4 vital questions to ask during a revitalization process
Revitalization demands that we learn how to live with the tension between the way things are and the way God wants them to be.
I have a love/hate relationship with home renovation shows. You know the ones I’m talking about. This couple picks an outdated and dilapidated old home and then with the help of some fancy computer program they’re able to see what the house could look like (with the right amount of money, of course). In less than an hour, you get to watch as the old and ugly house is replaced by the new and beautiful one. The new house is revealed to the overjoyed family and they live happily ever after – The End. The process is quick, clean, and easy. Church revitalization works nothing like this.
While I love the transformation from the “before” to the “after” in these shows, as a pastor in the thick of church revitalization, it can also be a frustrating reminder of how painfully slow the process of change really is. There are no quick fixes in ministry. And so revitalization demands that we learn how to live in the monstrous and messy gap between the “before” and “after” — that we learn to live with the tension between the way things are and the way God wants them to be, all the while seeking to slowly and faithfully take us one step closer.
The trouble is, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan. There’s no step-by-step process we can follow. Why? Because every church is different. Yes, every church needs faithful preaching, prayer, and godly, humble leadership – but at some point changes will have to be made. And the timing, order, and manner in which those necessary changes take place can make or break a revitalization effort. To use a home renovation analogy, if you start knocking down load-bearing walls without the proper supports in place, you’ll quickly find the whole structure collapsing around you. The same is true with revitalization. The right move at the wrong time can derail your efforts and undermine your best intentions. So, it’s with this in mind that I offer these five questions to ask before making a change:
- Is the intended outcome spiritual or superficial?
Whenever we step into a church in need of revitalization, the primary need and issue is almost always spiritual. However, what’s going to grab our attention is the cringe-worthy décor, building issues, and outdated media items everywhere we look. And while there is certainly a time and a place for addressing these issues – beware the impression that updating the look of your church building or website makes you a healthier church. Outdated or run-down buildings, websites, media, etc. are merely one superficial symptom of a deeper spiritual issue. Yes, they need attention, but not if it distracts from the more significant changes that need to be made first. For many pastors in their first few years, this just means you need to leave the paneling and the picture of Jesus alone for now and focus your attention on being with your people, prayer, and preaching.
- What and who else is going to be affected?
When you reach the place where you’ve identified a specific structural or procedural change that needs to be made, just make sure you know who else it’s going to impact you. Just like every piece of a house is connected to some other piece, so every change you make is going to impact someone or something beyond that immediate situation. In other words, before you go pulling out a two-by-four, just make sure you know what it was holding up. This is the only way you can wisely evaluate whether or not the change is worth it.
- How long has it been there?
Some traditions become harder and harder to dig out the longer they’ve been around. Before you make a change, it’s a good idea to know how long it’s been in place. Something seemingly minor can be a big deal if you’re messing with a tradition that’s been around longer than you’ve been alive. Some of what seemed to be the easiest changes turned out to be some of the most difficult simply because they had been in place for so long. At our church, we had always sung the doxology after the offering and before the message. I wasn’t prepared (foolishly, it seems) for the backlash I experienced when we sang something else one Sunday. When I asked people why they loved it so much, their only response was, “Well, we’ve always sang it.” So, be aware that often minor changes can create major reactions if they involve long-running traditions.
- Do you have the support necessary to do it?
There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a home project and realizing you really need another set of hands in order to get the job done. And just like having enough “hands” is critical to some home projects, your ability to make substantial changes in a revitalization process will also often need help. One of the most substantial shifts we made in the first few years of my pastorate was to move towards meaningful membership and to clean up our inflated church rolls. This was a long and involved process, but one of the most important steps I took was to spend months specifically investing in our deacons to make sure they both understood WHAT we were doing and WHY it was necessary. When the process was presented to the church, several people were upset, but because our deacons fully understood and supported the action, the opposition quickly faded. As one of my bosses used to say, “If I’m going out on a limb, I’m taking someone with me.” Since change is always risky, it’s a good idea to take as many people with you as you can.