Nine of ten churches are either declining or growing so slowly they are not keeping up with the growth of the community. Many churches are just a few years away from dying and closing. Revitalization is an urgent need. Thom Rainer
“set in order what remains” (Titus 1:5 NASB)
We were part of a church plant back in 1988, which experienced the highs and lows common to Evangelical churches moving through the widely acknowledged lifecycle of a church. There are various labels or descriptions of the stages a church passes through on the way to revitalization or oblivion and it’s helpful to recognize where your church is in the process; especially if you have the sense your fellowship is declining numerically and/or spiritually.
Dale Roach lists six stages:
- Plateau and Decline
- Living Dead (I was pleased to see another pastor employ this analogy since I’ve written about Zombie Churches here)
The fellowship we were commissioned or sent out to plant in 1988 passed through the church lifecycle three distinct times in its 30-year history, before finally giving up the ghost. When the third strike came, none of the founding pastors remained with the history and “information… necessary to have a clear understanding of the ‘life of a congregation.'” According to Dale Roach, this placed the fellowship in a precarious place when the church plateaued for the last time and began its final descent.
In this article, Thom Rainer identifies what characteristics and attitudes emerge, when a plateaued or declining church is revitalized and returned to health. And, he’s spot on. Why do I say that? Because I’d witnessed the revitalization he speaks of, not once, but twice in the life of our church.
The article wasn’t published until 2015 when the final fate of our church plant was already sealed in the third and final decline — or, so it would seem in hindsight. Really, only the Lord knows why one church fails while another flourishes, but the signs were all there. The numbers dwindled, resources became scarce, and it was operating on a survival budget with practically all of the cash going to staff salaries. The church merged with another struggling church and the new congregation birthed by that merger dissolved in less than a year. It never even entered the church lifecycle. I have no insights into why it collapsed so suddenly.
Before that, we successfully navigated the plateau and decline stage of our church plant not just once, but twice (!) and all eight characteristics of a successful church revitalization were evident to some degree or another. The first time was a bit chaotic and ill-defined. The second time around was just as Thom describes in the article.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5 ESV)
First, our leadership team recognized the need to change and decided to go forward, rather than disband and free the people to serve at established churches in the area. A majority of the current members or attendees were on board.
The pastor-elders1 were able to move the core members, Biblically, back to a Gospel-centered mission mindset that looked beyond the walls of the church, and its narrow parochial interests, and out into the wider community. We reprised our roles as ambassadors for the Kingdom — our church returned to the role of an embassy within our town, rather than a citadel or castle protecting us from those outside the walls. We returned to our 1988 roots, gathering weekly around Jesus, in order to scatter and see His kingdom expanded in the world, through the Word of God, in the power of the Spirit.
A clear and compelling vision was formed, a mission crafted, and we determined to follow the Lord wherever He would lead us. That meant we had to change, both individually and collectively. We needed to repent.
Long-held attitudes, traditions, comforts, and sacred cows were confronted and dealt with. If they served the Gospel, they were retained and integrated into the mission. If they distracted us from our calling and direction, we let them go.
We experienced a sense of urgency and incredible blessing during both of those successful times of renewal, along with the intense criticism Thom describes. Dear friends, some we had known for 20 years, moved on to serve faithfully in other churches and denominations in the area. It was often heartbreaking. I wouldn’t describe it as a pruning, as if people who moved on were dead wood and we were the productive ones. It was as if the Spirit was communicating a specific role for our congregation and some of our friends would fill a more fruitful role in one of the other excellent churches in the area.
In both of those times of renewal, the power of the Spirit was evident, the Word of God was bearing fruit, we witnessed Jesus followers develop into disciples who make disciples, we saw effective ministries birthed, and even experienced numerical growth.
Although it was a successful church plant and bore faithful witness for decades, we were unable to transition to the second generation after 3 attempts — the fellowship completed the church lifecycle for the final time almost 30 years to the day in 2018. The good news is that there are great churches in our town that exalt Jesus, hold out the Gospel, and serve the community in love.
“Christ is proclaimed, and in that, I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18 ESV)
What does a revived and renewed church look like? Read Thom Rainer’s Eight Common Characteristics of Successful Church Revitalizations.
Thom’s book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church paints the portrait of a church that was unable to turnaround.
- The New Testament uses the terms elder, pastor, overseer or their various other translations, such as shepherd or bishop, interchangeably. This NT vocabulary serves to illustrate or emphasize the character and various functions of the leader(s) in local Christian communities. So, when I speak of elders, pastors or overseers on this blog, I am referring to the same leaders within a church – an elder is a pastor and an overseer. [↩]