“Throughout the Christian church’s history, there have been challenges, but a tiny remnant of believers has always been used by God to do extraordinary things.”
In early March, it became apparent that the church would have to change. Covid-19 was sweeping across the nation and had come to my corner of the world. With the threat of an unknown, and unseen virus lurking at the church’s door, the church board decided to close its doors for four months. During those four months, the church would still serve our people but in a hybrid model with services held via the internet, communication taking place through social media, and weekly post cards using old mediums to connect with my people. Throughout the Christian church’s history, there have been challenges, but a tiny remnant of believers has always been used by God to do extraordinary things. For the first time outside of the traditional difficulties in a revitalization effort, the winds of change had blown in a pandemic that no one of my generations had ever encountered. As my local church was coming off the second-best year in the past fourteen years, the pandemic’s timing would grind to a halt all the momentum built up.
Over the next six months, the church would lose 50% of its in-person worship attendance, its Youth Pastor, Children’s Director, Worship Leader, and a Board Member. Each of these losses, born together, created a massive loss while trying to navigate through a pandemic. 2020 will go down in my ministry and that of the local church as one of the most challenging years in the local church’s history. Church revitalization has taught me not to get too emotionally down when falling back after moving forward in a church year. In life, a revitalizer experiences a lot of starts and stops along the way. Instead of being discouraged by all the negative changes, I have taken on the view to see it as positive, believing that God is moving the right pieces in place for the next season of acceleration in the church’s life. I paused with each loss and celebrated those who served in this last season and then began to look forward to who God would bring to help build the church in the next season of her life.
During this change period, as I sought God in prayer, he spoke four-reminders while leading through challenging times that could become your markers for sustaining yourself during a changing season.
Hold to the promise of the call
Stressful times in ministry can cause one to question their call. I am hearing that more and more pastors are walking away from their calling to the local church because of the high-stress moments and unrealistic expectations placed upon them by their people and themselves during a change year. The revitalizer must ask themself: who called me? Who do I serve? If the answer is the local church, they are already putting themselves at a disadvantage to their true calling. The call that has been placed on a pastor’s life is from God. It is spirit-filled and divinely given. During this season, the tools that are needed are already inside of the called; the called in turn, must realize that the desires or the lack thereof regarding fulfillment is not from God but from doubt sowed by the evil one. God believes in the revitalizer. God has called the revitalizer. God wants the revitalizer to hold firm to his call and not doubt the challenges that lay before him, but the revitalizer must obey and stick it out.
Be patience with the pace of change
Do you remember the very first time you walked into what would become your church? The sense of expectation, the calling to a new place and people. There was a newness of it all. Like most pastors, you had a significant honeymoon period where you could do no wrong. But over time, there started to be pushback. More and more, the pioneers of the church tried to reassert their control. With that, the conflict appeared between the pastor and the pioneers. Forcing the pastor to decide does he stay or move on. The revitalizer should remember that they are in a marathon, not a sprint. The downturn in the church did not happen overnight and will not be reversed quickly. The pace of change must be localized, understanding the needs on the ground at that local church and not seen through the church’s eyes down the street. Patience becomes the long-term guide in a significant turnaround. Any structural change should be done to build upon each step as building blocks of future effectiveness, becoming permanent over time. Change is never easy, and for a change agent like a revitalizer, it can be frustrating. However, patience becomes the key to enduring a seasonal change and coming out the other side healthy and robust.
Embrace the season you are in
Change is an inevitable part of life and ministry. As the church adapts to changes instituted by the pastor, the revitalizer must embrace the change that this pandemic has forced upon the church. As a change agent, the revitalizer must assume what he can change in front of him while keeping an eye on what is up ahead. At times revitalizers get caught in the ‘horizon effect’ where they are looking too far forward; they get tripped up on the small things in front of them and slow down the progress. When the winds of change are pushing against a revitalizer’s momentum, he needs to redouble his efforts in paying attention to what is happening in the current season before he gets too far ahead acting on the next season. This is a delicate balancing act for sure, but an important one. Sadly, I have heard of too many pastors during this season, pushing through their vision and missing what the people want and need. In turn, they are being run out of town. God reminded me as I prayed for direction, slow down, do not rush through this challenging season, but instead embrace it and glean lessons for the future.
Be willing to change
The church I had last spring is not the same church I have today. I bet if you look around your church, you could say the same thing. Instead of praying that God would bring you back to the ‘glory days’ of last spring, begin to pray that God would change your heart to see the change as useful. I can already hear someone say, ‘no way!’. I get it; change is hard. Yet we ask our churches to change so they can become healthy again. Can’t we take our own medicine? Throughout scripture, we read how God changed destinies through an obedient heart. What is God calling you to die too? Numbers? The lack of control? Whatever pains you when you think of your church during this season, that is the thing that must die. Give it to God and allow him to carry that burden. Be a willing vessel that God can shape and reshape to meet the challenges of the moment. Do not be like one of your pioneers that holds tightly to the past. Be adaptable and allow God to use you in a new way in this exciting season.
I know for sure that as I close out the most challenging year in my ministry, God is still on the throne, and he still cares about the local church. As a pastor, I have had to adapt to the new norms while always helping my church progress forward while pastoring a church that does not look like the one I started with at the beginning of the church year. God has reminded me to hold fast to his call, have patience with myself and others, embrace this season of change, and be willing to change to meet the challenges of this new season. With God, we all will get through this and come out better for it.
Dr. Desmond Barrett is lead pastor at Summit Church of the Nazarene in Ashland, Kentucky.