Practical questions to ask before entering church revitalization
Every church revitalizer must remember that new life comes about not by pushing all the right buttons, but by the grace of God.
There is no sure-fire recipe for ministry success. There is no checklist for prospective churches that can guarantee a pastor’s church revitalization efforts will prosper. God could send fire down from heaven one day, and you still might be chased out of town by a murderous matriarch the next (see 1 Kings 19:1-3).
However, I do think there are specific red flags in a prospective church revitalization that can signal almost certain failure. In my almost four years of church revitalization, I believe I can point to five specific essentials without which my time at College Street would have been doomed from the start.
I recommend making sure you can answer these five questions in good conscience before pursuing a church revitalization opportunity.
1. Does this church honor the Bible?
As you enter into discussion with a church, it is essential that you ask the search committee and leaders this question: “What does this church believe about the Bible?” Ask to see their documents—constitution and bylaws, church covenant, and statement of faith. Does the church at least pay lip service to the sufficiency, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture?
It may sound unkind to say “lip service,” but a church needing revitalization may not fully comprehend what it means for the Bible to shape everything they do. But if you are going to have any possibility of success, it is important that a church at least believes in the primacy of God’s Word in theory.
The Bible is a church revitalizer’s playbook (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It’s okay if a church doesn’t know everything in the playbook or exactly how to use the playbook. But if a church rejects the Bible in part or whole on principle, you are going to have a near impossible time playing together.
2. Will I have any functional ability to lead?
I have heard over half a dozen stories from friends in the ministry who have been frustrated by desires to revitalize while lacking the ability to effect large-scale change. If a church is eager to bring you in as a youth pastor or associate pastor to “help turn the church around” or “help us go in a new direction,” be careful. It’s really hard to lead up.
Be reasonable in your expectations. It’s one thing to go in as a senior pastor with the practical ability to cast vision, gently shepherd, and faithfully lead over several years. It’s a different thing to serve on a staff led by another pastor who may or may not have a heart for revitalization.
There is nothing wrong with serving in a subordinate role to effect minor changes in specific areas of ministry. However, don’t expect to make sweeping changes if you haven’t gotten on board with senior leadership that is passionate about gospel-driven change.
3. Is there a champion?
Does anyone at the church realize the church needs to be revitalized? Most churches don’t put in their job listing: “In need of serious revitalization. . . young seminarians with lots of patience, please apply.” However, it is disingenuous to come in with an objective to revitalize a church when none of the leaders have any intention or desire to make changes.
Even churches that realize they need revitalization will not fully comprehend the depth of their problems. That’s okay. The question is: Is there a champion? Is there an influential leader who has a do-whatever-it-takes mentality? They may not know the Bible really well. They may not understand ecclesiology or systematic theology, but will they be a loyal champion of the cause? This person or these persons can be of huge help to you.
As a pastor, you need an influential champion among the members—someone who will have your back through thick and thin. The Lord Jesus has provided one for me at College Street, and I know I would never have made it this far without him.
4. Can I faithfully give a firm, soft answer?
Certain personalities are made for revitalization. Here’s a good test. When you play sports and get fouled, tackled, or hit, how do you respond? Do you get easily heated? Do you get back in the other guy’s face? If so, church revitalization might not be for you. Patience and thick skin are musts for revitalization.
“Patience and thick skin are musts for revitalization.”
In the first several years, you may find yourself on the receiving end of plenty of wrongful accusations, misrepresentations, and red-faced, hateful diatribes. You may have members who intentionally try to get under your skin and try to bait you into an argument. Can you imitate Christ? Can you absorb blame for others and remain quiet in the face of false accusations? Defending yourself is usually not an option.
The first time you respond with a raised voice or an elevated tone you might as well be drafting your resignation letter. In those moments, you have to be able to faithfully stand on the Word of God and give a soft answer. Solomon warns: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word [spells disaster for church revitalization]” (Prov 15:1, insertion mine!)
5. Is my wife on board?
The single most important gift God has given me these past few years has been a wife who is completely committed. The wife of a church revitalizer may have to endure years of sacrifice. She may have to watch as members berate her husband. She may experience loneliness in a church lacking other women her age. She may have to fight embarrassment over the lack of “coolness” at the church as she tries to embrace people who are very different from her.
And yet, a devoted wife can prop up her husband through thick and thin. There have been times when it felt like my wife was the only one on my team. There is no benefit to you in trying to convince your wife to do something for which she isn’t ready. Talk with her about the church, the town, and the schools. Make sure the Spirit has gripped her heart. Because you will need her—more than you could ever imagine.
God’s Spirit must do the work
Ultimately, every church revitalizer must remember that new life comes about not by pushing all the right buttons, but by the grace of God. As ministers of the gospel, we plant and water, but ultimately it is “God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:17).