A Conversation about Church Revitalization with Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman
Jonathan: Mark, let’s talk about church revitalization. And to do so, I’d like you to give a “before and after” photograph of Capitol Hill Baptist Church—a quick snapshot of then, and a quick snapshot of now.
Mark: In 1993, the pastor before me had resigned under not so good of circumstances. And the congregation was in the middle of a city which at that time was considered the murder capital of America. Since the 1960s, people had been moving out to the suburbs so a lot of the city-center churches had declined; many had moved out or just closed and sold their buildings. CHBC was no different; they had become an older congregation.
Johathan: What was the church like?
Mark: Like I said, the church was largely elderly. The building was in disrepair. But the people were faithful; they loved the Lord. I wouldn’t say they had been that well taught, and they’d had a long series of short pastors. They’d had a long pastor in the first half of the 20th century, but from the end of World War II on they would change pastors about every five years. These pastors were all evangelical with perhaps one exception. They were all Bible-believing men.
I think the congregation had adhered together around cultural things more than anything else: meals, certain kinds of music, programs, activities. And I think they took a sense of importance from where the building was located, you know, a few blocks from the Supreme Court and the Capitol building. That gave them a sense that we are in a place of unusual significance for the gospel to spread.
Because of this, they were big on evangelism, a kind of Billy Graham evangelism, with altar calls and the like. And there were missionaries, most of whom were sent out in the 1950s under a Columbia College grad who was the pastor of the church and presided over a huge resurgence of mission activity. So I came into a long history of faithfulness.
Jonathan: And at this point, how many people attended regularly?
Mark: About 130, most of them between 70-75 years old.
Jonathan: More than 20 years later, what does CHBC look like now?
Mark: Now the congregation lives not in the suburbs, but here on the Hill. The last time we had somebody count, 55% of our members lived within one mile of the building. When I came here, very few people lived within one mile; even most of the pastors before me lived out in a parsonage somewhere in Virginia.
The congregation is also a lot younger. The average age is now probably 30. We’ve maximized the seating, so now we have roughly 1000 people on Sunday morning— and the building is basically full.
And can I say something about that? A full building is great for helping other churches. Because when you’re full, then you don’t have to participate in the myth that you’re the only good church around. Suddenly, you’re free to tell people to go to church closer to where they live. We’re able to find other good churches or foster good churches if there aren’t good churches there.
Jonathan: So, evangelism and missions? Have those things changed?
Mark: With evangelism, I think it’s much of the same. We no longer have an altar call but in my sermons I hope I am calling on people to repent and believe as much as any preacher they’ve had. I’ll often say things like, “If you’re here and you’re not a believer, we would love to give you a copy of Greg Gilbert’s book Who Is Jesus? for you to read.” We’re looking forward to fruit from that.
Jonathan: What about personal evangelism? Are members sharing the gospel more, or less?
Mark: Well, I can’t be sure, but I think more. When I came here, the church was pretty focused on having an “event” culture. We’d try to invite people through advertising—the radio, the newspaper—or we’d have a big event to get people to come so that the paid professional dude would tell them the gospel.
But what I’ve tried to do—through great use of prayer, love, and guilt—is to encourage people to realize that they have a responsibility to be sharing the gospel. We want to equip our members well enough to know the gospel so it’s quick to be on their lips. We want them to understand it well, so they are easily able to handle it deftly in conversation. So it comes out more easily, more naturally.
And regarding missions, I will just say we ended up supporting fewer couples but with more money.
Jonathan: What’s the advantage of that?
Mark: We don’t want people to spend the majority of their time raising support. So, if we’re confident in them, instead of giving them $500 a year we’d give them $35,000 or $70,000 a year, like they were staff member.
This frees them up to actually be missionaries, and it clarifies the relationship: they are clearly accountable to us, and we are clearly responsible for them.
Jonathan: Let’s transition to the vague topic of church “culture.” Are there other ways you can describe the change of culture between then and now?
Mark: I wasn’t a part of it before so it’s hard for me to say. The congregation I encountered here was very kind, very hospitable in the rural South kind of way, where some of the members had come from. But now, the kind of hospitality that characterizes our church isn’t easily explained by cultural norms. It’s deliberate hospitality, often with people you would have little in common with.
Whereas conversations previously would have likely been concerned with family and football, now I think they would also be about the sermons, discipling relationships, evangelism opportunities, questions about faith, struggles with sin—all of it, I hope, openly shared.
Jonathan: So, you’ve been here for 21 years. Are you a “church revitalizer”? Would you call yourself that?
Mark: I’m sure I have called myself that, and I’m sure I’ve been called that by others even more. I certainly am in favor of church revitalization. But I wonder how much our language of “revitalizer” is potentially unhelpful. I wonder how much it pre-supposes a kind of evident success in our ministry, with little thought of the guy who will be the next pastor of the church.
So I wonder how good of a title “church revitalizer” really is. Certainly, we desire to be revitalizers; we desire for God to revitalize, to revive his church. But to be able to say ahead of time “I am going to revitalize this church”—well, that’s hubris, that’s pride. We can really say that we long for that and desire that, we work for that.
Some folks have asked me before: “Is the ministry at CHBC replicable?” After all, that’s a criticism I’ve heard from people sometimes: “Mark’s a good guy, but he just doesn’t realize he’s gifted in ministry. He thinks it’s because of these things so he goes on about his nine marks but really it’s just the Lord’s blessing him and he gets all these poor guys excited about these nine marks and then nothing happens.”
Well, I think I understand at least some of what they are saying. But I also want to make three observations.
First, If I’m giving myself to the ministry of prayer and the Word like the apostles were in Acts 6, then that is certainly replicable. There is no way that would be unique to me or to this place.
Second, the kind of things that we do as a church—our commitments in ministry, our theology, our understanding of the church, polity, and membership—all of that is certainly replicable. There’s nothing unique here that means this is the only place those things can work.
But third, if by “replicable” someone means, “If you do these things then this kind of evident blessing will necessarily happen”—if that’s what they mean, then I say, no, nothing is “replicable” in that sense.
That’s out of our hands and up to the Holy Spirit. I’ve never once thought, “Because we have expositional preaching, we have a packed church and people are getting saved all the time.” I’m not even tempted to think that, because I’m sure there are preachers out there better than me, who are more careful with church discipline than me, and their churches aren’t packed. It’s a blessing of God the Holy Spirit, and our tendency is to want to say, “Look! Do you see this great revival? I’m going to reverse engineer this thing and see how it happened, and then I’m going to come up with extraordinary means so that I can enjoy these extraordinary blessings.”
While it’s entirely right to want extraordinary blessings, to pray for them and labor for them, the way we want to labor is not the gigantic prayer rallies, the unusual things, the things that aren’t normal. Instead, it’s the regular, daily, and weekly means of grace: it’s the preaching of God’s Word, it’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it’s being a member of a local church, it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s these normal things that we are to do and then God sometimes blesses in extraordinary measure. So, I think that the title “revitalization” can only be said after looking in the rearview mirror to describe what God chooses to do to some churches when they get a new pastor.
Jonathan: So, looking in the rearview mirror, has God has revitalized this church?
Mark: Certainly in some ways, but even then I oddly do not want to say that this church was entirely without vitality before I came. They were an evangelical church; they were preaching the gospel. There were sociologically and demographically some challenging circumstances, and I appreciate the faithfulness that was here. But definitely, by a lot of external means, yes, this church has been revitalized.
But just like Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Look, I planted and Apollos watered, but it’s God that gives the growth.” So, if you really want to press hard on identifying the revitalizer, that would be God, He was the revitalizer.
Jonathan: So let me see if I get you to sum it up for us. You’re pro-pastors giving themselves to the work of revitalization.
Mark: Yes, big-time. I’m very thankful for the center for church revitalization and for NAMB’s legacy church plant division. I’m thankful for all of these new emphases, as they are a way to boost the faithfulness of pastors in challenging circumstances. I’m simply raising some questions about the nomenclature, the words we use, and some of the assumptions behind them.
There’s a certain pride that comes with thinking “I can do it!”—because it takes the Holy Spirit. You can pray what happens in your new church will be a revival. You can schedule a protracted meeting where Bob comes in to preach every night of the week. But you can’t schedule the Holy Spirit to save 17 people, let alone 170.
So, when you begin to measure something’s effectiveness by its metrics, then you hear stories like that large church in the South who was having good-looking people walk forward when they were calling for baptisms so that others would be psychologically pressured to join them, to walk down front to make a decision. Ahhh, that’s anti-gospel! It’s ironic because that church thinks it’s there for the non-Christian, and I think it’s there for the non-Christian in a way more fully than even it might realize.
In other words, let’s not be too metrics-driven in our discussion of revitalization.
Jonathan: Let’s go back to your experience just little bit. As you assessed the church upon arrival, did you have a strategy for how you began your work? The language that’s often used is “What’s your vision?” So, what was your vision? Did you have a strategy?
Mark: Preach, pray, work, and stay.
I wanted to preach the Word, to give myself seriously during the week to working on the sermon. I wanted to pray regularly every day, particularly through the membership. I wanted to love people and build personal relationships. I wanted to try to disciple guys.
And last, I wanted to be willing to stay there forever. When you’re leading a new work, it’s almost certainly not going to go well with senior citizens. It’s probably not going to grow with established families, unless they have just moved to the area.
Instead, it’s almost certainly going to grow among people who are at a different stage of life. It’s going to be people who are moving to the area for a job, people right after college. So it’s almost inevitable that, when a church begins to grow, it will be among people who are younger and less connected to the area.
So, the question is this: “How do you mature from that into a congregation with people from a stable part of the population?” It takes a long time for a church to arrive at a lasting, complete witness. There will be people who come for five or 10 years, and the Lord will use them part of the way to help you along. But some people will come and they will stay there for decades. I’ve got folks who’ve been here 20 years that will express to me their pain over how many friends they’ve said goodbye to. It’s sincere, and I feel for them because I experience the same thing. But I kind of took that as the “sign-up price.”
So I don’t think it’s inhuman, or that it has to make you cold or closed-off or anything negative like that. I think you can have a prosperous life emotionally and in every other way while being in a congregation where a lot of people move on after five or 10 years.
But some people do need to be willing to stay. I think that the “stay” component is often missed, though it’s very, very important.
Jonathan: You sound much more like a father than a businessman. And so much conversation about church growth sounds like going back to metrics like a businessman. But you’re talking about shepherding a child through multiple seasons and stages.
Mark: The more we reduce ministry to business, the more pastors are convinced to think like CEOs and less like shepherds. They’ll think, “I want to play in a bigger league, so I need a bigger platform.”
But if you’re not thinking like that, if instead you’re thinking, “Wow, Bob seems to have a softer heart to the gospel. I see him reach out to people even though right now it’s difficult for him to do that physically. I see him continue to love others sacrificially when his circumstances have changed. That brings great glory to God.” These are judgment calls, and you can’t turn spiritual growth into metrics very easily. This will inevitably frustrate some people in your church, but the elders need to be the ones to have the maturity to take the long view and realize that God will be the final assessor of all these things.
Jonathan: What are some of the early issues you faced that brought challenges?
Mark: Because we didn’t have a plurality of elders, lots of issues became significant challenges. If we had had a plurality of elders, the church would’ve been more peaceful. Any number of challenges became threatening because I was the only apparent authority.
I didn’t feel like that was a healthy situation for the church; I didn’t feel like that would serve the church well in the long run. I also didn’t think it was biblical. So I could name issues, but the issues weren’t the point; it was the structure that had left us open to unnecessarily difficult challenges.
Jonathan: Were there specific points when you sensed the ship was turning?
Mark: When we moved from having just me as the recognized elder to having a body of six of us as recognized elders, that was a tipping point. It was greatly life-giving to both the church and to me. It became a far more difficult thing to appear to threaten the direction or unity of the church with any given decision.
Jonathan: So if you’re going to give a list to a young pastor who is going to a church that needs revitalization, what’s on your “must-do” list?
Mark: Preach good sermons, move toward a plurality of qualified elders, and be careful with the church’s membership.
Jonathan: Are you saying that for the American situation, or for everywhere? Are you also saying that for churches in Brazil, Afghanistan, and Japan?
Mark: I don’t understand a culture in which that would not be a faithful reflection of Scripture. So, yes, every place on the planet.
Jonathan: What were some mistakes you made? And what were some of the lessons you learned from them?
Mark: I’m sure I didn’t always have great judgment on knowing how much any particular challenge would cost. So I could have a certain answer about women’s ministry, a certain answer about small groups, a certain answer about radio ministry, a certain answer about senior ladies Sunday school classes, a certain answer about Wednesday night dinners, a certain answer about the American and Christian flags—I could keep going. In short, there were lots of things that I thought I had one price tag, but in reality had another, usually much higher one. With a plurality of elders, I likely would have had realized that more.
I often say young guys have great acuity and poor depth perception—that was me. I had sharp vision; I could see what was right and wrong, but I had no idea how to get there. Young guys need older guys to help them with this.
Jonathan: Do you think it takes a certain kind of guy to do this kind of “pull a church out of decline” work?
Mark: It depends on the character of the church. But I think if you have a proclivity to be a bit of a fighter, if you have a lot of hard edges, if your wife would tell me that about you, then it might be a little better if you plant a church or go to an already healthy church. But if you’re in a situation that needs some pretty serious change, then you need to first be able to celebrate what’s good about it already, rather than telling everyone what’s wrong with them. So, if that kind of graciousness is not something that God has naturally gifted you with or is not working into your soul, then that’s going to be a hard sell. There are some people I know that are just more doctrinaire. They only have two speeds.
Jonathan: And what are the two speeds?
Mark: Right or wrong. I am asked questions every week, and my answer is something like “Yeah, I don’t know”—and I am deeply okay with that. Every time I say that I don’t know, I dispel any illusions that I’m God.
Jonathan: Last question, how does this work of revitalization affect your wife and children? What considerations should guys give to that?
Mark: I think that if there are expectations for your wife and kids you would like them to be as visible as possible, so you can either own them or reject them as clearly as possible. Your wife should not feel that she is in a fundamental competition for you with your job, especially if your job is the church. Your church can get another pastor, but your wife can’t get another husband. You need to know that more than she needs to know that.
Your wife has to be on board because you don’t want to have any excuse to alienate her affections for the church. As much as possible, you want to take all the blame on your own shoulders.
Husbands need to take the long view. If he doesn’t, he risks his wife’s relationship with the Lord vis-à-vis the church. So that’s the kind of wisdom you need when you’re going through early growth. After all, success is more difficult for a family than failure because it gives you a growing number of apparent good things that could take up your time.
But families rarely work that way. Sure, they can be flourishing and successful, but generally, it accompanies a lot of struggle. The victories are not as quick, so the temptation for any man is to say, “I’m going to go back to where I can see this kind of output and this kind of feedback, as opposed to here where I just feel taken for granted and where nothing really works like I want it to.”
For the church planter or new pastor, revitalization can be an unusually powerful trap.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted version of a chapter in Southern Seminary’s “A Guide to Church Revitalization.“