5 surprising lessons from revitalizing a dying congregation
Church revitalization is hard work, and many of the lessons I’ve learned have been not just unexpected, but difficult and painful.
The work of church revitalization brings many surprises. Each dying congregation has its own quirks, blind spots, and sins that led to a nearly lifeless situation.
Eight years into my own church revitalization work, I have learned a number of lessons I didn’t necessarily expect to when I began. Here are five of them.
- Wait for the right time to implement change.
The most common tactic of a zealous pastor beginning a church revitalization—which is the worst thing he could do—is to try to change everything that needs to be changed within the first year or two. Of course the church needs to change, else it would not be characterized as needing revitalization, yet change must come slowly. Trust must be built. Sheep first need to feel cared for by the shepherd before they will follow him down a new path.
The point is not merely that change should happen slowly, but that the timing for any particular change has to be right. In year four of my present pastorate, I almost split the church over a major change. So, I realized that this was not the time and pulled back. Nine months later, the same measure passed unanimously. Change must come slowly, at the right time.
- Don’t underestimate the power of persistent love.
Because the Bible calls us to watch over souls as those who will give an account (Heb. 13:17), pastors cannot choose to care for some sheep and avoid others. Caring for those who do not seem to want our care can make us feel helpless. Yet don’t underestimate the way God powerfully works through persistent love.
Some of the ring leaders of an effort to remove me as pastor five years ago are now warm supporters. What brings that kind of change of heart? First and foremost, God’s power and grace at work. However, God seemed to work through actions of relentless love. You will give an account for all the sheep under your care, regardless of how they receive your ministry, so persistently love them all.
- Don’t underestimate the joy of winning those who were once hostile to you.
Without a doubt, some of my most meaningful relationships in the church are with those who once wanted my head. Some who once prayed that I would leave now pray that my ministry in the church will be fruitful. These people do not think I am the greatest pastor in the world. Nor do they agree with me about everything. Yet through the struggles and battles over the years God was doing something miraculous of which I was largely unaware. Trust was building, understanding was growing, and mutual affection was subtly forming in both our hearts.
- Don’t neglect your elderly members—they’re one of your greatest gifts.
I am increasingly concerned that in the midst of a church planting frenzy, the multi-generational church is fading. Elderly church members are commonly seen by the younger generation of pastors as an unhelpful burden, a hindrance to the work of the ministry—a lie I was once tempted to believe.
You can imagine my surprise when I began to recognize the gift of elderly church members, as well as the God-honoring blessing of a multi-generational congregation united by the gospel. To witness a self-consumed, trendy college student get up and go sit with an elderly widow during a Sunday morning gathering because she was sitting alone is a uniquely powerful display of the gospel. And that display is found only in a local church when old and young are present (Tit. 2:1-8).
- Labor for the satisfaction of seeing unhealthy, dysfunctional church patterns broken.
It is a great joy to see the gospel change a person’s life. That joy is magnified as the gospel begins to change decades of unhealthy, destructive patterns that have strangled the life out of an entire local church. God’s Word and Spirit are so powerful that they can not only build a healthy church, but even take a dying, broken, discouraged congregation and give it renewed life, causing it to flourish far beyond what its founders ever imagined. So labor diligently and patiently to see the gospel transform the corporate life of the church.
The gospel is the power source
Church revitalization is hard work. Every situation is unique and unpredictable. Many of the lessons I’ve learned have been not just unexpected, but difficult and painful. Yet the difficulties are more than worth it. The gospel can not only build a local church, but rebuild it also—sometimes in surprising, unexpected ways.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.