God has blessed us in so many ways. It’s harder than church planting—just being honest—but it’s very rewarding in so many ways.
I’ve encouraged numerous young leaders to not ignore the opportunities in church revitalization. As much as we need new plants, we need to revive some existing churches—a lot of existing churches.
The work of revitalization is similar to church planting. We are starting some things new. We are building momentum around a vision. We are constantly looking for new leaders. But it’s also incredibly different. There are unique challenges in church revitalization. As I’m learning things, I’m trying to pass them along.
Here are seven words of encouragement in church revitalization:
1. Don’t high-jack the church.
You can change a church where it can experience growth again without taking away the DNA of the church. That means you may not be able to make every change you want to make. It may mean you move slower than you want to at times. But the general culture of the church—at least the one that has lasted for generations—should not be on the table. Now here’s the if—and this is the big if—if the culture or DNA (or part of that culture) is one that is destructive to the future vitality of the church, then it needs to be changed. If the church is opposed to any change, it chews up and spits out pastors, it’s structure is so archaic that it just doesn’t work anymore—change it. But if it’s just a flavor of who the people are—it is probably best to leave it alone. For example, if it’s a church that has a history of loving big events, don’t kill all of them—find a way to make them work for Kingdom growth.
2. It will take longer than you think it will.
To them it’s like rocket pace, and to you it feels like snail pace. In church planting, you can change in a week. That’s usually not the case in revitalization. Take time to bring people along that have invested years in building the church. Over time, when trust is developed, it will get easier, and you’ll be able to move quicker.
3. Celebrate the history while shaping the future.
Don’t pretend that everything old is bad. It’s not. It’s what has helped the church survive as long as it has. It may not be working as well right now, and there will likely need to be changes, but some of the old things were and are good things in principle. Recognize that, acknowledge it, and people will be more likely to at least appease good changes.
4. Recognize the sense of loss in change.
It’s the number one reason change is resisted. (I wrote a whole post on this subject.) Don’t ignore or underestimate how big of a deal change is to some people. Be humble. Considerate. Compassionate. That doesn’t mean don’t change. It does mean don’t change assuming it’s “no big deal.” It is.
5. Love the people even when you don’t love everything about the church.
You may not like some of the structure of the church or the process you have to go through to make change. But you must love the people. And loving the people will help you lead the transitions you need to make. Years ago, God convicted me that if I focus most on loving Him, that loving people in any church, any city or any setting will be easy for me.
6. Don’t let a few critics determine your self-worth.
You’ll have critics. Make no mistake about it. And some aren’t very nice in how they offer it. You will have to make hard decisions. Very hard decisions. (Don’t make them without input, but make them.) But you will be making changes that impact people (as all changes do)—people who have been at the church for years. You may know the changes are needed. They even may know the changes are needed. But there will be resistance. And there will be angry people. And when people are angry, they say and do things they may not do otherwise. But here’s what you need to know. If God called you to it, you can be assured there are usually more supporters than detractors. The detractors just often have stronger vocal chords.
7. Rediscover more than you reinvent.
You may need a lot of changes to be vibrant again. Most likely, however, in spite of where they are today, the church has some positive moments in their history. If not, maybe it’s time to close some doors and redistribute the Kingdom dollars elsewhere. (How’s that for honesty?) But I’ve found most churches have had better days. Help the church rediscover the heartbeat of the times people loved—when things were healthy, lives were changing and Kingdom growth was occurring. Build momentum as you celebrate the emotions and the passions from the good days of their heritage. Lead people to rediscover that joy they once had for the mission.
Those are just a few things for now. I’ll share more as I learn more.