By Josh King, lead pastor of Sachse’s Church in Sachse, TX
Ask five people what it takes to revitalize a church, and you will likely get five different answers. Depending on the day, you may even get ten different answers. Most people who are trying to revitalize churches have more questions than answers: What should I do to fix things here? What should I avoid? And what would actually qualify as a “win?”
Most people gravitate towards a few common answers:
- Change the name. I get it. Some churches have really bad reputations. A name change seems like it provides the perfect opportunity for a fresh start. And while it may be wise to re-introduce the church to the community with a new name, the way to fix a bad reputation isn’t with new marketing, but new actions.
- Change the music. Yes, many SBC churches really do need to think through some changes in their music. But the worship wars of the ‘90s and 2000s are fading, thanks in part to how millennials have changed the conversation. Many growing churches, in fact, have chosen to retain some music and styles that are more appropriate for reaching people from a previous generation. But the biggest issue here is that musical change is likely to be hard-fought. You may need to get there eventually. But you can make a lot greater impact initially with a lot less effort by focusing on quality preaching, friendly guest services, safe and effective children’s ministry, and community involvement.
- Change the bylaws. Just like changing the name or the music, this isn’t a bad idea. But it shouldn’t be the first idea. Work within the system you took initially. Earn leadership credibility by being a spiritual leader. Work hard. Be honest. Pastors need to be accountable to their congregations, but congregations also need spiritual leadership (Heb 13:17). If you lead people well, then when the times comes to change the leadership structure, your people will follow you as a person of credibility and integrity.
Sometimes–let’s say, often–these things need to be changed. But these three changes can almost always wait on more important considerations. Rather than asking, “What needs to change?” what if revitalizers were to ask, “What will it take to bring vitality back to this congregation?” When you ask the question this way, I find you come up with different answers:
- Preach the gospel. When you preach the gospel, not only do you show people that the gospel is salvation for all, you remind them that the grace of Christ is the reason we gather and scatter. Remembering where we have been and what brought us together roots itself into the heart and actions of the church body. The gospel, and the gospel alone, enables change. But that is not the only reason we preach the gospel. We preach it because our people need it, and we need it. We are all, saints and sinners, forgiven and in need of forgiveness. Only the gospel can heal what has been broken.
- Lead with strength. Strong does not mean domineering. It does not mean careless or heartless. Strong means willing to stand for the truth for the sake of the weak. It means being willing to take a bullet while confidently leading the church in the right direction. It’s what we saw in Jesus. Fierce determination to win others to the truth, demonstrated by a never-stopping, self-sacrificing love. In the earliest stages of church revitalization, the caliber of the leadership matters far more than the form of church government. Polity is important, but only leadership will win followers. As the old maxim goes, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Love is the most essential element of leadership.
- Look outward. There are no dying churches that are truly engaged in the mission of Christ in their community. In my experience, churches that need revitalization have often lost this outward focus. When budgeting, staffing, and programs are all directed inward, it sends a message to the community that they need to “get right” before they can come in. Many of our churches need to pivot and see themselves as God does–placed in their community for God’s glory and for the good of their neighbors.
A wise man once told me, “The reason most revitalizations fail is differing expectations. The church wants a pastor when what they need is a revitalizer. The pastor wants to revitalize when what he needs to do is pastor.” That is probably an over-simplication, but I have found it to be helpful. Too many pastors burn out early, fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time. Rather than trying to change the church, we need to pastor the church so that the gospel can revitalize it. When someone’s heart is failing, you don’t worry about their bum knee. . You focus on getting them a new heart. Every aspect of a dying church should be evaluated for health, but most can wait until the patient is stable.