A couple of days ago I began to share some thoughts about the important work of revitalizing existing churches and encouraging young men going into the ministry to consider this area of ministry. During the first year or two of a revitalizing project the Pastor must seek to really get to know his people and ministry context. More important than making immediate change or seeing immediate growth is to develop relationships and learn as much as you can about the community and church you’ve been called to serve.
One of the most successful revitalizing Pastors that I have ever met was names Ken. He is retired now, but many years ago he took a small country church that had been declining for a number of years. The first steps Ken took was to start visiting with members of the church in order to get to know them and to hang out at a local coffee shop in order to get to know people in the community. For over a year, Ken didn’t make a single change to the church. He simply preached the gospel, built relationships with his church members and got to know his community. His church didn’t grow during that period but it did stop declining. He didn’t baptize anyone that first year, nor did he launch any new innovative ministries, but what he did was even more important. He established a base of relationships and understanding that would later lead to consistent and lasting growth. Ken understood that church revitalization is a marathon rather than a sprint. He didn’t get in a hurry and built a foundation that resulted over a decade of consistent church growth. Ken is an example of patiently getting to know his people and context before making change. Unfortunately, his story is the exception rather than the rule.
Several years ago I was asked to talk with a Pastor who had taken over a church and was meeting a lot of resistance. As I talked to him the problem was fairly clear. He had been at the church for less than 6 months but had already attempted to change the worship style, the order of service, the deacon board, the Sunday school literature and a list of about twenty more critical issues that he felt needed to be dealt with immediately. What made the situation even worse was that he had not really taken the time to get to know his people and to understand the needs of his context. In other words, he didn’t have the relationship of trust with the people to make the kind of changes he was making. Nor did he really know what the church needed. He was making changes to fit his preferences and preconceived notions without really taking the time to discover whether they were really needed. Within a couple of months after our meeting he was off making a mess out of the next church. Unfortunately, in his wake he left a church that was disillusioned and distrustful, making life even more challenging for the next Pastor who had to try to clean up the mess.
My suggestion to every Pastor of a new church is to build relationships and really get to know the ministry context that you are serving before making any changes. In fact, I would strongly recommend making very few changes in the first year of your ministry. Just preach the gospel, get to know people and seek to understand the community. Often times, a young and energetic Pastor will make a lot of changes in his first year that he will regret in his second and third year of ministry — that is if he makes it to a second or third year.
The work of revitalization is sometimes agonizing slow but patience is the key to making a effective change. This does guarantee you won’t face difficulties when change is implemented — change is still change and will always be difficult. But by taking time to really get to know the situation you will be better equipped to make good decisions and having established solid relationships the people will trust you and give you more grace. So take your time, get to know your situation and the people in your church before you start making changes. You’ll be glad you did in the end.