Church Revitalization: Surviving a Plane Crash
For me, revitalizing a church has felt like surviving a plane crash and building a new airplane all in one motion.
IT’S GOING DOWN
If you’re allowed to stay for any length of time, the church as it was will come down. It might come down slowly and glide to a stop. Or it might plummet to an ugly crash with wreckage scattered for miles. My situation was, and is, sort of like both. So you hope and pray that after the place crashes, you and something of the church will emerge and be able to take off in another direction.
The crux of this illustration is that, in revitalizing a church, you aren’t in control of much.
Now, I’m assuming you are committed to preaching rich, expositional sermons full of sound doctrine and searching application. I’m also assuming that you will pray your heart out, and that you are committed to the cultivation of discipling relationships. If that’s not true, the plane will crash for very different reasons.
So, assuming you are doing these things, there’s still a lot you don’t control. Even though you were hired to be the pastor, the congregation is already flying the plane in a certain direction. That direction is guided by people, relationships, and expectations you haven’t even begun to understand. If the situation is really bad, the church may be flying on ungodliness, power struggles, manipulation, and even bribery. Many church members don’t even have categories to understand how they would submit to a single godly elder, much less a group of them.
HOW THE GOSPEL CHOKES OUT OTHER POWER SUPPLIES
When you come and preach the Word, the gospel begins to choke out these power supplies, thus precipitating an inevitable crash. But even after you cut the power, you’re not the one in control. No doubt, you’ll be accused of seizing control. But you know better than anyone else that you aren’t in control, because there are so many things you would like to change but can’t.
At the same time, you’ve started fueling a different kind of plane with a different source: the gospel. That fuel can’t run the plane as it is because a leadership structure of power and manipulation can’t run on gospel fuel. That’s why, as long as they let you keep preaching, something will crash.
SEEING ONE CHURCH, HEARING ABOUT ANOTHER
One difficulty early on is that members aren’t seeing in reality the kind of church that you are talking about in your sermons. The kind of church they see and the kind they hear about are two very different things. For a pastor in the throes of revitalization, bridging this gap can be frustratingly difficult, even seemingly impossible. After all, to do so requires regenerate people, those who by God’s grace “walk by faith and not by sight.”
Pastors would do well to model this kind of life with their family, particularly in the disciplines of hospitality and discipleship. On a practical note, consider giving Church Planting is for Wimps to all new members. We did, and it helped.
THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE
At first, efforts to change the church may feel like trying to change the course of a Boeing 747 by sticking your head out the window and blowing as hard as you can. But it’s not like that because, as Jonathan Leeman has written, “The Word of God is the most powerful force in the universe.”
The prophet Isaiah concurs, as is made clear when he records the Lord who says this about his Word: “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I send it” (Isa 55:11).
The Word of God will do something.
I AM UNIMPRESSIVE
That’s the only explanation for what has happened to our church over the last four years. I’m not a particularly powerful preacher or a dynamic personality. My natural personality is unimpressive. I have no natural gifts to impact or change things, and even less a desire to do so. I’m not a natural leader, but by God’s grace, I have confidence in the his Word, and I’m willing to proclaim it.
This can’t be emphasized enough: it is the Word that changes things. There were people who stayed at the church I currently pastor for over 40 years. During that time, they weathered many difficulties and trials; they put up with more than a few strong and ungodly leaders. But a year after my arrival, they finally decided it was time to go. This occured while most people were saying the pastoral care had improved since I arrived. One member even said to me, “Wow, it’s like you actually care about us and want to get to know us.”
But these folks left because they didn’t like the idea of a call to repentance. I was trying to control the church, they said; I forced older members to leave, they said. But all the while, no departing member could point to a single concrete thing that I actually did to hasten their departure. This is likely because, in fact, it wasn’t me that was changing things. Instead, the gospel was beginning to take root and smother the old way, the way things used to be.
A NEW CONGREGATION EMERGES
Slowly, people gained a vision for what the Christian life could be. There was no secret grab for control. But as the congregation began to recognize that a true church is founded on the gospel, former leaders began to lose power and leave, and a new congregation began to emerge, taking off in an entirely different direction.
To use another illustration, my experience in church revitalization has felt like being on the tip of an arrow as it penetrates deeply. Like an arrow, the Word of God forces a division. Because I’m the one proclaiming it, I get a front row seat to see exactly how the Word divides.
I see this in the feedback I get about my sermons. Some people say they love the practical application, that they finally see how the Bible applies to real life. Others say that there is absolutely nothing relatable in them. Some people say they’re understanding God’s Word for the first time, and they love it. Others think the sermons are the driest, most boring things they’ve ever heard. Some people have said my sermons have helped them understand what it means to be a Christian. Others have said they can’t sit under my preaching because they are afraid it will send them to hell. People love them or hate them. Almost no one is neutral to the sermons. I admit that there are probably some cultural and other human factors in play, but I think this is largely because God uses his Word to gather his people and to harden others.
PREACH, PRAY, STAY
Four years into church revitalization, I have no new insights as to what a pastor should do. Before I came, I believed my main goal would be to preach, pray, and stay, and included in “stay” is to develop personal relationships with people and pour into discipleship. That’s the same advice I’d give now.
This is guaranteed to make a lasting impression on the church, because God’s Word is effectual. But there is no guarantee what effect this will be. Will you emerge from the wreckage and be able to go in a different direction? All this depends on factors largely outside of your control. Yet they are in God’s control, and that is good.