The Ministry of Revitalization Pt 2— Seek to Know Before Making Change

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.

The Ministry of Revitalization Pt 1

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.