The Call of Revitalization (Part 1 of No Cookie Cutter Way)
When I was called to the Gospel ministry, I thought being a pastor would be a blast. I had seen how the pastors I had, loved us, including my dad and grandfather. I never really knew some things we never talked about in public, fighting, gossiping, and dying churches. I think I always knew of them, and I wondered what happened to several churches I grew up going to events at and why I could no longer find them in the internet age.
Not that I ever forgot them, but things take a back seat as you do ministry. I worked at one church for 14 years as an associate youth pastor, youth pastor, and men’s ministry pastor. I eventually left to go to another church, where I worked as a discipleship and community pastor for seven years. I connected with a local ministry working on church revitalization at this church, something new to me but intrigued me. While I had never thought of it because I had been at two churches that were essentially church plants, I came to realize, because of my past and what I had seen, that churches do need to be revitalized.
Around 4,000 churches close their doors yearly for good, depending on several circumstances. While church planting is needed, it has become the “sexy option” for many coming out of seminary because they read how this guy or that one started their church. And within some years, they had a ministry that many were discovering. On another level, people hear the horrors of established churches and bylaws and do not want to deal with them. But the fact is that church revitalization and replanting have been gaining momentum over the last decade.
The North American Missions Board has its Replant group. There are a few dozen books on the subject and, of course, some podcasts. Shameless plug, The Practical Church Revitalization Podcast, is one that I have co-hosted with several people. While not as many as church planting or established church leadership material, it is proof that revitalization is something many are waking up to need.
One thing that has been an issue for me is what is the “secret sauce” as many would put it. The thing is, there is none. In my 12 years of working with and in church revitalizations, I have seen and understood several unique factors. We will discuss in this series that we call the church the Body of Christ, but is everyone’s body the same? No, and so for over a year, I have wrestled with the thought that there is no cookie-cutter way of doing church, be it in a revitalization, plant, or established church.
Numerous resources out there will say, “do these several things, and you will see your church turn around in this amount of time” this is not one of those resources. I’m not knocking those books, either. While I am not a Church Growth Movement guy, as many of my pastor friends know, I can see the wisdom, as Gordon MacDonald once said, that a person could get nuggets of truth from anything. So there are things people can mine from these books to help them personally, but I have learned in 27 years of ministry that every church is unique. While we see Paul sending men like Timothy, Titus, and others to help churches with everyday issues, Paul was constantly dealing with unique situations at each of these churches. Galatians, we see him dealing with the circumcision group, Corinthians a man sleeping with his mother-in-law, among other issues, Thessalonians a misunderstanding, Philemon, the return of a run-away servant. Each of his letters deals with something different; these were not letters to the whole church, as in capital “C.” I believe this shows that we must approach revitalization and anything to the specific context of where we are at when it comes to our churches.
Even when defining what church revitalization is, it has different meanings depending on who you talk to, and each thinks theirs is the right way to see and view it. We will go further in depth in the next post, but my short version is that there are three pathways.
1. Fostering and Adoption: When an unhealthy church looks to turn things around, they turn to a healthy church that can help direct and guide them. The church turns it around and returns the formerly unhealthy church to the leadership seeing it flourish, or issues/newly healthy church makes it so that it becomes a campus of the healthy church. In many cases, the fostering aspect is that the healthy church helps run many things, that in fighting and other issues that have caused to stagnant.
2. Revitalization: A dying church sees the writing on the wall and comes up with a plan to turn the ship around. Usually, it’s a complete turnaround of leadership and the church or hiring a pastor with the knowledge to do this. The church will evaluate what it is doing and stop things it needs to do but does not close its doors and continues to do its mission with a renewed outlook.
3. Replanting: A dying church realizes they have a specific amount of time left to live, and nothing they can do will change the ship’s course. The church will usually find a church plant that needs a building or sees the changing diversity around them and give their facility to an ethnic church. Either way, the existing church dies, and the new church grows and flourishes in its place, 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.”
Overall, I pray that this series will be something that you get even one nugget of truth out of to help encourage you in your journey. I am not an expert in the field, just a practitioner and servant passing on some of the things I have learned to help you, but I realize that each church is unique, so what works in one will not work in all.
 “Church Replanting,” NAMB, accessed April 25, 2020, https://www.namb.net/church-replanting/.
 Carey Nieuwhof, “CNLP 366: Gordon MacDonald on The View from 80, 15 Life and Leadership Lessons After Eight Decades on the Planet,” CareyNieuwhof.com, September 10, 2020, https://careynieuwhof.com/epsiode366/.
 ESV Bibles by Crossway, Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Large Print edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).