Last Friday on this blog I addressed young men going into the ministry to encourage them to consider the important work of revitalizing existing churches. This week, my desire is to flesh out a little of what it takes to be a successful revitalizer. Today, I want to focus on the single most important step in revitalizing an existing church — refocusing on the gospel.
Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to young Pastors who are taking on a new church I always like to advise them to be careful about making many changes in their first year. Instead of trying to change programs, worship styles, and leadership structure, I encourage them to focus on making sure that the people understand the gospel and what it means to live a gospel-centered life. In reality, this process will usually take more than a year and should be an ongoing process throughout our ministry. But it is vitally important in the first year of ministry.
Do not assume that people understand the gospel just because they are members of the church. Over the past twenty years of ministry I have been shocked at the confusion that I have witnessed among church members, leaders, and even Pastors over the content and response to the gospel. The most common problem that I see, however, is what I might call the minimization of the gospel. This occurs when people think that the gospel only deals with how we become followers of Christ. In other words, they see the gospel as the elementary teaching about how we enter into life with Christ but then we need to move on to the deeper stuff. My contention is that the gospel is the central message of Scripture and forms the fundamental lens by which we view and understand the world. Furthermore, the gospel becomes both the model and the means by which we live out the Christian life.
So my advice for new Pastors is to start by first making sure that your people understand the content of the gospel — specifically the meaning of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Specifically, here I want people to understand the substitutionary nature and completeness of the death of Christ and the role of the resurrection in giving the believer new life. Second, I want to make sure that people understand their response to the gospel by specifically defining it in Biblical terms — to repent and believe in the gospel. If you want to understand the importance of using Biblical terms in defining the response to the gospel I recommend that you read J.D. Greer’s excellent book entitled “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.” That title may offend you at first but I promise that the book presents a solid, biblical explanation of how to present the gospel in clear terms.
Once the content and response to the gospel has been clearly laid out, I recommend that you start working on showing how the gospel can be seen throughout the Bible. That does not mean to simply tack the gospel on to the end of your message, but rather to use the gospel as a hermeneutical lens by which you interpret and understand the Scripture. Show your people how the gospel is present in Old Testament types and figures. Show them how story of redemption unfolds throughout the Old Testament. Show them how the Apostles (especially Paul) apply the gospel to specific problems and issues in the local churches. In other words, saturate your people with the gospel from the pulpit every time you preach. Do this for at least a year before you start making any other major changes.
Revitalization begins with the preaching of the Gospel! Start by patiently, carefully, diligently preaching the gospel. Everything else that you do will flow from this first and more important step.
One of the growing trends that I see among young men entering the ministry is the desire to plant new churches rather than Pastor existing, established churches. The reasons for this are rather simple. Many young guys simply do want to deal with the hassles and difficulties of steering a church back towards health and gospel centeredness, as one young man told me, “Why try to fix what is broken when I can just start brand new.” Young Pastors also know that it is far easier to start an evangelistic minded church than it is to lead an existing church to recapture their zeal. Many young men have simply become disenchanted with the unwillingness of existing churches to engage their culture and adapt their methods. They find that it is easier just to start fresh. Finally, I do believe that some young men are drawn to church planting simply because it is considered the glamorous thing to do or they think they can become the next evangelical superstar. My advice to this last group is to rethink whether or not they have been called to the ministry. The bottom line is that if you are not willing to labor in obscurity you are not fit or ready for a larger ministry. With that said, I would like to give a few reasons why I think more young Bible college students and seminarians should consider taking on the challenge of revitalizing existing churches:
- Jesus died for existing churches, owns them, and loves them– we hear a lot of criticism about churches and church members today but what we often forget in this mix is that Jesus loves these churches and so should we. Sometimes I listen to Pastors and church leaders who seem to relish in pointing out the warts and flaws in the church. Among young pastors especially there sometimes seems to be an arrogance and smug attitude about the problems in the established churches. Let me remind you that while she might have some blemishes and may at times show her age a little, the church is the bride of Christ, therefore, we should all be careful about how we treat her.
- Exisiting churches have resources that can be used to build the Kingdom– Obviously, existing churches have material and financial resources that new church plants don’t always have but I have more in mind here than building and bank accounts. Existing churches have men and women with years of experience in church work and the community. This often goes unnoticed by new Pastors but the collective experience of the people in the church are some of the greatest resources for spreading the gospel. The key here is to reengage their creativity and energy into carrying out the mission of the gospel. The challenge is that sometimes in an existing church this can take awhile and requires patience and humility on the part of the Pastor.
- Exisiting churches are needed to help start new churches- the work of the Kingdom is not just starting new churches nor is it just about revitalizing existing churches. It is both! We need exisiting churches to be revitalized and to recapture their desire to spread the gospel through evangelism and church planting. Often it is good to think of revitalizing a church as a replanting it because in many ways that is that it is. But part of every revitalization project must be the focus on fulfilling Acts 1:8 by planting new churches. In my experience at First Baptist Church, Metropolis I’ve become convinced that one of the ways to revitalize a church is to lead them to get involved in church planting. Here we started by simply becoming a secondary partner with a church plant. We took on the role of simply investing part of our budget in the work and sending a couple of teams a year to help, but this quickly grew and became part of the DNA of our church. Now we are involved in a church planting partnership in Haiti and Chicago but in addition we have experienced a revitalization within our church that has been amazing to watch.
There are several more thoughts running around in my mind about this subject but that is enough for right now. Next week, I am going to try to put some ideas out about the things Pastors need to do in order to lead a revitalization process.