By Scott Slayton, Lead Pastor of Chelsea Village Baptist Church, Chelsea, AL
“Ninety percent of churches are plateaued or declining.” How many times have pastors heard this at a conference, read it in an article, or seen it in their Twitter feed? The reality of plateaued and declining churches means that the vast majority of pastors in the United States labor in a revitalizing situation. Even pastors who lead church plants find their churches in need of revitalization after a couple of years.
Pastors soon discover many obstacles facing them as they seek to see new life come to a declining church. Yet despite the pressing external obstacles (which are legion), the strongest resistance often comes from within a pastor’s own heart.
Here are the three great internal obstacles a pastor faces in church revitalization.
When your church is stagnant or declining, momentum seems to push everything downward. Negative momentum builds like a snowball rolling downhill, and the revitalizing pastor feels the responsibility not only to stop the ball from running downhill, but to get it moving back up the hill—without getting himself crushed in the process.
The empty pews, the discouraging meetings, the meager offerings, and the people leaving for the more exciting church down the road all suck the air out of the room and make it feel as if things will never change in the church. The pastor in this situation will begin to struggle with the greatest foe he has ever faced—himself.
Pastor, if you find yourself in this situation, the first and most important thing you have to do is keep going. Have you ever noticed how often the Bible uses agricultural language to describe the ministry? Healthy crops don’t sprout up overnight. A genuine gospel ministry aimed at revitalization will take Spirit-empowered effort and Spirit-empowered patience. Don’t give up: continue to devote yourself to the most important things you are called to do. Resist the urge to shift into neutral or to beat up Jesus’ sheep over their seeming lack of life. Instead, give yourself completely to the the work of preaching, shepherding, evangelism, discipleship, and prayer. God’s Word does not return void, and if we commit ourselves to these things our labor in the Lord will not be in vain.
A Lack of Evangelistic Relationships
I once heard Mark Dever say, “It’s difficult to steer a parked car.” Negative momentum might lead to disappointment, but just a little bit of positive momentum can make an enormous difference. Nothing brings life and changes the atmosphere in the church like seeing men, women, boys, and girls trust in Jesus Christ and become part of God’s family.
The pastor must see himself as the church’s lead evangelist. He must “do the work of an evangelist,” seeing himself as a missionary who is called to learn the culture of his community and engage people with the gospel.
This begins with the pastor’s relationships. One of the easiest things for a pastor to do is spend all of his time with other pastors. What if we each took just one meal a week and shared it with someone who isn’t connected to a local church?
Pastor, look at your life and ask what you can do to get to know more people who are not Christians. Get out of your backyard and go to the front yard so you can talk to your neighbors as they come home from work. Find places to work in public where you can interact with other people. (And leave the earbuds in your bag.) If your children are on sports teams or involved in after-school activities, find ways to serve the other team members and families in order to build relationships with them.
In these relationships, look for opportunities to share the life-giving gospel of Christ. If we preach that the gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, then shouldn’t we speak this gospel often? We never know who God might save through it.
A Lack of Discipling Relationships
As pastors we often inherit the leaders in our churches. Unfortunately, these leaders are sometimes one of the greatest obstacles to the church’s forward movement. Either through ungodliness, a territorial spirit, lack of biblical knowledge, or lack of proper training, these men who should be leading the church instead hinder its ministry.
The pastor coming into a revitalizing situation needs to recognize that he is not stuck with his current leaders as they stand. He can–and should–take the personal responsibility to disciple and train them. If the leaders of your church are immature, chances are it’s because they have never been discipled and taught by another believer. So teach, coach, and disciple your current leaders, and before you know it, you’ll have new leaders without having to bring in new people.
The revitalizing pastor also has a responsibility to identify and disciple new leaders. Find those faithful men who seem to have a desire to grow, and begin meeting with them to study through a book of the Bible or read a good Christian book. As you see where they are gifted, begin choosing books to help them grow in their those areas.
Discipling may seem like it takes too much time. But investing in leaders will produce more leaders, who produce more leaders, who … you get the idea. This is the power of multiplication: a little effort here will pay huge dividends in the future.
Pastors who labor to revitalize churches face a monumental task. Apart from the help of the Spirit, it can’t be done. Yet if the Spirit of the Lord is present, the possibility exists that these bones can live again. The pastor must persevere in doing good by the power of the Spirit, investing in evangelistic relationships, and discipling men who can lead and disciple others. This is the ordinary work of the pastor, and the Lord uses it to accomplish extraordinary things.