by Tracy W. Jaggers
My first exposure to Church Revitalization (which was a term I was unaware of during those days), I found that attempting to “fix” a church that was dwindling and broken, had all the complexities of building a super-computer with a pair of needle-nose pliers and a roll of Duct tape.
For me, it was because I was inundated with pastoring my family through a crisis. I was just too physically and mentally drained to expend any more energy, even on the needs of the flock. We had hemorrhaged by 21% before I was cognizant of any bleeding at all. With an unplanned revival, that included me, my family, my deacons and some key leaders, we not only saw rejuvenation, but we surpassed our former status by 37% and began to experience real, unified ministry inside and outside the church. It was not because of an intentional process. It was because of brokenness, confession, prayer and shared responsibility.
Immediately following this revival, I read “Breakout Churches” by Thom S. Rainer. That was us! We were a breakout church by the grace and power of the Lord. I am so glad I didn’t know to lean on any processes or procedures at that time, because God got all the glory.
I am now convinced, through the life of men like Nehemiah, that there is a place and time for an outsider to come into a local congregation and help them rebuild the “walls” of their struggling and declining assembly. Just like Nehemiah, I am blessed to be in a position where we come alongside church leadership and walk with them through a process that has been tested and verified numerous times in the past few years. We do not claim to be experts, just research and development ministers. There are two things we have experienced, that have attempted to stifle the possibility of success in the renewal process; conflicts and cantankerous individuals. Allow me to offer ten hindrances that can become obstacles to a successful revitalization.
1) Misrepresentation of a Willingness/Readiness to Change – change is uncomfortable for many. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” I wonder if he ever changed a diaper. It is not always pleasant – for the changee or the changer. But, when a church is in an “awful mess,” change is the only workable solution to the discomfort. Change may seem like a universally-accepted part of the process, but knowing we need to change, and actually making the change, can be in definite opposition.
2) Leaders who are not totally committed to the process and the duration – pastors can give the impression that they are aggressively for the revitalization process, when in reality; they don’t want one more alligator to wrestle with while they are draining their swamp. They are tackling lots of impressive daily projects, while omitting the things that result in real renewal and health for the church. Some are fearful that the process will reveal their inadequacies or inactivity, and others are simply unwilling to surrender the time it takes to encounter true revival.
3) Fear of losing influence/leadership – this can be true of leaders, or of members who formerly were movers and shakers; when they spoke, people listened. They refuse, aggressively or passively, to lose their perceived power. They don’t care about moving forward, as much as they desire things to remain the same.
4) A presupposition of what the change will look like and how far it will take us from our sacred programs, plans, event, ministries and methods – I have seen situations when there was a barrier of rigidity against any change. It was concerning the perceived outcome to their specific ministry area. The leader(s) and/or the congregation want assurances that the final results of the process will not draw them too far from their comfort zone. They can also be fearful that it will cause conflict to which they are resistant.
5) Expecting the process to fix ALL the struggles – The demise of any church is most likely multi-faceted and complex and the problems and the struggles of the congregation did not happen overnight. Few home repairs happen without numerous trips to the hardware store. We don’t always have the proper tools in our toolbox, or we break something else while we are trying to fix the first problem. Partnership is a vital asset here! Working together as a team is indispensable. Revitalization may not fix everything in the church. It does offer the expertise of numerous laborers, and the tools they have tested, to help facilitate healing, growth and conflict resolution.
6) Holding on to our pet programs or externally-offered events – Would you give up VBS? Probably not; but a church cannot allot all the annual finances and the entire church calendar to VBS. What would the church accomplish the other 51 weeks of the year with no resources and no time? All committees, ministry teams, events, programs and activities must be held with a loose grasp so an accurate evaluation and adjustment may be accomplished.
7) Revering meetings over ministry – Is corporate worship more valuable than the salvation of the lost and the healing of the hurting? Before you say no, take a look at your church’s budget and see where the bulk of the money is spent. Today we tend to build, program, and staff for the weekly worship event over everything else. Sure, it is important, but is that what Jesus emphasized as the focus of His ministry? (Matthew 18:11; Isaiah 61:1-3)
8) Underemphasizing discipleship – Sunday School/small groups/Bible study and the pulpit offer a certain level of equipping. The key to church health is personal growth. The task of the minister is to mature the saints of God into the fullness of Christ by equipping, edifying, unifying and instructing in the knowledge of God (Ephesians 4:11-13). It is every member’s responsibility to dive deep into the Word of God (Psalm 1:1-3; 119:11). No one can physically thrive on one meal a week, served every Sunday morning at 10:45! Each and every day we must personally feed our hungry souls.
9) Leadership “trust issues” – if church members are not following, where can you lead them? I heard John Maxell say, “If you turn around and no one is following, you are not a leader.” It is extremely hard to lead when you have lost the empowerment of others to be led by you – it is kind of like trying to push a garden hose around your yard instead of dragging it behind you – it’s probably not going to end up where you need it to be. We must present a clear and compelling vision and a strategy to reach the vision that includes the majority of the congregation. If they sense the leader is committed, they are more likely to join the venture.
10) Micromanagement vs. membership empowerment – Can you accept different outcomes than what you have in your own mind? Can you accept team members taking a different route to the same goal? Can you even accept temporary set-backs and/or failures? Or, do you demand every member use YOUR terminology and follow YOUR template? Leaders must give both the responsibility for the task and the decision-making authority to do it within the worker’s creativity, gifts and talents! One quality of great leadership is the ability to delegate without micromanaging. Visionary leaders know this, and delegate to move the organization forward to productivity. Delegation reveals trust. The leader who delegates and empowers declares, “You are here because you are a vital part of the process in accomplishing our shared vision, and I trust you to do the work to which God has gifted you.
Always attempt strategies that build bridges to a bright, new future, and be careful not to allow barriers and hindrances that keep the church body from realizing God’s goals of restoration and revival. The Lord needs loving, barrier-busters!
I conclude with nine possible barrier-busters: (not ordered by importance)
1) Perform a change/readiness assessment to determine resistance to or reception of a revitalization process.
2) Unpack the entire revitalization process and the timeline to secure a commitment to the evaluation, assessment and training phases.
3) Reveal the tools that will be utilized to perform the observation and evaluation phases and show how the tools will be measured.
4) Utilize the surveys, interviews, observations and evaluations to give a possible scenario concerning the level that change and conflict may be expected.
5) Train the leadership group in the necessity of teamwork, unifying factors and conflict resolution.
6) Develop a discipleship strategy for small groups, coaching, and one-on-one mentoring. All plans must emphasize biblical advancement with spiritual maturity as its measurement tool.
7) Work with the natural leaders (person(s) of peace) of the church to obtain the strongest positive reaction from the congregation.
8) Prayer! This is not the final straw, but rather the vital conduit for inviting the presence and power of God into the revitalization process. This communication should be a dialogue with God. It should be no more than 50% vocal expression from us and at least 50% listening for the heart and mind of God.
9) Confession – confessing to one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16). Many revivals have been conceived in the confession of one person or a group of people. Confession gets the attention of the Holy Spirit, since He is the one who convicts us of sin, of righteousness and of judgment (John 6:8).