The Joy of Church Revitalization
by Robert Murry
If you are willing to view revitalization as God’s plan for you, as well as His plan to advance His kingdom, there can be great joy in revitalization.
By Robert Murray*
I have planted a church and know the excitement of new faces, clear vision, and unquestioned leadership. Planting a church is a high calling, but let us not overlook the fact many churches close each year because the right leader did not step up to the revitalization challenge. Bringing new life to a struggling church does not usually come with words such as excitement, clarity, or unquestioned. But seeing a church turn around and become healthy can be rewarding. If you are willing to view revitalization as God’s plan for you, as well as His plan to advance His kingdom, there can be great joy in revitalization.
Most of us know that the people, structures, and traditions that precede new pastors can include pitfalls and snares. However, because something is difficult does not mean it is not worthwhile. I cannot presume to know your situation, nor should I say that my experience is universal. I can only sympathize with your struggle and note some things God helped me to do right. Eventually, you will be able to look back over your shoulder and say with a smile, “Wow. Look what God has done, and I had a chance to help.”
1. Become the Public Leader
The Lord led my wife and me to a church of 21 members, whose attendance graph was so flat you could griddle pancakes on it. There are reasons some churches are small. Some have deeply entrenched traditions that are almost impossible to uproot. Others lack the energy or knowledge to get to the next level. I believe the most common reason for stagnation in smaller churches is a strong individual whose personality exerts control over the entire church body.
Before we moved, I received a phone call from my new church’s strong individual. The content of our conversation is irrelevant, because his intent was to let me know he was in charge. As I hung up the phone that night, I asked myself if it was going to be worth it. Humanly speaking, it was not; but God had a call on my heart, and this was His open door.
The first thing I did was establish myself as the public leader of the church. I will explain why I call it public leadership later. From the beginning I lead the services. This may sound simple, but in a matter of weeks the strong personality deacon was yelling at me for not closing the service the way he had prophesied it to be done. The pastors who had preceded me must have cowered to his personality. Unfortunately for this deacon, I knew of no other way of pastoring than by leading the service, so I continued to do so as the Holy Spirit directed me, ignoring his public and private words.
In a few months, we had modest growth. Anyone who was in attendance on this deacon’s final Sunday remembers him standing in the front of the sanctuary, looking around, and counting noses. The next Sunday, after the deacon and his family left the church, the membership was down to 14, but the attendance remained the same. It was not just seven members who left, but seven tithing members. Yet, it was the best thing for the church. The Lord brought in enough finances for us to meet our needs and our average attendance slowly began to rise.
Initially, after this deacon left, the church breathed a sigh of relief like a beaten dog whose abuser just walked out of the room. Ten years later, this family still trashes my ministry and the church, but their audience has dwindled.
Personally, as the crisis with this deacon approached, I did what most would do. I updated my resume and called my superintendent. He wisely said, “This will define your ministry. Please stick it out.” This would be the first of many such calls and encouraging words. Hindsight says he was right, but nevertheless it was a painful walk for both the church and me. It has taken years — and many right decisions — to build health into this abused congregation. The Lord gave us strength during sleepless nights. I could show you the scars, but you will not be able to see the character and faith it worked in me.
2. Early Victories
John Maxwell talks about having 25 cents worth of credibility in your pocket simply for being the pastor; then as you make decisions — either good or bad — that credibility is either built up or reduced. This leaves you with pocket capital to make 50-cent or 15-cent decisions. Early on, I had to spend every penny’s worth of my pocket credibility on a huge risk. Fortunately, the outcome did not rest with me alone, but with God having instilled the vision in the heart of our parishioners.
If you are in a church revitalization, God’s ministry to your congregation did not start with you. God had someone there before you laying a foundation. My predecessors dreamed of a building the church could call its own. This vision rested on pure need. There were no quality places available for rental in our town. This resulted in shared space, the frustration of having to take down and set up classrooms, and the lack of a permanent identity in the community. We were a submarine church, appearing on the horizon from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Sundays when we put out our sign and then disappeared beneath the waves. These earlier pastors preached about a new building, drew pictures, and planted the vision I was privileged to build on.
The words risk and sacrifice sound great when we view them in the rearview mirror, but they are scary when you are staring them in the face. Without the potential for real failure, real victory would not be so sweet. For 14 months we constructed our building using only volunteer labor. There were times when I was alone on a snowy Saturday morning in January pounding nails and gulping black coffee. Other times God would send a skilled electrician or HVAC guy.
A church also has 25 cents worth of credibility in the community simply by being a church. As the church’s history unfolds, the church either enhances or diminishes its credibility. Our project did much more than just give us a building; it gave us respect in the community. Somehow, we not only built a structure, but we even attracted enough attention to add to our attendance.
An early success does not need to be as grand as a building or a physical improvement. It could be something as simple as taking a missions trip, mowing the tall grass around the church sign, or repainting a banister. Rewards are often commensurate with risk. Something that is God-inspired will rally and encourage the whole Body. A successful project validates your leadership, but it also unites toward a common goal, builds momentum if stagnant, teaches sacrifice, and best of all pleases God to see His kingdom advance.
3. Become the Real Leader
Some say there are a hundred reasons for leaving a church after a building program. I could probably list 99 of them from experience. I updated my resume, even interviewed with a pulpit committee. A few days later my district superintendent stopped by for a chat. He was pleased with the direction the church was taking and the new building. I had his blessing. As he was getting into his car to leave, he casually asked me if there were any things left undone. It was as if God himself was speaking to me. I knew there was one thing that needed to be done — I needed to raise up good leadership for the church to survive. I looked at my shoes and answered him truthfully. Within days I withdrew my name from further consideration. I knew I had to stay.
The old guard was happy as long as things went their way. They thought I would build a building and then move to a bigger church. Then the old guard could have the church back, albeit with a new sanctuary. I knew they would chew up the next guy as they had done to my predecessors.
These battles usually deal with power, change, or direction of the church. Most times, they start out as small challenges and then escalate to guerrilla warfare before they break out into open conflict. These are months and years that really cause sleeplessness and prayer. Please do not get me wrong. These are good people who love the Lord but would prefer the sheep follow the old rams rather than a shepherd. As pastor, you do not want to beat them, but you do want to out-pray and out-maneuver them.
During the guerrilla warfare stage, the old guard showed public support but subtly undermined me. I noticed it first in strained relationships, even with people you have known for years. At this stage, my leadership team constantly asked for an updated directory and looked for more platform/public ministry exposure. Then the snipers took a few shots to try to kill me off. Someone even broke into my computer hoping I had pornography on it. They examined the church books to see if I had misused funds. Even my secretary found herself on the defensive constantly. The shooting war starts when the old guard begins to call or send letters to the district office or send mass e-mails to the entire membership.
During the “great war” (as my wife calls it), I survived for several reasons:
(1) Good growth
By the time the war went public, 95 percent of the attendees and 80 percent of the membership had come in under my ministry. They liked their pastor and the direction the church was pursuing. Old guards rarely have great relationships with newcomers. Like old rams, they keep going over the same boring ground, and an influx of new people makes it harder to attract interest in their tired old story.
(2) Submission to God
You must be willing to act and say what the Lord would have you to do and say — to refrain from doing or saying anything beyond His will. I did not like doing this, but I had to make courageous decisions for the health of the church. Twice I asked a board member to submit a resignation. However, I did not bring the war into the pulpit. I protected the worship services and the pulpit and kept it as a spiritual time for the church. Most of your people do not care about the political struggles of leadership. They come to hear what God has for them. Know that your detractors will take every word you say from the pulpit and use it as ammunition against you. Be sure you preach a pure word from God. It is tough ministering with a distracted heart, so stay focused on ministry, not survival.
(3) An armor bearer
Pastors of small churches are supposed to be loving and kind, but that does not mean they are to be politically naive. I was fortunate to have an armor bearer on the board that managed to protect me and take many of my hits. When there was an Absalom at my gate, I knew it and could deal with it quietly. He was the type of newcomer that all could respect and, in the end, he fell on his sword for my ministry.
My “great war” did not end with surrender or defeat, but rather a truce. Even though I had plenty of reasons and evidence to ask the leader of the old guard to leave the church, my superintendent asked me to put the sword away. It was the toughest act of obedience I have ever had to do. I learned to obey and submit as well as lead. Years later, both of us are still in the church. I am learning how to be a better pastor and mentor those who tried to put me out in the street.
Real leaders must lead and grow in many ways. This was the darkest ministry situation I have been through. Becoming the real leader, the deep rudder of the church, is one of the things I did right.
4. Changing the church’s DNA
The last thing that needed to be done was to change the DNA of the church. Each church has its DNA and real change requires molecular-level work. The problem with our DNA was this: We were geared up for a particular culture, but the community we were in was of a different culture. Nothing was wrong with our particular church culture other than it excluded others. In some parts of the country, micromarketing to a particular culture is fine, but our community required us to be broad and all-inclusive.
One by one I had to deal with things that offended many people in our community. Slowly grumpy greeters were replaced with people who could smile and carry a casual conversation. I said no to donations for a picture of Jesus on velvet, no to painting the church’s name vertically on our new steeple, and no to someone in a chicken suit as a church mascot. (I cannot make these things up.) We decided to keep our building as clean and clutter free as possible so as not to offend anyone. We decided to be as organized as possible to be a good example to and encourage those who read the bulletin and newsletter and expect things to start and end on time.
A powerful pastoral technique is to feed what we want to grow and starve what we want to die. Around 11 percent of the church’s community is nonwhite, yet I heard a long-time member say, “The church was great before (a specific ethnic group) moved in.” Rather than directly confront, I quoted Paul’s “neither Jew not Greek … you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) so many times I got tired of saying it. I fed the concept of Christ’s love for all. I also kept the racists from having a public forum. I highlighted our growing number of internationals by having them sing in their native languages during our missions convention.
Letting anyone go is not easy, but I have had to let offensive people go for the health of the church. I had to let go talented musicians, the wealthy, and even some I thought were hilarious and had great times with personally. Strong personalities, odd personalities, and even unstable personalities will come to your church revitalization. All may initially appear to be a blessing, but over time they will reveal why they left their prior churches. The most disheartening are the ones you led to the Lord, but even these you must hold with an open hand. You cannot allow one sheep to dominate or offend the others simply because he likes a certain style of music, wants the whole church to meet his personal need, or feels he should have great influence because his tithe is larger than others. Sometimes to add you must first subtract, and no pastor likes subtraction or division.
At a marketing level, feed the qualities and characteristics in your sheep that you want to grow, and starve the attitudes that must die. Hindsight says it is another one of the things I am doing right.
At a far deeper level than church culture is the spiritual work of the Holy Spirit. During the revitalization process you learn more about loving others. I am on a spiritual journey. Our church revitalization is a major tool in God’s hand to make me into Christ’s image. My wife and I joke that the more we wanted to leave, the deeper our roots had to go for more spiritual life to sprout. The connection between the two is inescapable.
Healthy things grow, and so has our revitalization. By today’s standards, we are still a modest church, and I am sure challenges are ahead because the devil does not give up ground easily. We have changed from being a church I could not attend if I lived in the area to one that is easy to love. We have seen the church go from a struggling revitalization to a healthy church. It has been a privilege and joy to see the years pass and to watch the hand of God working in His church.
*ROBERT MURRAY is a pseudonym.