Church revitalization is a big topic right now. It’s no secret that the majority of churches in America are plateaued or declining. In fact, Lifeway shared that around 70% of congregations are in those categories. But there is something that has been gnawing at me as I see some of the conversations and outcomes related to modern-day revitalization.
To begin, I have a confession about this article: It has been hard to write. I think the main reason it has been so difficult for me is because I’m writing more from my intuition than from a lot of research. It’s not that I dismiss research. Nothing could be further from the truth. But in this case, the data is still being gathered. So much of what we’re observing in our efforts to help churches get healthy is still a work in progress.
Another source of my apprehension comes from not wanting to be misunderstood. I don’t consider myself an expert or guru when it comes to helping pastors and churches experience health. My reason for serving at 95Network honestly comes out of a deep burden on my heart for the broken state of many of our churches and pastors.
But there is an even more pressing issue to me. It comes out of my concern for the next generation. In most cases, church revitalization efforts are concentrated on the problems of today, which is understandable. However, I think it’s critical to realize the far-reaching implications on the church of tomorrow should we be unsuccessful at turning things around. Reaching the next generation should be an absolute core value in all revitalization efforts.
So with that said, let me share why I’m writing this article today:
Anyone who has led an attempt to revitalize a church will testify of the pain and difficulty it brings. Feelings are hurt, relationships are forever broken, polarization is cemented and the community around us becomes aware that things aren’t going so well at our place of worship.
The tension that revitalization conflicts create can make even the strongest leader lose confidence.
The results of this tension can eventually cause us to bail out of bringing about real change. In many cases, churches that have operated in a certain way for decades are now being challenged to change.
Inevitably, the tension can escalate into conflict when the “way we’ve always done things” is called into question. And if we aren’t committed to the process of change, the tension will lead us to compromise on following-through in implementing the tough decisions. For so many churches, to compromise means getting anyone who is committed to change to simply repackage doing things the way we have always done them.
Put simply, revitalization that results in changing the appearance of our ministry without changing the approach of our ministry will only be short-lived.
In other words, hiring a younger staff member or painting the building and adding new carpet as we continue operating as we always have won’t work.
But the pressure that is built during the tension of evaluation is often too much to bear. Instead of relaunching with a renewed mission, vision, and strategy, we just find ways to change the appearance of how we operate and call it revitalization.
I address this issue in my upcoming book, Stalled: Hope & Help for Pastors Who Thought They’d Be There By Now, in a chapter called “Transformation.” I wanted to share an excerpt:
“Friend, it’s time to expand our faith. We must confront the comfort of resting in our unique generational characteristics. Without doing so, we will never be open to real change. Our ability and capacity for growth and connecting with younger generations will be found in embracing new ways of communicating the message.
Jesus addressed this in Luke 5:37–39, as He confronted the reluctancy of people who refused to accept the Gospel because they were satisfied with the old legalistic system they had always known. “Also, no one ever pours new wine into old leather bags (wineskins). Otherwise, the new wine will break the bags, the wine will spill out, and the leather bags (wineskins) will be ruined. New wine must be put into new leather bags (wineskins). No one after drinking old wine wants new wine, because he says, ‘The old wine is better'” (NCV).
Here are some enlightening parallels we can draw from His example in this passage:
- The wine is new. The transformational process (fermentation) for the new needs room to expand as it develops.
- The wineskin is new. The container that holds the new needs the flexibility to grow with the expansion.
- The old wineskin won’t work. Attempting to put a new, transformative process in an old container results in everything being lost.
- New wine can only be preserved in new wineskins. Jesus removed the possibility of ignoring the need for new. In other words, we can’t refuse to do things God’s way and expect Him to bless it.
- Old wine tastes better. All wine connoisseurs know this. They will always choose an older vintage over a newer one.
The Message Translation states verse 39 like this, “And no one who has ever tasted fine aged wine prefers unaged wine.” I’m so glad Luke included this verse at the end of this teaching. Jesus simultaneously gives us a great illustration of the modern church in my opinion. There is so much depth and comfort that comes with our former experiences. The character and faithfulness of our church traditions are as priceless as a bottle of wine that has been aged for decades.
But the glaring issue that must be resolved is the impending reality that we will eventually have no wine if we only enjoy the old wine. The only way to ensure that we have plenty of old wine in the future is to make sure we create plenty of new wine today.
Therefore, as leaders in the church, it is our specific responsibility to create increased capacity for new growth while honoring the heritage of the old. I want to challenge you to do your part to help close the widening generational gap. History teaches us that it will not shrink on its own. Only with courageous transformative leadership will our churches work to find the common ground needed to create positive solutions.”
The ability of transformative leaders to withstand the tension associated with change will determine the results of these efforts. Leaders who cave in may very well go along with appearance changes and call it revitalization. But I’m praying for courageous leaders who persevere through the tension in order to help our churches develop an entirely new approach to ministry. In most cases, this new approach calls for a relaunch.
As Tony Morgan shares in his book, The Unstuck Church, any church that finds itself on life-support only has two options:
Option #1 – Pull the plug and die.
Option #2 – Relaunch.
At 95Network, we are pulling for every leader who is dealing with the tension that comes with change. We want you to know that you are not alone. We, along with many other ministries throughout America, are here for you. But the reality is this: In order to bring about lasting change, you must be willing to lead the effort to actually change. Not repackage. Not tweak. Change.
So if you are leading your church or other churches through revitalization, my message is simple: Let’s hold our ministry methods with open hands so we can rediscover why God has us in our community and be willing to actually change our approach to ministry so more people in our area meet our Savior.