Church Revitalization is a growing topic across the Southern Baptist Convention, signified by the North American Mission Board spending most of its report at the SBC focusing on church revitalization. This is a welcome trend for me since the vast majority of our churches have plateaued or declined. In some interviews that I did for a seminary assignment a few years ago, several denominational leaders expressed doubt that the denomination agencies would ever assist in this area.
Not only has NAMB taken up the topic, but it is a passion of LifeWay CEO Thom Rainer, as demonstrated in several of his works, including his daily blog. You can read two of them here and here. I am excited about the fact that our denomination leaders are focusing on church revitalization.
I have lead in what I believe are two church revitalizations. Both would be considered small churches, especially the first one. While there may not be large numbers that grab attention, in both of these churches, attendance grow, baptism numbers increased, they became financially stable, new ministries were started, the churches impacted their communities, and the church took a lead in missions. I believe I left both churches stronger than they were when I arrived.
I am now four months into another church revitalization. Yazoo City First Baptist Church is a great church with a strong past, but it has experienced decline, followed by plateau. The church’s future is bright, as they have been very willing to follow new leadership, and they have a great desire to see revitalization.
What follows are some lessons I have learned from my previous experiences. I hope they encourage someone in the midst of revitalization, and they also serve as a reminder to me and the commitment I have made to my current church.
Be patient. Revitalization will not happen overnight. There will be struggles, it will be slow, but it will come. I think many never see revitalization because they give up before it happens.
Be flexible. There will be resistance to change. What worked at one place, or what you read, will not necessarily work where you are. Listen to the people and find areas where they are willing to address to bring change. Start there. When we are stubborn and refuse to be flexible, revitalization will not occur.
Love the people. You cannot lead people that you do not love. Invest in them and they will invest in you- and what you want to do. Get to know them, which will result in you hearing their fears about change. Only then are you able to lead effectively. Live life with your church.
Serve the community. Part of revitalization is moving the church outside of its walls, and it begins with the pastor serving the community. Be involved in organizations. Work to meet needs that exist. If there is a local school, be involved in it. The church will become an integral part of the community. It will change the way the community sees the church, as well as how the church sees the community.
I must share a disclaimer, though: this has caused me the greatest frustrations in both of my previous pastorates, especially the second. If you do not go with the status quo in the community, be prepared for heartache. However, I would not trade the results of my willingness to serve the community for anything.
Develop trust. I have never played poker, but I know that a poker player gathers chips and does not necessarily cash them all in at the beginning. However, there comes a time when he has to take the risk. In ministry, as you love the people and serve them, you are gaining “chips.” You can “cash in” a few chips periodically as you ask people to follow you. Some things will require more “chips,” but you must earn the “chips” before you can cash in. You earn “chips” as you develop trust.
Create a heart for missions. For revitalization to occur, the church must take the focus off themselves. As you minister in the community, you are doing local missions, but create an Acts 1:8 strategy. Both of my previous churches sponsored new church starts and took mission trips in North America. Long-term relationships were established. Then, my second church lead a network of Arkansas Baptist churches to adopt a people group in Chile.
Commit to the long-term. I stayed at my first church for over five years and my second one for seven. I could have easily left after two years at both, but God did not lead me that direction. Was everything perfect? Oh no, there were times I was ready to leave. But I am thankful that I remained committed to the work God was doing in each church.
While many are called to church planting, most churches in the SBC need someone to answer the call to revitalization. It can be difficult, but it is great to see a struggling church turn around and be a force in its community. Its impact is far-reaching.