There is a trend in church culture where you have to declare what type of pastoral work you are going to do and pursue it as a specialty. Either you are a church planter or church revitalizer. Sadly, what can get communicated is this: if you want to do something exciting and quick, you plant; if you want to do something boring and slow, you revitalize.
Instead, the focus should be on being faithful to the call that God has placed upon you to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2).” So I want to propose that church revitalization should be better understood as church strengthening, that is, encouraging and equipping a local church toward being a healthy, biblical body of believers. I want to contend that church revitalization, as I’ve just defined it, is worth the effort for at least three reasons.
1. There are people who need to be shepherded.
When you first enter into a revitalization context, there is a temptation to only look at how far the church has fallen in terms of numbers. It is easy to see where the church was during her heyday and to use that standard to measure the church you inherited. While we certainly need to be aware of where our church has been, we cannot allow that reality to overshadow the needs of the current members. Those who remain are often the ones who have labored week by week for the kingdom, and this can lead to them being weary and tired. Please do not mistake this fatigue for a lack of impact for the kingdom.
These saints have served faithfully and need to be cared for by you as their pastor—both publicly and privately. They need you to be among them and pointing them to God’s Word so that they may be “complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).” They need you to meet with God each day through His Word and prayer. Do not view these saints as the “leftovers” or the “junior-varsity squad.” Rather, ask God to put to death any wrong view you might have of your brothers and sisters and to give you eyes to see them as “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28).”
2. There is gospel work to do in your neighborhood.
One thing that will be evident as you learn about the community in which you serve is that there is plenty of gospel work to do. One way to learn about the community is to listen to your people share what they know about it. Sometimes the church is so out of touch with the community that significant education is required in order to find out what the community actually looks like. Either way, as you begin to rub shoulders with the community you will see those who need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, those who need to be provided for physically, and those who need encouragement in their walk with Christ.
The temptation will be to think that you can do all this work yourself. You will come into the situation with fresh eyes and with energy, and the needs will be many. But your role is not to do everything yourself. You can’t and you shouldn’t. Rather, your role is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Equip the people with the Word of God and labor alongside them in the work of the ministry.
3. God’s Word is ultimately doing the work.
We’re tempted to think that every time we preach, someone will “walk the aisle.” However, our focus must be on preaching God’s Word faithfully, trusting that His Word is doing the work. In referring to the work of the Reformation, Martin Luther famously said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” There is a difference between saying that and believing it. For church revitalizers, we must labor knowing that God’s Word is always at work in our people’s lives even though it might be years before we see fruit.
There was a man in our church who was a charter member, a faithful husband, a father, and a deacon. He was the type of servant who was at the church several times throughout the week to see if anything needed to be done on the church grounds; he visited the sick and the shut-ins; he read his Bible everyday; he never missed a service. On Sunday nights in the Spring of 2017, we walked through a series titled, “How to Read Your Bible.” I began to notice something changing in this brother as we walked through this series, but I could not put my finger on it. At the end of one service, I opened the floor for anyone to share thoughts or to ask questions about anything I had said. This brother raised his hand and said, “I do not have a question, but a statement. I have been studying the Bible as long as I can remember. But I must say I know God better today than I ever have and it is because you have taught us God’s Word.”
He died the next day due to a freak accident of falling off a ladder. He was 83. I share this not to make you think that I have some special anointing. I share this to point to God’s Word doing a fresh work in a brother’s life after years of hearing God’s Word in various settings.
For pastors involved in or considering work in church revitalization, we have a task before us. As God strengthens us, may we faithfully shepherd the flock that is before us, laboring with them in the communities God has placed us in, all the while trusting that His Word is working to strengthen our churches.