Help Understanding Revitalization (Part 2 of No Cookie Cutter Way)
What is Revitalization?
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” - Ezekiel 36:26 ESV
I believe this verse should ring true at the heart of revitalization. Sure, there are other verses we can use. In his 2015 book, Can These Bones Live, Bill Henard used most of Ezekiel 37 to build his thesis for the book. Bible verses will all be used repeatedly when we look at books and writings on revitalization. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” Ecclesiastes 1:9 NLT
Church revitalization is at its heart, pun intended, about changing hearts. Many people decided on Jesus but haven’t made him the Lord and Savior of their lives. Sure, they have gone through the motions and done a few things, but it becomes a thing of “what can Jesus do for me?” rather than “What can I do for Jesus?” In other words, there is a solid inward focus rather than the outward focus Jesus commands us to work on in his commands. They have never grown to chew on the spiritual meat, and how they follow and do things proves that they need something, but not what they want.
What happens can be seen by looking at what I consider the three types of churches that exist and the pros and cons. I see things in three pathways for revitalization and three types of churches:
1. Established Churches – these are the churches with a history of 30 years or more and have an account within the community that even if the people are not Christians, they know the reputation and feel a kinship or something with them because of what they mean to the community. They have a set of programs that accomplishes what needs to be done, some in healthy ways, some that turn the church into a revitalization. Pros: They, for the most part, own their property if they are not building a new campus. Because of this, they have more money to do ministry in the community and abroad. Established structures for onboarding newcomers and a rotation of volunteers that helps people keep things fresh and free from burnout. Cons: many inward-focused activities must be held in a constant state of checks and balances so as not to begin the slide towards needing revitalization. Pastors with long tenure, while a good thing, the next pastor will most likely have a short term or become the “unintentional interim.” Health and “success” can become a distraction from doing and continuing the mission they are called to do.
2. Church Plants – these are the churches needed in areas to reach new generations or forgotten/neglected people groups. Sometimes, these can be people of a specific ethnicity or a niche group such as college or veteran/active service groups with consistent rotation and reach probability. Pros: The planting pastor can cast a vision to people he is in contact with to create a church without the weight of history and established bylaws on his back, as we would see with the other two types of churches. Networks for support and encouragement are essential and something that the other two groups cannot. Cons: Needing to raise support. While a network can give moral and financial support for many of these while initial amounts come from networks, it is a consistent thing for the pastor to raise it himself from individual churches. The pastor may have to travel to those churches and give a report once a year, which can add to his burden. Also, finding a home for the church is now becoming a concern. In many areas of the country, too many churches popped up, causing local governments to limit the amount of non-profit space. In Massachusetts, where I live, you can find a Dollar Tree, bar, museum, or even condos in old church buildings. A 2016 law made it, so church buildings have to remain just that. The law was made to no longer take taxable space from the government. On a recent Revitalize and Replant, Kevin Ezell, the president of the North American Missions Board, mentioned he sees this need in the Northeast region of the United States. In the next five years, the North American Missions Board and other church planting organizations will have to rethink how they are doing church planting. Ezell applauded one dual-aligned SBC church in Boston for giving their 8-million-dollar property to the church plant next door that was thriving and in need of a permanent home earlier this year. I’ll touch on this later in this blog.
3. Church Revitalizations – These churches have seen a steady or steep decline in attendance for many reasons, including people not being vested in the church’s mission and vision. With a solid inward focus and thus the church is more of a country club and no longer a missional organization. Or, in lesser but strongly argued points, church plants or mega-churches have sprouted nearby, taking their people. I have my view on this that we will discuss in another post. Pros: Like the established churches, they mostly own their property, so there is no mortgage. People know of them, both for good and bad, and that ties into having an established history in their area. Cons: in 90% of cases, the location and people may view them as closed. The thinking can be hard to beat without finances to combat the issue. Sin in the camp, in many cases, there is a sin that has so profoundly stained that even asking for forgiveness, God may still want the church to close. I mentioned Country Club before, and I mean that the members, no matter how a pastor reaches out to them, cannot see things done any other way. They pay their dues (tithes) and want to see it continue under their terms.
Now, I mention this all to show you that while this is about church revitalization, there is a reason revitalization networks say 85% of churches are in a revitalization stage. Pastors fail to see the warning signs. They struggle and are quick to blame others for what is going on in their church. We often hear how the people are getting caught up in the glitz of the mega-church down the street. To that, I can personally say it is false.
I have a map in Google Maps with marks on the churches of 500 or more people in my region. The number would seem staggering because while we are quick to ask what these churches are doing to get them, we should ask how this area can sustain this many churches. Some are more pragmatic than others, but there are strong theologically teaching ones there too. Look at the picture. They form a backward "C" almost and being in an area that close, especially in New England, leaves people scratching their heads. But let’s look at what revitalization is and the types of revitalizations that can move these churches forward.
The issue that is a heated debate among some New England pastors is when they see church plants popping up next to or near existing churches. In my hometown of Brockton, MA, this led to that law about church buildings remaining church buildings being signed. Driving down Main St, there must be about six or seven dozen churches and plants, one building near the center of the city has 3 storefronts that are all churches; one is Haitian, another Portuguese, and the last is Korean. When I have had discussions with established church pastors I know in the area, they feel slighted, but that is another discussion. However, it still leads to seeing people leave one church for another and revitalization needing to take place, but that is another chapter or book.
WHAT IS REVITALIZATION?
We do communion every week at my church for several reasons. I lean slightly in the Reformed camp, so I follow it that way. People at my church come from a Catholic or Church of God background, so they are used to doing it weekly there. When we moved communion from monthly to weekly, my 72-year-old elder asked if I thought it would become stagnant. I said it could never be, and thankfully it hasn’t. Another young leader in the church and I will share duties in the service for this. We each bring something to it, and because individually, we are not doing it weekly, we can reflect and be fed by the other’s words. But for many, it can just be another part of the service and not hold the importance of why we are doing it.
In many cases, a church has moved from serving outwardly to its community to looking inwardly. I call this the “country club mindset.” This is just the reverse of what President John F. Kennedy was trying to convey when he famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Too many are coming to church on Sunday mornings looking for something and not willing to serve.
Bible study is seen as a roadblock in many of these churches. People will not attend it but have a men’s breakfast, and they are there. They have fallen out of love with Jesus, or else they would do all they could to learn more and serve him in his church. They have forgotten what it is to love and be loved, so a pastor must first love who is there and not who he wants to see there.
The faithful pastor must always teach and show how the Gospel can change their lives, which means that the service becomes more of a Bible study. They do not look beyond their walls, and the pastor must remind them the Bible tells us this is the mission. When we don’t, we fall into the need for revitalization. The question is, which type will work for you? There are several factors to think about with such a loaded question.
A pastor must always be at work, this can be exhausting, but thankfully we have the Spirit working with us. I believe any pastor that points a church toward its need for revitalization is a Jeremiah 3:15 pastor. In this chapter of the prophet, Jeremiah calls Israel back to the Lord, and the Lord promises something if they return to him “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” I want to preface this here; this isn’t saying that every pastor is the silver bullet needed, but God has men called to specific tasks within his gathered people. The hardest thing for some is to realize that it may be better to close, but let’s now focus on the types of revitalization.
THREE PATHWAYS OF REVITALIZATION.
As I said in the previous post, this is my construction. This version is how I have simplified it, and I hope that this helps you too. I’m sure if you asked several leaders in revitalization networks, they would have their thoughts and ideas on what each constitutes a revitalization.
Fostering and Adoption:
I’m sure Sam Rainer is the guy behind this movement, and he will give that credit to others. As far as I know, this began when his church, West Bradenton Baptist Church, was asked to help a church several miles down the road to get healthy. An unhealthy church looks to turn things around, and they may approach a healthy church that can help direct and guide them. The healthy church may advise or even oversee the finances and other things to help the pastor implement the changes they have been trying to steer to but have been fighting with members over. They work and struggle to turn it around. The Fostering church is there to help guide them back to a path of health.
Once the unhealthy church turns around, the church is given back to the leadership seeing it flourish. However, if issues remain or creep back in, the healthy church makes it so that the unhealthy church becomes a campus of the healthy church. We see through Mark Hallock and his Calvary Churches or Wes Pastor and the New England Center of Church Planting and Revitalization, as they plan to make churches healthy and flourish and can send teams to these churches and put healthier DNA into them. In the final few blogs, we will talk about my thoughts on the future of revitalization.
In many cases in fostering and adoption, if the unhealthy church has an older pastor or one who desires to leave, the healthy church will send one of their pastors or look for a pastor to go and lead the mission. What we see, too, is the growing movement toward autonomous multi-sites. In the last 15 years, multi-sites have risen, but instead of seeing churches of 300-500, these are in smaller buildings of 100-200 and seem to be growing in popularity. I believe, in part, this is due to how property is becoming harder to find, and so churches are making do with what they have. There are no accurate numbers kept on the success rate, but several podcasts and blogs agree the number is between 85-90% successful in seeing the churches live on and survive.
We’ll make the sandwich approach with this, go with the strongest as #s 1 & 3, and have the weakest results in-between. With a 12-20% success rate, we see a dying church that sees the writing on the wall and comes up with a plan to turn around. Usually, it’s a complete turnaround of leadership and the church; we can call this a revival from within. They realize how far they have drifted from God’s plan and then seek to return to him. To share the vision and mission, the church will implement some activities such as revival meetings, prayer nights, and special services.
Name changes are common, and usually, a winnowing of members who disagree with the direction change happens; this can also be bad if too many leave. Some, such as Mark Hallock, will term this move replanting, but I want to simplify the terms for us to move forward. Remember what I said about people having a country club mindset; they don’t want to see change, so they set out to find a church like the one they just left. In some cases, they find just the opposite and go to a healthy church, so the pruning going on is good in two parts. Usually, the outside neighborhood sees the changes going on, leading to some outside interest.
A church may initiate hiring a pastor with the knowledge to lead towards revitalization; some pastors are paid interims. Who lay the groundwork and help set the church up for growth inside and out. These changes might be stopping one to several programs in the church to streamline what is going on. The church will evaluate what it is doing and stop things it needs to do but does not close its doors and continues. It is grasping the "less is more" mindset so that people can do more of what is required. So, in truth, it’s a restructuring of what is going on. In military speak, it is refitting the existing structure (church) to continue its service for another period. However, if not everyone is on board and things like bylaws and fixtures lead to arguments, they are not interested in worshiping God, and the building and institution are their gods.
The success rate is 95% roughly in this type of revitalization. The dying church realizes they have a specific time left to live, and nothing they can do will change the ship’s course. Thom Rainer calls this the death spiral and says it is a tough pill for churches and even those in the community and denominations to swallow and understand.
The question then looms over all heads, “What’s Next?” In many cases, Kevin Ezell has said what we already mentioned, and many in revitalization agree with giving the church to a church plant or a growing ethnic church. The church will usually find a church plant that needs a building, they may be renting a place that is taking resources that they can use towards the ministry in the area, and so the gift of a building has many levels of blessing. The church may also see that they are not like the people around them. Thom Rainer mentions this as one of the top reasons a church dies, the people inside do not see the faces of the people outside its walls changing, so they can no longer reach them because they are not them.
Ezell mentioned the story of two Boston churches on a podcast, where one gave its $8-million building and assets over to the healthier one. There's more to that story because I am friends with both pastors. The unhealthy church decided it would try to be a revitalization. Remember what I have mentioned; this is the lowest success rate. A plant had been set up next to them for years, and the recent pandemic forced it to move. The other plant, with the pastor I am friends with reached out to my other friend. I mentioned that local pastors and native people around here question why a plant is opening up next to or near them. The two churches and pastors spent a few years working together for the Kingdom in their area. As a true Bostonian, I know that area is not big enough, even for two Catholic churches, as one of those is now a Dollar Tree. The pandemic had really hurt the older established church.
That church had seen a great amount of growth, but the pandemic took most of that away; the pastor had told me he wondered if it wasn't Jesus extinguishing the lampstand for previous sins (Revelation 2:5). He wrestled with what to do for almost 18 months. He decided with his associate pastor and their wives that it was right to hand everything over to our other friend's church. That church had recently made the hard move to the location of the other church plant in that 18-month span. There were some who posted that the unhealthy church had failed, but some from the newly gifted church defended the move and the pastor as thinking in line with what we are saying in this series.
Today, the merged churches are doing well, celebrating numerous baptisms and salvation in the nearly 9 months since. The other pastor and his wife, who originally started out to plant a church, and had a successful launch in their home state 12 years prior, followed their hearts and the calling they were getting to move to another state and plant a church that would reach a group of people often forgotten in certain parts of the country. His vision for this recently led to NAMB deciding to fully support this type of church planting, and I am looking forward to seeing what God will do with them, as this unreached group I am a part of myself. Note: I am not naming this planting or any one of the pastors out of my love and respect for them and because of several other factors.
Mark Batterson, the DC area pastor who has written several books on prayer and vision for churches, talked about how his church was gifted an old theater that had already been serving as a church for four decades. Seeing the changing diversity around them, The People’s Church gave their facility to Batterson’s National Community Church, reaching the different ethnic groups within and outside the church. Either way, the existing church dies, and the new church grows and flourishes, much like what Paul reminds the Gentiles in Romans 11:17 “were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree.”
This happened to the church plant I was a part of in 2015. We had been gathering in a hotel conference area and moved into a storefront in 2011. In 2015 a historic Baptist church with ties to Isaac Backus reached out to our state convention for help. They were given my pastor's information, and talks between him and them began for 6 months to see if this would be a good fit. Long story short, after trying to be two separate campuses, we in the leadership team decided it would be best to merge the two congregations. The church is thriving now at about 300 a week at that location and a further 100+ at another location that approached them to be adopted in 2017.
Once we understand the revitalization types, we must ask ourselves not just where our church is in the trinity of church types (Established, Plant, or Revitalization). Still, if we determine that we are in the revitalization stage, we have to ask where we are on the spiral and define the steps and pathways we want to take.
Some go deeper into the "hows" and "whats" of revitalization. The North American Missions Board has recently designed a program for replanters and hosts an assessment much as it does for church planters. The evaluation can be found on NAMB’s website if interested. But as we see a turn and interest in revitalization, something that will only get bigger as time goes on. Still, I will preface it by saying we will see it on the local network levels regarding conferences and training.
If someone asked me what is a church revitalization in a short sentence, I would say the following to close this blog.
Church revitalization is a mission to help the gathered find their first love and transfer that beyond their building’s walls into the community they gather.
In the next blog, we will discuss how that sentence has helped us the color and see that every church, while a more significant part of the “C”hurch, is unique to their areas and regions and why there is no proper cookie cutter way.
 Bill Henard, Can These Bones Live: A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Books, 2015), 1–2.
 Tyndale, Holy Bible : New Living Translation, 0002-edition ed. (Tyndale House Publishers, 2004).
 “How You Can Be the Best Church Leader in 2027 (A Three-Part Series) - Part 1: Learning to Lead in a New Culture,” Church Answers, accessed August 18, 2022, https://churchanswers.com/podcasts/revitalize-and-replant/how-you-can-be-the-best-church-leader-in-2027-a-three-part-series-part-1-learning-to-lead-in-a-new-culture/.
 Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches, 1st edition (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Books, 2016), 57–58.
 Brian Croft, Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying & Divided Churches, Revised edition edition (Christian Focus, 2016), 56.
 Samuel Rainer, “We Adopted A Church: Six Lessons Learned After One Year,” Church Answers, September 30, 2020, https://churchanswers.com/blog/we-adopted-a-church-six-lessons-learned-after-one-year/.
 Mark Hallock, God’s Not Done with Your Church: Finding Hope and New Life through Replanting (Acoma Press, 2017), 22.
 “Eight Signs Your Church May Be Closing Soon - ThomRainer.Com,” Church Answers, May 17, 2017, https://churchanswers.com/blog/eight-signs-church-may-closing-soon/.
 Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, First Edition (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Books, 2014), 25.
 Mark Batterson, All In: You Are One Decision Away From a Totally Different Life, n.d., 156.