I pastor a church of 60 attending members on any given Sunday in Northern Colorado. The church was planted in the 1950’s and many members believe the best days of the church are behind us. When I was called to be the pastor of Hillside they had been through six years of three different interim pastors and church attendance had dropped by over half through those six years. One church member said, “God has pruned us down to the very root.” The sheep were ready to be led and I was a young pastor finishing my final year of seminary when I received God’s call to church revitalization in Northern Colorado.
Key 1: Know your calling.
Church revitalization is a difficult calling. It’s different from church planting and it is different than RePlanting. One key to persevere in church revitalization is to know you are called to revitalization. No one likes change and especially the Bride of Christ. I heard comments like, “We have never done that in the past,” or “If we are doing a BBQ we are not doing it at the church we will go to the park on the other side of town,” and “When are we going to stop reaching dysfunctional families and get good ones, pastor?” Know your calling, God gave Jeremiah his own call in Jeremiah 1:5 ESV “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” I believe God has placed each church revitalization pastor in their setting, in their context, at the appropriate time. But Key 1 to persevering is to know God has called you to church revitalization.
Key 2: Do you please man or God?
When I was called as the pastor in October of 2014, the church informed me that they really missed Christmas Eve Services. I surveyed the congregants and asked them, “What is important at a Christmas Eve Service to you and why?” One couple responded, “We love communion and want it at the Christmas Eve Service.” Another couple responded, “We do not want communion. Communion is only for believers and Christmas Eve is a time when many non-believers attend church.” Immediately I knew I could not please both families. Another family in our church was in conflict with me from the moment I was called to the church. Many decisions I made during my early tenure were influenced by the question, “How will this decision affect this family and what will be the consequences of that decision.” I had forgotten the advice that Paul had given the Galatians about himself, Galatians 1:10 ESV, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I was being manipulated and threatened by one family. I had lost my focus because I was no longer seeking the approval of God, but of man. A hard lesson learned, but I began to persevere when I came to the realization that I am called to seek the approval of God, not the approval of one family.
Key 3: Find a mentor.
Church revitalization is a lonely calling. There are times when the church is with you and there are times when the Bride of Christ has dug her heels in the ground and refuses to budge. Finding someone that has gone before you and is willing to listen to the pain of your heart is vitally important to church revitalization. Many nights my wife and I have lost sleep crying out to the Lord on behalf of the church or in some cases just crying. Other times we rejoiced at the baptism of a 70 year old or a 12 year old when they made a decision to follow Jesus. Paul was a mentor to Timothy and he was a great encourager to Timothy in his ministry. The third key to persevering in church revitalization is to find a Pauline mentor. One seminary professor had a sign in his office that said, “Sheep bite.” When the sheep bite, it hurts. Finding someone that has their own scars from sheep bites allows you to compare and share. Sheep are only doing what sheep naturally do, eat, wander, and bite. Jesus was bit by His sheep! Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, and others fled from Him.
My first two years in church revitalization have been difficult years. But I know that I am called to church revitalization, because I cannot even imagine the difficulties of church planting or church RePlanting! Paul’s advice to the Galatians I had to learn the hard way. I was called to church revitalization to please God, not man. Finally, I would not have been able to do it without the wisdom of Pauline mentors. I pray that you will be encouraged in your church revitalization setting and know that the difficulties you face today are not unique. Be encouraged, and remember when the sheep bite, only other pastors can compare scars, find a Pauline mentor.
Mike Walter, MDiv., is the pastor at Hillside Baptist Church in Greeley, Colorado. Since 2007, Mike has been helping to revitalize churches in the rural plains of Eastern Colorado to the heart of the Colorado Mountains in Winter Park. Landing in Greeley in 2014, Mike has been leading his church in revitalization through the sharing of the love of Jesus Christ.