Churches and denominations need a revitalization movement. That much is clear to most people. But how do we create or facilitate that revitalization? Our answer is important for the future of churches.
I co-wrote a book specifically around church revitalization called Comeback Churches. We studied 324 churches from 11 different denominations that experienced significant revitalization after a protracted period of decline.
I’ve also written several books on church vitality, like Transformational Church, which was the largest research project of its kind ever done. We surveyed seven thousand Protestant churches from across all different Protestant expressions to look at what led to transformational activity that included professions of faith and community impact. Here’s how a movement of churches can work toward revitalization.
Revitalization Doesn't Always Work
First, most of the time revitalization doesn’t work. Because of that, denominations get nervous about revitalization efforts after previous attempts that failed. A big, failed campaign on the national or regional level gives churches excuses for not repeating the effort.
So, before your denomination can do anything, you have to be willing to acknowledge that past efforts didn't always work—and current efforts won't always work either.
If you are not willing to have some church revitalization failures, you will never do what it takes to have successes either.
Dealing with the Issues
Churches cannot revitalize with bigger issues looming and one of the bigger issue is the pastoral leadership.
In Comeback Churches, we found that 60 percent of revitalized churches we studied had changed their senior pastor. That's a lot and might lead you to conclude that you need a new pastor to get a revitalization church.
But, not so fast—40 percent didn’t. Four in ten churches that were revitalized experienced turnaround with the same pastor who led the plateaued or declining church.
But, the 40 percent told us they had changed or grown their leadership approach.
So, a part of the revitalization for your church is either the pastoral leadership’s personal growth or a change in leadership.
If you've flown on an airplane, you’ve heard flight attendants instruct passengers to put their own oxygen mask on first should the cabin lose pressure. Only then should you start helping others with their masks. If you attempt to put masks on others first, everyone could suffer-- people lose conciousness fast. If you put on your mask first, you have the ability to save others. That’s the idea.
With revitalization, it’s the same. If the pastor and pastoral leadership don't first learn to live and breathe in relationship with the triune God, if they don't experience revitalization, and if they don't know how to lead, then they can’t revitalize the church.
Pastors need to be honest and admit this and denominations need a plan to help pastors be better leaders.
Working with Church Structure
Another big issue for revitalization is structures within congregations. I planted churches in New York and Pennsylvania before becoming a seminary professor. All I knew was church planting-- then, while serving as a professor, a church called and asked me to help them walk through the revitalization process with them.
I fell in love with the church. There were 35 people, the median age of the church was 68 years of age. I asked them, “What do you want to do here as a church?” They said they wanted to grow.
They recognized they were going to die as a church if they did not do something differently. Yet, change is hard and hard to take.
People don’t change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change.
Too many churches and too many people ache for their congregational comfort and consumer needs: meet my needs, come visit me, sing the music I like, preach in the way I like. We want comfortable and the structure largely exists for that purpose.
Instead, we need to structure for, from a theological view, God's glory and His mission. Structuring for God's glory includes many things from worship, to preaching, and more (for more guidance on this, look at the books mentioned before).
Yet, structuring in such a way that mission is your organizing principle means that comfort and consumerism is not.
It is obviously more than having an outward focus, but it certainly does include that.
So, go door to door with your people and survey your neighborhood. Ask questions about their lives, their understanding of Christianity, etc. This exercise will help create a heart in your people for lost people.
The church begins to yearn to see people changed. Then, you help them see that it is not all about them—it is about God's glory and His mission.
Partnering with Others
So, how can denominations help?
Well, in many ways. But one simple one will suffice here.
Denominations can help by helping churches that want revitalization to learn from churches that have experienced revitalization.
To help change culture and structure, churches seeking revitalization should find and partner with churches from which they need to learn. Probably, they will be churches of the same or a similar denomination. And, denominations can help facilitate this.
Denominations can and should seek "islands of strength" churches to lead a movement toward revitalization by collecting and working with partners. The idea of "islands of strength" is not new, but I first heard it from Leadership Network. They help by teaching churches to influence struggling churches—and so can denominations today.
When you have partners and islands of strength, you have to build your strategy around them, which includes a resourcing and mentoring relationship. In our research, we’ve found that the most effective form of church revitalization training is revitalization coaching provided alongside revitalization resourcing.
That's a denominational strategy that can work.
By resources, I don’t mean money. I mean the partners and islands of strength relationship. This will include people talking to one another and probably a year to two of curriculum that churches go through.
For example, denominations can build a coalition of the willing by recruiting three local pastors to go through this resource in a two-year process. The first year is with the mentoring pastor. The understudy pastor walks through this yearlong process and in relationship with the mentoring pastor, guided by curriculum.
The second year involves the church, its pastor, and it's leadership. This process is one of several ways to prepare for revitalization.
Over the course of two years, the church in need of revitalization deals with leadership issues, can start addressing structural issues, and does so with new information (curriculum) and new relationships (mentoring).
We know that about 75-80 percent of churches in American Protestantism are plateaued or declining. Among mainlines it’s closer to 80-85 percent. We have a significant pool of opportunity for revitalization. The environment is target-rich!
However, it's best to start where there is relationship—a coalition of those willing to go through revitalization, islands of strength willing to help them the journey, and a plan to get there.
That might start with a plan for 30 churches or so as a launching pad for denomination-wide revitalization. The result is you have smaller successes, rather than a large announcement, that builds more people into the coalition of the willing.
In the comments, I'd love to hear about revitalization efforts or plans that you may have used or heard about.