It’s easier to birth a baby than it is to raise the dead.
I heard those words years ago from a denominational leader, and that statement combined with other indicators led me to pursue God’s call to plant new churches for more than 15 years.
But for the past two years, the Lord has called me to immerse myself in the other side of that equation—church revitalization. Thom Rainer states that 90% of churches are either in outright decline, or, even if growing, still aren’t keeping up with the population growth of the area where they reside. So many churches need new life.
So two years ago, I accepted the call as pastor of one of those churches. Once a large, rapidly growing, and prominent congregation, the church suffered through the moral failure of one leader, followed by a decade of mission drift and opaque vision. When I arrived, the church had declined to roughly one third of what its largest size had been.
Of course, numbers aren’t everything. But numbers are often an indicator, or symptom of things that may be going on underneath the surface. The problem is, no matter how well prepared you think you are, there is nothing that can truly ready you for what you don’t know.
The past 27 months have been a roller coaster ride, and by God’s grace, we are indeed seeing much new life. In that time, I’ve also learned some valuable lessons—five things you absolutely need to lead a church through this with success.
1. Get rid of the Messiah Complex.
There is a parable about a new pastor who, upon moving into his office, found three envelopes in his desk drawer. Each was marked to be opened for the first, second, and third major crises he would face. Before the end of the first year, he opened the first envelope in response to a major kerflufle to find these words; “This is from your predecessor. Blame everything on me.” It worked! But only for another six months. So when he opened the second envelope he read these words; “This is from your predecessor. Blame everything on my predecessor.” Again, that tactic managed to assuage the division. But three months later, in the midst of some of the nastiest conflict he had ever seen, he found himself opening that third envelope, where he read these words; “This is from your predecessor. Take a little time before you leave to prepare three envelopes for the next guy.”
The point? Presuming we are somehow “better” than those who came before us and thus will “save the church” is both arrogant and dangerous. In revitalization, we have a critical role to play, but just as former pastors aren’t solely responsible for a church in decline, we can’t be solely credited for bringing it back to life. That is the work of God alone. At the start, a number of God’s people will try to place you on that pedestal. For your own good, and theirs, refuse to sit on it.
2. Rip out the rear view mirror.
Almost immediately upon arriving at the church, multiple well-meaning folks began to speak about how we could “get back” to the large crowds and prominence the church once knew. But the season of revitalization is the season in which we should keep constantly before our people the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 7:10. “Say not ‘why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
Like a grapevine that has been pruned, the way to growth isn’t through trying to attach the dead limbs of the past back on, but through the new growth that emerges—and that growth will look very different than what came before. In our church, the “heyday” came in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Nearly 20 years later, those things may as well have happened on another planet. Those days aren’t coming back, nor should we want them back! Effective leaders will need to constantly turn their flocks away from the rear view mirror of good things left behind, toward the wide windshield-view of God’s preferred future.
3. Get ready to hurt.
When people leave a church, relationships are strained and awkward. That means when you agree to lead a church through revitalization after a long period of decline, you are choosing to enter a strained and awkward place. As pastor, you need to be prepared to “wear” some of the pain your people experienced long before you arrived, in addition to the further pain you too will experience as you lead God’s people through the cultural changes necessary to become who God wants them to be.
By God’s grace, our first two years have seen average attendance grow by roughly 20% and baptisms have more than doubled. But we have also had more than 100 people walk away. That’s because for a variety of reasons, as vision gets more clear, some people just won’t like what they see. And when they leave, it hurts.
The “turnover rate” alone in the first two years is enough to emotionally torment any compassionate pastor. Truthfully, there is little any pastor can do about that. It’s the reality that accompanies any necessary change to bring the church back to new life. So don’t deny your feelings. Process them with trusted friends and counselors. But don’t live by them, or you just won’t make it.
4. Refuse to play the “comparison game.”
This is perhaps the hardest thing for the leader to avoid, and its not always because the leader is comparing himself to other pastors. Mostly, its because of the unavoidable fact that you and your church will be compared to other churches. In the earliest days, those who lead with you will lament how much better some other churches are doing. When this happens, don’t get angry with the people who compare. They have been there longer than you and experienced the pain of watching many walk away. In that moment of comparison they are simply expressing that pain. Shepherd them well through it by re-directing their focus toward what God is doing.
Recently, we have begun to start every meeting of our elders or executive staff with “celebrations.” Leaders are now sharing the small victories that come each and every Sunday. Those serve as signals that God is truly doing a new thing in our midst. Praise Him for what He is doing in other churches, but don’t compare yourself to them. Nobody wins that game!
5. Keep your head down and keep going!
Some churches can be turned around in as little as three years. Others may take between 7-10 years. None of them will be turned around if the pastor isn’t committed to daily faithfulness.
Transitioning through static processes, recalcitrant structure, and people of habit is a daunting task. If you aren’t prepared to keep slugging it out, if you don’t want to deal with the emotional pain, or don’t have the patience to see this through, then find a different ministry environment in which to serve. Ed Stetzer expresses it well: “If you want to be liked by everybody, don’t be a pastor. Go sell ice cream!” But if you love God’s people more than your own image and are willing to dedicate your life to helping them find God’s future, then 90% of existing churches on this continent await you to fulfill your call!
Two years in, I recognize that our church isn’t “out of the woods” just yet. But during that time, I’ve seen God bring the right people at the right time, and do great things that I believe are just a glimpse of the greatness to come. Paul said it best to the Galatians:
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up. (6:9)
It is easier to birth a baby than it is to raise the dead. But we serve a God who specializes in resurrection. So don’t give up on that church pastor. Keep serving her, investing in her, and developing her. The harvest is coming!