Revitalizing churches is a trendy topic these days, but what many fail to mention is that attempts to revitalize churches rarely succeed. I have known a good number of men who have tried to revitalize a church, only to be kicked to the curb, beaten and bruised, after exerting great effort and expense. Theologically, we must come to grips with the fact that “we” cannot revitalize a church! No human effort can put “life” into a dead, dying, or stagnant church. Yes, you can bring in some younger people with life in them, spice up the music, craft a cool website, redo the church logo, paint the walls of the church building, and speak like a used car salesman in an attempt to get people “motivated,” and “put life in them,” but these worldly techniques have no power to save, sanctify, or bring lasting results that glorify God. No pastor or group of people has the power to "revitalize" a church. It’s like people who want to “have a revival.” You can’t do that either. A revival is a work of God, not men. Granted, God uses certain means when He causes a revival, but the revival itself is of the Lord, not men. The whole topic of church revitalization is fraught with problems starting with its very label.
The dictionary defines “revitalize” as, “to imbue something with new life and vitality.” Sorry, that is not something any pastor has in his tool box. The Holy Spirit is the only person who can “imbue a church with new life and vitality.” Also, what does it mean that a church needs “new life?” Are we saying it has an “old Holy Spirit life?” Is there such a thing? Do we mean the church has died? Can that actually happen? Do we mean all the believers left and now that specific local “church” is inhabited by unbelievers who need evangelized? Is that a church? Do we mean the church is a dead stick, stuck in the dry earth, that needs life it doesn’t already possess? Only the Holy Spirit can make Aaron’s rod bud, blossom and bear fruit. A gathering of religious people who profess to be Christians isn’t a church, but a group of people deceived into thinking they are a church. Maybe there is some life left in the church, a few believers, and the church is like a plant that has been neglected, about to die, and needs nurtured back to health again? In that case the church needs strengthened. Again, only the Holy Spirit knows the answers to these questions and only the Holy Spirit can give life to a dead church or strengthen an anemic church.
Part of the confusion related to church revitalization is due to a weak doctrine of the church. The dictionary gives some fourteen definitions of the word “church” and only a few of them are biblical. There is the universal church comprised of all true believers in heaven or on earth. The universal church is often referred to as the “invisible church” or “holy catholic church” no, not Roman Catholic. The word “catholic” means universal. Since we can’t see all the believers in heaven or on earth the universal church is often referred to as the “invisible church.” The Bible also speaks of local churches, like the church of Ephesus or Corinth. Local churches are comprised of professing believers who gather to worship in a given location. Some know the Lord, others do not. There are always tares among the wheat and sheep among the goats. If a church has gone a long time without solid biblical exposition, gospel preaching, discipleship, prayer, and evangelism, it may not be a church at all. Most truly born again believers wouldn’t tolerate living among the dead like the Gadarene demoniac.
Many pastors haven't taken time to consider, or have forgotten, or maybe never received clear teaching on what they are called to do and what only the Holy Spirit can do. They have visions of going to a church that is in ICU and seeing young families pour in, people get excited about the Lord, and having a thriving congregation! On top of all that they get a church building to boot! Who doesn’t want that? But what they often lack is wisdom, patience, a clear understanding of how and why healthy churches are healthy churches. They think they have power to do what only the Holy Spirit can do. They trust in the inventions of men to “put life in the church” or to “do church,” and don’t realize that it isn’t life at all, but temporary, emotional hype. It is impossible to “do church,” church is a noun, not a verb.
Some pastors try to market the church in an attempt to “bring people in” not realizing that whatever you use to bring people in, you must continue to give them in order to keep them "in." It’s important to consider what kind of people you are trying to bring in. Unbelievers? Do you really want your church to attract the children of Satan? Do you want the spiritually dead to come and what, be religious? What do you mean by “bring them in?” Into what, a building? What good does that do? Many speak of getting the “unchurched” “churched,” as if getting unbelievers into a building causes them to be born again. We often speak of buildings where a local church meets as a church, but biblically it is just a building.
The Word of God never tells us to get people “churched,” or to try and attract unbelievers, the children of Satan, to our worship services. Unbelievers can’t worship God in an acceptable way. Unbelievers do visit. Some unbelievers are deceived into thinking they are Christians. Others might visit for a variety of reasons and even get saved if the preacher is preaches the gospel. However, a “worship service” is for believers who can worship God in Spirit and truth. Yes, we do want unbelievers to visit, hear the gospel, repent, and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected from the dead. What we should not do is tailor our church services for the spiritually dead. Part of corporate worship is for training and mobilizing believers in the church to share the gospel with unbelievers outside the church. If unbelievers outside the church hear the gospel, repent, and believe, the Holy Spirit baptizes them into the universal Church (I Cor. 12:130. Once someone becomes part of "THE" Church through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we bring them into a local church to worship God, to be equipped for the work of the ministry, and to evangelize the lost. Only by being born again are unbelievers “churched.”
All too often pastors put in a great deal of effort, with all good intentions, into revitalizing a church only to end in failure because they are confused about these basic concepts. Man-made techniques, marketing strategies, and human efforts have no power to put life into a dead or dying “local church” that has Ichabod written above its door by the Holy Spirit. The question then begs to be answered, “What can be done to lessen the chances of failure when trying to revitalize a local church?”
Why Would “A Church” Need Revitalized?
To revitalize the church, the current congregation needs to be changed by the Holy Spirit. When you have a congregation that has dwindled down to only a few older people you have to ask yourself, “Why?” You need to get answers to that critical question. Often a dead or dying church has been pastored by a man who has ignored II Tim. 2:2 and refused to train up leaders. When a pastor is not committed to training up leaders, the Holy Spirit won’t send him men that need trained up. When a pastor doesn’t preach the gospel, the Holy Spirit doesn’t send him people who need to hear the gospel. As the pastor grows older, the congregation grows older, not older in the Lord, but in age. As the congregation ages, people die, leave, and numbers decrease. The church starts hurting financially and they sell off pieces of their property until they have a church building surrounded by houses with few places to park. The pastor eventually retires, leaves, or dies and "the church" eventually dies too. The building is converted into office space, turned into a restaurant, or sold to a cult group.
Usually church revitalization efforts are permitted when a local church is at the end of its financial tether and is in desperate straits. The local church often doesn’t want someone from outside coming in to “fix things,” but their arms are being twisted by the consequences of a failure to submit to God's Word in certain areas. They cry “uncle” and reluctantly invite someone in to “revitalize their church.” You must take time to consider why a church only has older people in it and what that tells you. If the church was in a retirement community it might be understandable that it only has older people, but in all other cases, a healthy church should have a mixture of people of all ages.
Older people are often set in their ways, unless they have received good preaching and teaching, and in that case they most likely wouldn’t be in a church that only has older people in it, a sign that the church is not growing, which is indicative of poor preaching and teaching and a failure of the leadership to preach the gospel, shepherd the flock, and train up leaders. Many pastors, eager to revitalize the church fail to realize that the congregation they are trying to revitalize is petrified, inflexible, and despises change.
Biblically, the older you get in the Lord, the more patient and selfless you should become. You have heard more sermons, have grown in the Lord for a longer period of time, and should be more willing to consider others as more important than yourself. However, when you go to a church that only has older people who are resistant to change, it reveals that many of those people are victims of two things: 1) A long history of weak teaching and preaching, and/or 2) They don’t know the Lord. If the latter is the case, you can’t help them grow in the Lord because they don’t know the Lord. Instead, they need evangelized. To compound the problem, they have lived many years thinking they are believers e.g. Mt. 7:21ff. The challenge is to evangelize those who cry, “Lord, Lord, have we not. . .” who are inoculated to Christianity, and yet have never known Christ. They have received a dead dose of "Christianity," which has made them resistant to living Christianity. They are in a local church, they profess to know Jesus, they call Jesus Lord, they are doing good deeds in Jesus’ name, but on judgment day they hear that sad reply, “depart from me you workers of iniquity, I never knew you!” A scary prospect and only persistent gospel preaching, sound doctrine, prayer, and the Holy Spirit can fix it.
Consider that the older, lifeless or barely living church that needs revitalization used to be a healthy, spiritually vibrant, local church. The believers were committed to having their own building, sacrificially gave, and a building was constructed to facilitate ministry. There used to be a mixture of ages, and then something happened. What was it? Sometimes a change in pastors from one that was a faithful preacher of the Word to one that was likeable, but maybe had weaker preaching gifts, who was less committed to sound doctrine, to being an example, and possibly a man pleaser often leads to the decline. Whatever the specific reasons, you can be sure the primary cause of the downgrade in churches almost always comes from the man behind the pulpit. When the pulpit is weak, the entire church grows weak. There are no biblically healthy churches that receive weak preaching from the pulpit. Yes, there are large churches, busy churches, churches with lots of money and programs, but no biblically thriving churches if the whole counsel of the Word of God, sound doctrine, and the gospel is neglected.
When the preaching begins to flag, holiness decreases, discernment decreases, people’s growth in the Lord slows down or stops, and no one gets saved. The church becomes vulnerable to all sorts of fads and trends. These things cause the most biblically minded people grave concern. When they speak to the leadership, they find they are more concerned about pleasing men and are unwilling to obey the Word of God. The people with the strongest biblical convictions leave. Thus the “cream” of the congregation is skimmed off by the blade of biblical compromise and leave the church. Eventually something else happens, worse compromise, and another layer of the most committed believers leave. Waves of exodus happen, each wave of departure leaving the church weaker. Eventually the “lowest common denominator” congregants, often unbelievers, gather and call themselves a church. Being unbelievers they tend to love things. They fall in love with their building, clinging to it with white knuckles because they don’t really love the Lord, His Word, and His people. They don’t want anyone coming in and taking their building from them! They often see church “revitalizers” as interlopers who are coming in to supplant them and take their building away. What is the best way to approach this very sad and yet common situation?
Craft A Biblical Plan
Preach! Since the main reason churches flag and die is a weak pulpit, the primary and obvious solution is a strong pulpit. I would suggest that you, “. . .preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own lusts, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (II Tim. 4:2-4). Clearly, accurately, passionately, and boldly preach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Ring the bell of the gospel like a fire alarm. Hit the gospel from every angle. Explain how the gospel changes a person’s life, makes people into new creatures in Christ, causes them to love God, His Word, His people, His ways, etc. Make sure you are challenging the congregation to examine their lives and to see whether they be in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). The pulpit is the greatest means the Holy Spirit uses to change a church.
Pray! Pray a lot. Repent of thinking you can “fix the church.” Repent of any self-sufficiency, self-reliance, trusting in the wisdom of men, rather than the wisdom of God. Pray for grace to faithfully preach and model obedience to the truth. Pray that the Holy Spirit saves and sanctifies sinners through the Word preached. Encourage prayer at every level, of every kind, for everything, at all times. Encourage people to pray for spiritual things, eternal things, like spiritual growth, growing in the knowledge of the Word of God, and increasing in obedience to the truth.
Get to know people. While you continue to pray, preach the Word, and emphasize the gospel, have as many of the congregation over to your house as you can. Visit as many people as you can. Have coffee with as many people as you can. If you’re married send your wife on that same mission as well. Make a strong effort to get to know the people in the church so that they know you love and care for them. Ask about their lives, their hurts, take notes, pray for them, call them, encourage them. Ask them about the church, its history, its previous pastor, why there are no younger families, what they believe is the greatest weakness of the church and its greatest strengths, etc. Don’t assume anyone knows the gospel, or even if they know the gospel, that they know the Lord. Ask people how they came to the Lord, what the gospel is, and listen to see if they talk about what they have done or what Christ has done for them. People, even unbelievers, are more apt to follow a person and accept change if they know they are loved by the leadership.
Be patient! After Paul tells us how to preach the Word in II Tim. 4:2, he says we are to do so “with great patience and instruction.” Why? Because people often don’t change as fast as we wish they would. Preachers are often less patient than they should be as the Holy Spirit does what only the Holy Spirit can do. Preach and be patient. If you want to make changes, bring it up first with people and gauge their reaction. If they don’t seem alarmed or concerned, it is probably safe to move forward with the change. However, if there is a reaction or concern on their faces, don’t make the change--yet. Preach and teach first. It often takes several exposures to the truth before the Holy Spirit begins to change their hearts and make them willing to accept change. I know a pastor who was fired after taking the bean counter off the wall. The people loved seeing how many people came each week and after many years of looking at their ever decreasing numbers, they were attached to the bean counter. When the new pastor removed it, tempers flared, gossipers took action, and the faithful pastor was looking for another “church” in short order. Be cautious and patient. Once you have cleared the jungle of the vines and branches of false doctrine and unbiblical ministry philosophy, walk them through the change slowly. Don’t die on the hill of a personal preference, extra-biblical ideas, trends, techniques, and things that are optional. Stay focused on the Word of God and preach the gospel.
Communicate! Communicate with the congregation, especially at first, so they know what is happening and a rumor mill doesn’t get started. Regularly do this from the pulpit, in church newsletters, the website, Bible studies, Sunday School classes. See if you can get some discipleship relationships going with the men of the church. Have your wife do the same with the women. Meet with as many people as you can, share ideas, and find out where they are at and what is going on in their lives spiritually.
Don’t compromise! You will have to walk the tightrope of being patient without compromising the truth. Being patient is a necessary part of preaching. You reprove, rebuke, and exhort with “great patience and instruction” (II Tim. 4:1-4). You keep on instructing people as they have questions, concerns, frustrations, so that the Holy Spirit can use the Word of God to sanctify or bring them to salvation. You have to be patient “even when wronged” and keep living and preaching the truth so that they might come to their senses (II Tim. 2:24-26). A church that needs revitalized got to that place where they are at through much man pleasing and compromising of the truth.
Those who are used to “less legalistic preaching,” for that is how they often see biblical preaching after having sat under man pleasing preaching, will often be resistant to someone clearly articulating what must be done from the Word of God. This is where it takes tact. You have to be gracious and kind, but not budge from the truth. You have to sympathize with people, but be inflexible in regards to God’s Word and sound doctrine. Keep meeting with them, keep loving on them, keep instructing them, but don’t compromise the truth. Every time the truth is compromised, it makes it easier to compromise in the future in greater ways. Again, don’t confuse being patient with compromise. You have to be patient, it is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), but you cannot compromise the truth (Jn. 12:48). You will discover that if people truly love God and His Word, they will be convinced by the Word of God alone, not by you telling them what the Bible says, but by showing them what the Bible says through patient preaching and teaching. This is why you have to keep on preaching and teaching them from the Word until they are convinced, not by you, but by the slow, patient, exposition of God’s Word.
Mobilize the troops! Encourage everyone who is serving to excel still more. Get as many of those who aren’t serving to take ownership of a ministry. Carefully and patiently explain what that means. Show them by example. Let the older people know they are a valuable asset to the church. Teach any new people coming into help to seek out the older people for wisdom, to defer to them, to ask them for help. Don’t do ministry around them, for that will communicate to them they aren’t needed, in the way, and have no real purpose. If they know the Lord they are very much needed and have spiritual gifts that they need to employ in serving others (I Pet. 4:10).
Take care of your own house first! One of the idealistic things that preachers try to do is expand outward too quickly before they get their own congregation in order. They try to do too much outreach before doing in-reach. They funnel too many resources to do missions, evangelism, or ministries outside the church, before evangelizing and strengthening their own congregation. Healthy, well fed, believers will supernaturally desire to see others won to Christ, give faithfully, serve, etc. They will want to tell others about Christ, support missions, and reach the world with the gospel. But be patient as you get your own house in order first. This may take years, but evangelizing and the health of your own sheep is your first priority.
Get counsel! There is wisdom in many counselors (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). You can find pastors out there who have been used by the Lord to totally turn churches around. Talk to them. Ask them for advice. Seek them out for wisdom all along the way. Getting counsel will help you avoid making mistakes others have made. However, beware of making their personal experiences into a formula for success. Every success story is different, but they all have common elements like faithful gospel preaching and teaching, prayer, getting to know the congregation, etc. As Aslan the lion rightly said in Prince Caspian, “Things never happen the same way twice.” Cling to what is biblically mandated, examine everything carefully, and hold to that which is true (I Thess. 5:21).
Persevere! Don’t grow weary in well doing. Stick to the biblical basics i.e., pray, preach, teach, disciple, and show yourself an example of good deeds. If you want to “revitalize a church,” don’t bother, you can’t do it. On the other hand, if you want to faithfully obey the Word of God so that the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, prayer, can save and sanctify sinners, go for it! Only the Holy Spirit saves and sanctifies sinners through the very same means He uses in every other local church. There is no “special way of doing ministry” for a dead or dying local church. You just need to start doing ministry in a biblical way. God’s Word has what every pastor needs to save sinners and to equip any believer for everything pertaining to life and godliness (II Pet. 1:3). Stick to what God tells you to do in His Word. Be a humble, patient, loving, and obedient servant, whom the Holy Spirit can use to help a church that has wandered from the truth, get back on the gospel path.