We are running a series on church revitalization. I’m thinking often and deeply on the subject lately, and it has led to our new Mission Group course (see the note at the end). I am setting a broad table of church revitalizers, from different traditions and backgrounds, asking them what they did and how they did it, and having them tell you the story. We will link them all together so you can follow, consider, and even debate their ideas.
With the vast majority of North American churches plateaued or declining, there is a great need for more pastors and church leaders to get trained in church revitalization as well as to learn from those who have led renewal.
We hope this series will serve you well as you seek renewal at your church. So far, we have welcomed Dr. Eric Bryant to tell you the story of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas; Ross D. Shelton, Pastor of First Church Brenham in Brenham, TX; Jonathan Barker of Together Ministries in Thornville, OH; and Bob Morgan, Lead Pastor of Rosewood Church in Columbia, SC. Today, I’m glad to welcome John James, Pastor of Crossway Church, a revitalization project in Birmingham, UK. He is the author of Renewal: Church Revitalisation Along The Way of the Cross.
Crossway Church had given themselves two years to die well. The question for us was, Were any other options possible? The answer was, “Not necessarily.” Only God can bring about revitalization, and he is under no obligation to revitalize my church. Every good thing we enjoy, and every plan we make that comes to fruition is a generous gift of God towards us. We gain a right confidence, by losing confidence in ourselves, and placing in God.
As Joshua approached Jericho, he asked the commander of the Lord’s army, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come”’(Josh. 5:13-14).
It is easy to think that God must be on our side as a struggling church. We argue that our shrinking is a sure sign that we must be faithful. But we need to ask, not if God is on our side, but if we on his. Are we willing to follow his lead? Will we die to ourselves for the sake of Christ and his church? This is the heart of discipleship. The Lord is in command, not us.
Before arriving at Crossway, I was a people-pleaser. I didn’t think I could handle conflict, or lead the church through the necessary change. A more experienced church leader explained that the conflicts that change produces are not something to fear, but unavoidable, wonderful opportunities for discipleship. Our Christian growth is made of these moments—when worlds are rocked, comforts are challenged, and we must decide who is in command.
Of course, just because my church may die does not mean God’s church, the church, is dying. “On this rock I will build my church,” says Jesus (Matt. 16:18). But it is his church, not mine. In practice, that means some churches will die, some churches will be planted, and by God’s grace some dying churches will be revitalized.
I want to suggest three theological foundations that give us a right confidence to consider revitalization. As we gain confidence in God, our false confidence in ourselves, our churches, and our favored methodologies will begin to melt away, and we will be fueled to pursue the task before us with joy.
First, God Gives Life
Jesus said to a festering corpse, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). The explanation of the empty tomb of Jesus was “He has risen!” (Mark 16:6). “The universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is see was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3). And the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” makes “his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
If one of the arguments against revitalization is that “it is easier to give birth than raise the dead!” then the obvious reply is, “For whom?” Our God loves to breathe life into dead things, loves to make something from nothing, and loves to choose the “things that are not” to nullify the things that are. Re-creation and resurrection bring him glory!
It might have been possible, under God, to establish a new church plant in our community. But it would have been a tragedy if fear had stopped us from considering revitalization. Our zip code is in the top 8% most deprived in the country. There is a history of faltering church plants locally. Because of an arson attack, the Anglican church was burnt down 15 years ago, and it was the only other local church building.
In communities like this, buildings and history matter. Because God loves revitalization, we now have a multi-generational church family meeting in the heart of a large housing estate, in a building that gives us an accessible, well-established and visible presence in our mission field.
God was gracious in bringing about the right circumstances for revitalization to happen. He was gracious in initiating the right conversations. He was gracious in gathering a core team. He was gracious in the existing church responding positively. He has been gracious with every subtraction, addition and conversion.
But first, God was gracious in revitalizing our hearts. The faith we share with Abraham is faith in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). Why believe revitalization is possible? Because “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32). God has been gracious in revitalizing our church by leading us back to his enlivening Son.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, John James