There is a lot of talk and emphasis these days on church planting. While I believe church planting is a vital part of Kingdom work and must not be neglected, there is another part of Kingdom work that is as equally vital—the work of church revitalization. By revitalization, I mean taking something that is dead, dying, or in decay and restoring to it life and health. Church revitalization, then, is about taking a church that is dead, dying, or in decay and bringing it back to life and health.
The work of church revitalization is the kind of Kingdom work the majority of pastors in North America are engaged in. Research indicates that 80% of churches in North America have either plateaued or are in a state of decline.[i] What this means is that 3 out of 4 churches in North America are in need of revitalization. The issue for the pastors of these churches is how to go about restoring life and health to the local congregation God has called them shepherd?
Many things could be said in answer to this question and I cannot possibly touch every facet of the work that is involved in church revitalization. However, there are truths I have learned from God’s Word that have helped me think biblically about what is in involved in this kind of pastoral work. Not surprisingly, I have found these truths in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two Old Testament books record for us an approximately one hundred year period of ancient Israelite history that is pregnant with contemporary significance as it relates to the work of church revitalization.
Here are a number of principles I have learned from Ezra-Nehemiah about the work of church revitalization:
1. God is in control of all things, including the revitalization process.
This is the first and most important truth to come to grips with. God is sovereign and we are not. He leads the revitalization process through stirring up the hearts of His people to engage in the work of revitalization and we are called to participate with Him in the work that He is doing.
2. The work takes time so we need to be patient.
In our fast paced culture that prizes instant results, the dreaded “p” word is hard to hear, but pastors much learn to be patient because change takes time. The work of revitalization that is recorded for us in Ezra-Nehemiah did not happen overnight, but over an approximately 100 year period. In other words, be patient.
3. We need expect loss of people as well as opposition and difficulties.
It is just a matter of fact that when God stirs up the hearts of His people to do the work of revitalization people will leave. There are various levels of commitment that are represented within a local church and those that are the least committed will usually disappear. Others will not be in alignment with the direction things are headed and jump ship as well. Still others will seek to thwart the effect by directly opposing the work that is going on. When this happens, we must remember that when God began the work of revitalization in Ezra-Nehemiah the number of people who returned to the Promised Land to do the work was fewer than the number who went into exile and that opposition and difficulty was a common experience for the people.
4. God’s people must unite around God’s mission in order for the work to take hold.
This is absolutely critical in the revitalization process. The mission the church must pursue is God’s mission not their own. Unfortunately, in our day we have experience a lot of “mission creep,” where the mission of God has been replaced by the mission of man. However, for lasting revitalization to take place God’s people must be united around God’s mission and nothing else.
5. Pastors must prioritize the teaching of God’s Word.
The Bible is the fountain head of the church’s life and health. Just as the word of God created life when there was no life in the beginning of creation, so to the Word of God (i.e. the Bible) spoken through the mouths of His servants brings new life to spiritually dead people. If there is to be any revitalization in our churches, the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word must be prioritized.
6. Pastors must be prepared to always be engaged in revitalization work.
This may be the hardest truth to swallow—the work is never done. The fact of the matter is that churches do not naturally drift toward greater degrees of faithfulness, obedience, and holiness. Rather, we naturally drift in the opposite direction. Therefore, pastors need to be mindful that as long as they are pastoring a local church they will be laboring to keep a church on track and headed in the right direction. The end of the book of Nehemiah illustrated this point nicely.
These are six basic principles I learned from Ezra-Nehemiah concerning the work of church revitalization. They are not anything new and innovative. Rather, they are timeless truths gleaned from God’s Word. I hope you find them helpful as you seek to turn the tide of decline and decay in the local congregation God has called you to pastor.
[i]Malphurs, Aubrey, A New Kind of Church: Understanding Models of Ministry for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 18.