The church seems empty. The parking lot only has a couple of cars in her large lot. There appears to be no life left in the once-thriving church. In a last-ditch effort to save the church, the church board hires a pastor with a family believing that a younger pastor will save the church. When the pastor begins to change the ‘way it has always been done,’ there is a strong push back. Over time the pastors’ efforts to revitalize the church are thwarted at every turn. Out of frustration more than a call, he leaves the church to become the pastor of another church. Sadly, this scenario plays out weekly in dying churches all over America. Churches have to begin asking themselves; Is this God’s best for the church, to either die in self-rule over God’s rule?
If a church is to move from the death spiral into stabilization and eventual healthy growth, a church has to realize that the church is not ‘there’s but ‘His.’
Recommit to serving the community instead of just serving those on campus.
Far too many churches are tucked away off busy streets, an island unto themselves, a club, more than a religious center, with the full benefits of membership and fellowship, but isolated from their call to serve the community. If one were to dig into the past of the church’s history, they would find not one major decision to isolate themselves from the neighborhood but slow, steady decisions that drew the walls closer and closer in on themselves. What was sometimes decades in the making will not be a turnaround with one blockbuster outreach event or even several throughout the year. But, a consistent outward-focus where members walk in partnership with the needs of the community.
If the church wants to move from lip service to community service, it must serve the community with a God-centered focus rather than an us-centered focus. This takes lots of prayers, a full-surrendered spirit, and deliberant outreach where the focus is on the agency, the program, or person in the community rather than the church.
Resubmit to the authority of scripture and to Christ, and not just an influential leader within the church.
Who is running the church? God? The pastor? Or the church boss(es)? The temptation in a declining church is for a member or members to cling tightly to control because they are invested in seeing the church stay open. Too often, the investment that was started out of a place of love for the church is quickly overtaken by pride and arrogance that they are the only ones who can save the church. This misplaced authority eliminates the authority of God and scripture and hardens their unwillingness to cede control over to the pastor or new attenders in the church. Fiefdoms become the norm, and the kingdom of God becomes less and less. While outsiders may realize this is scripturally backward and threatens the spirit of God within the church, the church boss tightens his grip on the church.
Lay leaders are not the leader of the local church. God has called an under-shepherd to lead the local flock in the mission and vision that he has spelled out for every church. If a church is to grow spiritually healthy, they have to resubmit to the authority of scripture and God’s called pastor and to allow him to lead them forward.
Restore what has been lost by not holding on to the past.
As the church lies slowly dying, the memories of days long past seem to engulf the church. Tokens of celebration (memorial plaques, a dedicated room, etc.) become golden calves that enshrine the church in idol worship. What was meant for good has become the final nails drilled into the coffin of the soon departed church. Revitalization is about celebrating the past, evaluating the present, and preparing for the future. Restoring what has been lost (families, neighborhood relevancy, and Christ engagement) lets go of past practices to claim what God has for the church today. It does not mean a church has to forget its history, but it does mean they cannot cling to that history, or the church will become history.
Throughout scripture, God did a new thing using an ancient thing (His Word, his guidance, and people’s obedience) to build his kingdom. Restoring the declining church is more about restoring the church’s relationship with God than attachment to things. Submission is not easy, but it is needed if the church will become the church that Christ has called her to be in this season of her life.
Repair past hurts to restore God’s legacy within the church and community.
Prayer becomes the central tenant of a turnaround. Prayer, which leads to repentance for past wrongs and hurts that the church has caused, is crucial in the church evaluating where they have been and where God wants to take them. Restoration comes to a church when she can see past wrongs, seek forgiveness, repent, and turn from those wicked ways. The church’s legacy is not a negative one but one of grace for those around them. To win the community, the church must first win the spiritual war through prayer. Prayer cannot be a two-minute bullet point printed in the bulletin as part of the weekly service line-up but an intentional part of who the church is becoming.
Repairing past hurts will not mask that those hurts affected people; it will prepare hearts for what God wants to do new within the church’s life. Prayer positions the power of God to prepare the way forward to become a community-centered church.
Redirecting from what has always worked into adapting to what needs to be changed.
Change is not easy, or it would already come about. Change brings out the worst in people when the change arrives at their ministry doorstep. Change can cause church splits or, at the very least significant fights within the church. Who wins when change is denied or delayed because of a minor, powerful cluster in the church? The devil. The evil one wants nothing more than to sow division and discord within the walls of the church. If the demonic forces can keep God’s people fighting inside, they will miss opportunities to expand the kingdom for God outside her walls. Churches that revitalize adapt to the changing nature of their time and community needs. Sometimes that means programmatic or wholesale structural change within the church.
Instead of protecting programs, the church has to turn from professing Christ with mere words to partnering with agencies and groups that reach people groups that the church is not currently reaching. A gospel-centered Christ-focused church is a church that walks alongside people to make Christ-like disciples. That takes intentionality and adaptability.
Refire the passion to allow new programs and people to lead.
Can a church be saved after years in the death spiral? Yes, the simple answer is if there is a remnant of believers who will allow themselves to be the spark of renewal. Revitalization is all about rekindling the passion for what God wants to do amid death. Scripture reminds the reader that old bones can come alive again if there are willing people to move past problems through prayer into a spirit of passion for the lost. Everything that the church has done in the past must be assessed for gospel effectiveness. If a program does not reach people for Christ, then the program should be retired to prepare for a program that will enable the church to reach the community in a new way.
As part of the refiring process, turnaround leaders should pray for new people to lead or current members to refire their passion for the lost so that the church can become an effective field hospital for the sick.
The church of Jesus Christ is not dead. While a building may lay dormant and His people scattered, the church of Christ is very much alive. For far too long, the world has had a hold of the church and has slowly killed her. It is time that the church takes back the power by becoming a church built on the foundation of Christ as her cornerstone.
Desmond Barrett is the lead pastor at Summit Church of the Nazarene in Ashland, Kentucky