One of the singular blessings of my life was the opportunity to work with the great Granny White church at the specific time that I was honored do be invited. My life was blessed and continues to be by the imprint of those good people. My ministry is richer for the time spent there. Any regrets I may feel would be for my own shortcomings, weaknesses and inadequacies.
It was ten good years. They did some things right. Most of it happened before I got there but set the table for any “successes” we might have had over those grand years. To be very clear: I don’t want to oversell - there were many mistakes, mostly mine, but it was a great time.
When we moved to work with the church there with it's very rich history, we were told that the church there needed a time of revitalization.
I’ve been a part of a fast growing church plant and a part of helping rejuvenate a tired church - both are rewarding and both have their unique challenges. I believe every congregation does. Each church has its own set of opportunities and obstacles.
Here are five invaluable observations about church revitalization:
1. Remember: It is important to be able to celebrate the past without getting stuck in the past. There are a number of dangers here. One is the danger of so hallowing the past that any current successes seem minimized. When we would have Sundays of 450-500 some saw it as hum-ho because “once upon a time” we had been at 800. If you do not celebrate present-day reality successes you will become very discouraged. The other danger is that of forgetting or worse, demonizing the past. If you do this the faithful and loyal will feel stepped upon and unappreciated. You will also become tempted to jettison the past, and if you are not careful, you can in the process jettison doctrine as well as the program. If you are going to move forward with new-found energy you must both honor the good of the past as well as leave it in the past and celebrate the successes of this day. In forgetting the first the long-loyal will pray for your failure if you forget the second the present energy will find somewhere their efforts will be appreciated.
2. Realization: Why does it seem so difficult for us as humans to see what stares back at ourselves in the mirror? When I first met with the leaders at Granny White they had already studied the matter. It was the older members who had commented: “At the rate we are going if we do not do something we will not have enough men in 10 years under age 70 to make it through a day’s worship without using some of our men more than once.” That was a bold, brave statement of reality. If you wait too long you’ll be attending a funeral asking “what happened?’ Please notice. If members or ministers do this without the elders on board it will lead to huge conflict that will only cause the church to decline more rapidly. I can speak for preachers best. Take your time. Help them see the potential of the work, of what can be done, and that it must be done together as a team: Without that you are beating your head against the wall.
3. Repentance: The Sunday happened before I got to Granny White but the elders did something bold that it is way to rare that you hear of elders doing. They appointed 10 new deacons and in the charge to them the elders were clear - “we have for too long held onto work that is deacons work. We pledge to give you the authority and empowerment to do the work the Scriptures charge you to be about.” This is so very hard to do. It’s hard to admit mistakes of the past. It’s hard to let go of authority. It’s hard to let men make mistakes or do it different than you would. It’s hard for the members to allow it too. They will continue to strive to “go around the deacons.” They will question if the elders are aware, or if they are doing their work by not being involved in every decision. That concept of elders denies the clear indication of what shepherds/pastors are to be doing.
4. Re-evaluation: The leaders must be ready to seriously consider the work that the church is doing. Within the bounds of scripture, they must look at every work to determine what is working and what needs to be reworked. This too is hard because old brother Jones began that work many years ago and we “have” to keep it going because a) we loved brother Jones or b) his family is still here and may get mad if we kill their granddads programs or c) we’ve done this every year for x (insert impressive number) number of years. Programs are programs - we must be ready to quickly fall out of love with them when their work is done.
5. Re-start: Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do once we realize we need to do something is to start. We know we need to exercise, diet, de-clutter, get our finances in order - and we are committed to doing it later. So, set some goals, dream some dreams, plan some plans - but make sure you hit the re-start button and get going.
One more note: The church is the Lord’s: not the preacher’s, the elders’, or even the members’. We get to be a part of it but it belongs to Him. So, never forget: He has more invested in, is more committed to and is more deeply interested in it’s growth than you. He’s on your side. And remember - it will be OK (Matthew 16). Congregations will come and go, be strong and weak, face valleys - but the Church that is Of Christ will not be defeated. Your congregation may die, whole cultures where the church exists may dry up BUT all the while another congregation is flourishing another culture exploding with passion for God’s Kingdom. Be faithful to Him and it will all be OK.