[Note: This article by VP Ryan Hutchinson is the eighth in a semester-long series on Mondays describing various ways we at SEBTS seek to equip pastors for local churches. Mr. Hutchinson serves as Executive Vice President for Operations at Southeastern.]
In June of this year, Dr. Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway Christian Resources, posted a blog entry titled “A Humble Plea for Church Revitalization”. According to his post there are many who believe that 300,000 churches in North America are either dead or are in a death spiral. Many of these churches represent once vibrant lighthouses for the gospel. Now they represent to a secular culture a bygone part of American history. Dr. Rainer’s call to church revitalization is a good call to complement the current emphasis on church planting. The question is how can one go about pastoring a church that needs revitalization? Since it would be easier to scale Mt. Everest riding a scooter than addressing all of the issues of pastoring a church revitalization effort in one blog post, I have highlighted some resources at the end of the post. My goal is to give ten practices that I believe are most important for leading a church revitalization effort.
- Know what God wants from a local church – The Bible is our source of truth that is sufficient to guide us in all things. Study it, memorize it, and let it challenge the validity every practical process or effort that you want to implement.
- Trust the Power of God – Church revitalization is a Holy Spirit led and empowered effort. However, church revitalization can quickly and easily become a human effort dominated by human emotions.
- Pray fervently & frequently – The way to help make sure the revitalization stays focused on the power of God is to saturate the effort of revitalization in prayer. This prayer focus should dominate the pastor’s personal walk, and the times he has the opportunity to meet with those who are like-minded in the local church.
- Seek the support of others – While it might not be possible, avoid doing the work of revitalization alone. Seek for like-minded church members who can help carry the burden and serve as an encouragement to you. If there are none, then start the revitalization effort by finding those that are teachable and begin to personally disciple them.
- Preach faithfully – Preach in such a way that you are explaining the Scriptures to them. This serves the purposes of not only instructing them in righteousness, but it displays your trust in the sufficiency of Scripture to guide the church. Preaching expositionally to your church members can also serve the purpose of showing them how they can look at Scripture and understand it themselves.
- Keep your focus – In church revitalization work, opposition will come against you at varying degrees. Usually the attack will come based on a “smoke screen” issue that will try to make the problem something other than the revitalization work of the church. The attacks might deal with your personality, false attacks on your morality, or any issue not dealing with the revitalization of the hearts of the believers in the church. In these times, you will need to ask that God will always keep in front of you the main focus of glorifying Him through the continued sanctification of His people.
- Persist in patience – The work of revitalization is hard and will take many years to complete. You should keep in mind that the work you are doing is going to most benefit the next generation of leaders in the church. This might mean that it is not till ten to twenty years down the road that you will be able to look back and see the hand of God blessing the church through your longsuffering and faithfulness.
- Study other revitalization efforts – Study other revitalization efforts, both good and bad. As a part of that study, get in contact with those that have lead successful revitalization efforts to get their insights on your context. Also, seek them out to see if they and their churches will serve as prayer partners with you. Learning from the bad revitalization efforts is just as helpful as studying the successes. If mistakes were made by others, there is no need to put your people through those same experiences that will cause your revitalization efforts to come off the tracks.
- Memorize and repeat to yourself regularly Philippians 4:4-9 – In this passage Paul reminds us to always rejoice, to make sure our reasonableness is known to all, to not be anxious, to trust God through prayer, and how to rightly orient our mind. Do not discount the last exhortation on orienting your mind properly. In revitalization work discouragement can come quickly through attacks and lack of responsiveness. Dwelling on those negative items will not allow you to effectively serve God and your sheep.
- Learn to love your people even when they don’t love you back – In Acts 20:17-35, Paul gives his parting words to the Ephesian Elders. He concludes his challenge to them with the words of Christ that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” In loving your people with the love of Christ, you will be able to give to them even when they are not giving back.
These principles and many more I have learned by observing my Senior Pastor, Andy Davis, at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC. God has used him to revitalize the church, and I have had the opportunity to have a front-row seat through the entire process over the last 15 years. It is my joy to serve alongside of him as an Elder, as the church continues to see the fruit of a long road of revitalization.
Following are some resources from which you can learn more about the importance and hard work associated with church revitalization.
- 9 Marks Audio Interview with Andy Davis, Pastor of FBC Durham, on the story of the church’s revitalization
- 9 Marks Journal Article by Andy Davis on FBC Durham’s revitalization
- Church Planting is for Wimps by Mike McKinley
- The ministry of 9 Marks, which focuses on building healthy churches
- I Am A Church Member by Thom Rainer
- ReVITALize Your Church Through Gospel Recovery by Alvin Reid of SEBTS
- The newly formed Spurgeon Center started by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
- See Southeastern’s degree programs through which you can get more theological training