Common Characteristics of Revitalizing Churches

Much of our work in church revitalization focuses on the negative like this article I posted last week: Why Churches Refuse to Revitalize. A while ago I had a conversation with a pastor who is in the early stages of leading a revitalizing church. He shared with me some of their journey. Yes, it is hard work. But they are making progress. So are hundreds of other revitalizing churches. This is good news.

We often remind churches and pastors that there are no easy fixes. Every church is different. There is no one strategy that will get a church unstuck. There is no single plan that will stop the struggle or end the spiral towards death. But there are some common characteristics of revitalizing churches.

Revitalizing churches know their pastor loves them.

The North American Mission Board has identified eight characteristics of a revitalization or replanting pastor. Inherent in each of them is that the pastor loves the church. Or as Mark Clifton often says, “Pastor, love the church that you have, not the church you wish you had.” Ouch. I confess that I have been guilty at times. Especially when the sheep are biting.

The truth is that God has placed the members in your church according to his design (1 Corinthians 12:12ff). They are there for his purposes. And our job as shepherds is to love them. We do that around the dining room table, on their front porch, beside the hospital bed, and at the funeral home. We love them from the pulpit and the prayer closet. Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about a sentimental love that sits around the campfire singing “Kumbaya” while the church continues to fall apart. That isn’t love. A loving pastor leads his people.

Revitalizing churches love their pastor.

Earlier this week I preached a funeral at a church that I pastored more than a decade ago. It is a humbling privilege to be asked to come back on such occasions. And it is always good to see church members whom I love. I especially enjoy when I hear those church members express their love for their current pastor. I heard that a lot this week. They bragged on his preaching. They bragged on his leadership. These church members love their pastor.

A few months ago I was consulting with a church that is in serious need of revitalization. I encouraged them to love their pastor. Then I explained how that love should look. Loving your pastor means praying for him without ceasing. It means encouraging him. Loving your pastor means supporting him like Aaron and Hur holding Moses’ arms as he oversaw the battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13). It means speaking truth to him when he needs it. It means protecting him from the enemy and from biting sheep. But the ultimate expression of a church’s love for their pastor is that they are willing to follow his leadership.

Revitalizing churches recognize reality.

One of the reasons sheep bite is that they don’t want to move. And one of the reasons they don’t want to move is that they don’t see the need. They don’t recognize the reality that they are stuck, struggling or spiraling towards death. It may take years for a church to recognize reality. One revitalization pastor shared with me that it took him nearly three years before his church recognized reality and accepted the need for revitalization. That recognition and acceptance is absolutely crucial for the church to successfully revitalize.

Revitalizing churches build on the past.

Most churches idealize the past. Some churches idolize the past. Many churches long to return to the past. But churches that experience revitalization build on the past. They celebrate the church’s legacy. They understand the church’s history. But they also attempt to see the past through the eyes of Jesus.

In my church consultations I use a Church Legacy Fellowship to help churches see their past through the eyes of Jesus. We celebrate the times and ways God has used the church for his glory. But we also recognize and repent of disobedience and dysfunction in the church’s past. We look at what Jesus said to the seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3. And we seek to understand what Jesus would say to us. Once a church understands the good and the bad, they can build on their past.

Revitalizing churches pursue God’s mission.

Dying churches turn inward. Maintenance takes the place of mission. The church begins to exist solely to take care of its own members, buildings, interests, etc. They cut their giving to missions so they can pay the light bill. They send more members to visit other members in the hospital than they send members into the community or onto the mission field.

Revitalizing churches recognize that good stewardship and taking care of church members are only part of God’s mission for the church. They love one another, but they also love their neighbors. All of their neighbors. Not just the ones who look and act like them. And they live out the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations beginning next door or across the street and going to the ends of the earth.

Revitalizing churches celebrate victories.

Sometimes they begin by celebrating the small things. A member goes on a mission trip. A child gets saved and is baptized. Six men engage in transformational discipleship. A church begins to strategically address deferred maintenance. Celebrate the victories. And recognize that each win builds confidence and momentum for future wins.

Revitalizing churches have hope for the future.

Jeremiah 29 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. We often focus on verse eleven where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I love that verse, but I also love the context in which God said it. False prophets had been telling God’s people that the time of their exile was coming to an end. But God said, “I am the one who sent you there, and I am in charge of your future.” Basically he was saying stop worrying about tomorrow. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 emphasis added).

Revitalizing churches realize that God has placed them where they are for a purpose. God has placed them in a neighborhood, in the heart of a city, or in a rural community for a purpose. And God says to bless the city, bless the neighborhood, bless the community where you are. These churches have hope for the future because they are obeying God. They have hope for the future because they trust God.  Trust and obey. For there’s no other way…