Rethinking Church Revitalization
By Cameron King
Almost 10 years ago after graduating from Southeastern University, I accepted the pastorate of a small church of nine people in rural Georgia. The church had been in decline for decades. More recently it had been without a pastor for over a year. Many pastors did not want to come to a sparsely populated community for little pay to rebuild a dying church with a rundown facility. Due to a sudden change of plans by another church where I was planning to go on staff, I found myself with only this opportunity to do ministry after graduation. I accepted the church one month after graduation. My slogan was, “If they are stupid enough to hire me right out of Bible college, then I am stupid enough to go.”
I thought this was going to be a short-term assignment from the Lord for two reasons. First, I was from the city and had no desire to live in an unimportant place for long. Second, I thought growing the church would be easy.
While in college, I traveled during the summers as an evangelist and experienced much success. I had no reason to think this would be any different. I was surprised that ministry in a small town can be difficult. I was also surprised that a boy from the city could fall in love with a seemingly insignificant place. Nevertheless — small-town, big-town — I knew what I was after. I was after the ABCs of ministry — attendance, buildings, cash flow, and staff.
After being in the community for a year and a half, I was well on my way to growing in the ABCs of ministry, but the Lord opened my eyes to a reality of which I was unaware. The Lord showed me that our community was saturated with people living in poverty. Our church is in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. I also discovered that our community is filled with minorities: almost 51 percent African-American1 and 10 percent Hispanic.2 The first 1 ½ year I was at the church, I didn’t realize I was in a poor, white-minority community. I also made the discovery that the vast majority of the churches in the community were competing for the same small pool of white, middle-class people. These discoveries unveiled the reason God brought me to this community. Our church was to take the gospel to the poor.
I was surprised at the response we received as we reached out to the needy. Many of the indigent of the community had never felt wanted by the church. Initially, we experienced significant numerical growth during this time. It was not long, however, before I realized I needed to readjust my thinking about the ABCs of ministry.
One of the challenges in church revitalization is finding the correct gauge to measure progress. Spiritual markers must be present — a spiritual EKG — to see if Jesus’ resurrection power is reviving the church or if the heart of the church is flat-lined. In modern church culture, the gauges that measure the success of a church revitalization are attendance, buildings, cash flow, and staff, primarily because these arenas of church life are the easiest to measure. I was convinced these gauges were the best when we started ministering to the poor. I heard it said that, “If you go after the people nobody wants, then God will give you the people everyone wants.” This usually is referring to people with money, or growing a large core of people who have an abundance of ministry skill. This has not been true in my church; in fact, the opposite has been true. I quickly learned I needed a new way to measure the success of revitalization, or I was going to die of discouragement.
Why I Needed a New Ministry Paradigm
I needed a new ministry paradigm because of the unique culture that people who live in poverty share. Can we say, culture shock? I quickly learned in serving the poor that there are good reasons why people are poor. The lives of the poor in the U.S. are filled with drugs, sexual immorality, mental illness, odd social skills, intellectual disabilities, crime, laziness, unmarketable job skills, and lack of ambition. These realities make up a portion of the culture of poverty in the United States. Think of the logical ramifications of filling your church with people who are marked by at least one of these characteristics. Now think of the culture shock this creates in your normal, middle class, tithe-paying congregation where the church is filled with people who are at best socially awkward and at worst criminal. It certainly makes waves, and makes people ask, Is this where I want to worship? The people who continue to stay are believers who desire to make a difference in the world.
The second reason I needed a new ministry paradigm is due to a lack of money. An organization can only grow so large without financial resources. Even the indigent have high expectations. This was a reality check. I learned that the poor are truly poor. Teaching them to give is difficult. And when they do give, it starts small. A single mom that makes $150 a week starts tithing at $15 a week. God honors it and blesses it, but it still does not result in our church rolling in the dough. Most churches with our attendance have multiple staff. I am the staff at our church. Thank God for volunteers.
The third reason I needed a paradigm shift relates to equipping the laity. Equipping the poor for excellence is an article in and of itself. How do you delegate office work when half the people in your church don’t own a computer? Of those who do, they have no working knowledge of programs like Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. How do you delegate responsibilities to capable people when they are already teaching classes, leading cell groups, directing ministries, and leading worship? What do you do when 25 percent of the people in your church have no phone? Equipping the laity is difficult when communication requires this much effort. How do you raise up leaders when 40 percent of your church is illiterate? How do you set people up for success in the church when they have never had success in the marketplace?
Discipleship is a struggle when 80 percent of your church hates to read, and nearly 100 percent of discipleship materials are reading-based. Thank God for the Bible on CD. Furthermore, most poor people who have jobs do not get the best work hours, making discipleship and mobilizing volunteers even more challenging. How do you disciple people you only have twice a month? How does this affect your services when only one third of your congregation can make it every Sunday? I certainly do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know they challenge my traditional thoughts about church growth.
The fourth reason I needed a paradigm shift is due to race and ethnicity. Our church is a multicultural congregation. However, many people in the Deep South will never attend a multicultural church. Even believers who love cross-cultural ministry struggle with crossing the cultures of poverty and ethnicity. The challenges of preaching between these two cultures are tricky. We experienced a church split after I preached a message on racial reconciliation.
The reality for us has been when “normal” people visit our church and see drug addicts, the poor, and socially awkward people, they do not return. Attendance, buildings, cash flow, and staff cannot be our measuring stick of the Spirit’s work. Though I once employed these areas to measure success, I no longer do. Thank God we can look to different signs to see the Father’s approval.
A New Measuring Stick
I now look for love without reciprocation. When I see my leadership team loving on people, especially poor people, they are giving without looking for anything in return. When they befriend a person who will never rise to their level mentally, I see God’s heart in action. When I see servant leaders emotionally engaging a person who may never be aware of their emotional needs, then I know God is at work.
I also look at is a mosaic of changed lives. When I look around my congregation, I see a majority of people who have come off of drugs and alcohol. I see people who are overcoming homosexual temptation. I see people now drug free going back to school. I see single mothers trying to raise their children in the godliest way they can, and I am filled with hope.
Almost 2 years ago the Holy Spirit gave us another way to measure our success — miracles of healing. Miracles of healing occur in our congregation on a regular basis. This is a real need when most of the church members do not have health insurance. When we go a month without seeing a significant miracle, then I know it is time for us to seek the Lord. God has graced our house for healing for the sick.
Miracles of provision also reveal to us the smile of God. There have been so many times when the church was behind on its bills and after we sought the Lord, God did a miracle. Dozens of times the Lord spoke to people outside our congregation, and they wrote a check. When this happens, we are reminded of God’s love for the poor.
We are also seeing an incredible grace on many of our volunteers. On any given Sunday, people in the church write half the songs we sing. Our worship leader and her husband have an incredible psalmist anointing on them. The Lord is giving them songs from heaven almost every week.
In the last 12 months, we have seen three volunteers go into full time ministry. One of our volunteers restarted a dying Assemblies of God church in a nearby town. The church gave its blessing as she and some of the members of the care team went to revitalize this dying work. We sent one of our deacons to be an associate pastor of an AME church in town. In a few months, he will accept his own congregation in the southern part of our county. A large Methodist church hired our children’s coordinator to oversee their preschool and children’s ministries. I know she has prayed for one person there to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. There has been a special grace on people who have partnered with God’s vision for the poor, and in that we rejoice.
Most people in our church have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. They know they need a Comforter, Counselor, and Source of power. We have an Hispanic family in our congregation; the mother is an illegal immigrant and had gotten sick. She needed an hysterectomy and was unable to work. She asked her teenage children, who are U.S. citizens, to fast and pray with her every day until God provided money for food and until her health recovered. I was not aware this was happening until I noticed her children were fasting. Her children were lukewarm spiritually at best. Yet, the reality of God came alive to them when He started providing their food on a daily basis. Their mother is almost completely well, and God is now as real to her children as He is to her. It is amazing how people grow when they are forced to trust in the Lord.
How do I measure success? When I see terminal cancer healed, when God speaks to a person in another state to send a check for a $1000, when dozens of people are delivered from drugs and alcohol without attending Teen Challenge, when a congregation of recently saved individuals speak in tongues and prophesy, then I know that God is among us and church revitalization is taking place.
I close by clarifying that the ABCs of ministry are not bad. I hope this church will one day experience growth by multiplication, develop its 15 acres with state of the art buildings and technology, have positive cash flow, and staff members for every area of ministry. But until these hopes become reality, I have to keep four truths in mind. One, my self-esteem cannot be built on the realization of these hopes. Two, attendance, buildings, positive cash flow, and staff are not the only areas that measure the health of a church. Three, the ABCs of ministry do not determine if the Father is smiling on my life. Four, I have to choose to believe the previous three statements even when my emotions are tempted to believe otherwise.
If you are a pastor, this article is not an excuse for mediocrity. It is a challenge for you to reevaluate what church revitalization looks like in your congregation. It is a challenge to identify the fruit of your own calling in contrast to subjugating yourself to the bondage of a static cultural definition of success. You have now been commissioned to rethink church revitalization. Please enjoy the ride.
John Cameron King, pastor, First Assembly of God, Cairo, Georgia
1. The Georgia Department of Communities Affairs, “CityScapes”; available from http://www.dca.state.ga.us; Internet; access 6 September 2009.
2. The US census says we are 7% Hispanic, but all government agencies in our community say we are about 30% Hispanic.