The Cost and the Joy of Church Revitalization: 3 Lessons Learned
My first word to those feeling called to church revitalization is you need to really feel called to it. It needs to be a burning passion for you because It is not easy. I recall the words of Charles Spurgeon who in reference to Pastoral ministry said, “If you can do anything else, then do it!”
I think this is even more true for those feeling called to lead a church through the hard process of revitalization. While it hasn’t been easy for me, it has also been a great season of learning and growth. I have never learned so much as I have in the last 3 years of working with this church that God loves. An older wiser Pastor once told me that my job was to prepare the Bride for Christ’s return. In many ways there is nothing more fulfilling than loving your bride when she is going through a difficult season. It’s in those difficult seasons when we have the greatest opportunity to be an example of Christ’s love for his Church. That’s how God loves us. He doesn’t only love us when we have it all together. He loved us while we were still sinners. You are going to need Christ to put that kind of love in your heart for you to lead his Church through times of trouble. With that being said I want to give you 3 things I have learned over the past few years, that I think have been key to us seeing our church slowly start to change to reflect more of God’s glory:
1. Model genuine repentance and humility for your people.
The fact that the church needs revitalized means that there is probably sin in the camp, there are bad habits in the camp, there are probably broken church leadership and denominational systems. You will probably find you are dealing with some of all of the above. The only way those things truly change is for the Holy Spirit to come and show people where they are personally out of alignment with Him and where the church is out of alignment with Him. The right response to that then is repentance. It’s a changing of the way we think about things and a changing of the way we actually function and live. You can’t ask your people to do something you aren’t willing to do.
As a Pastor we expect that when you come into a revitalization situation and point all the issues in the church out, the congregation is going to listen to you and say, “Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.” And quickly recognize that a prophet has been among them... That is most likely not going to happen. People don’t normally like change. Most people assume they are right and other people, especially an outsider that is new to them, is wrong. I think the only way we were able to start to overcome that was to model what repentance looked like to the church. Our Pastoral team and myself, whenever we would preach we made a conscience effort to regularly and appropriately confess sin in our sermons. We tried to walk in this whenever presented the opportunity. I told my staff before we walked into board meetings, “you aren’t perfect, there is a good chance you or I will say something dumb or communicate poorly at some point in this meeting. If we do, I think it may actually help us. Just repent quickly right in front of them. It’s a great opportunity for us to model to them what we are eventually going to be asking them to do.” I truly believe our practice of regularly doing this when we messed up or sinned was the only thing that gave us enough street cred to not get kicked out the door when the time came to start confronting some of the sin that had been left to run rampant in our church. Listen, you aren’t perfect, opportunities to do this will come more often than you think. See them as opportunities and own your sin and weakness. Then rejoice in the good news of the Gospel! The truth that, Christ has paid the price for it and is so good to you that he allows you to serve as an ambassador for his Kingdom and minister of the Gospel. Remember it’s not because of what you have done that you are qualified. It’s because of what he has done on your behalf.
2. Suffering is part of the deal.
In Colossians 1:24 Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. This is one of those passages that in the middle of a church revitalization will become very real to you. You will actually find in the hard times that scripture comes alive. Passages like this you will suddenly look at and say I know exactly what Paul is talking about. In the middle of trying to turn the ship around at our church I went through a season where I was so stressed out by all the conflict in our church I couldn’t sleep at night. I would lie in bed until 3am or later then I would finally doze off for an hour or 3. It finally came to a point where one night, I found myself awake from a nightmare at 4am with chest pains. I am 37. I rarely had nightmares even as a child. I considered myself a laid back low stress person. I certainly had never had chest pains before. They ran a ton of tests on me. I came out of it with a clean bill of health and a healthy heart. The Dr. said it was just stress. A church revitalization can push you to your absolute limit. There will be some days where you just survive and don’t quit. I think not quitting is a huge part of what success looks like in ministry (think of Jeremiah’s life).
A sub point here is that you need to suffer with your family and walk them through it. I tried a few times to just keep things in and hide all I was struggling with from my wife and kids. It didn’t work at all. It looked like me being cranky and rude to my wife and kids and them not knowing why. It went way better when I came home and was just honest with my wife that I had a bad day. Ask her to pray for you. I didn’t do that often enough and I have a wife who loves to pray. There is some weird pride in me where asking for prayer seems weak. If you have that too, get rid of it. That kind of thinking belongs in the trashcan. You need to admit your weakness with your wife and your kids and ask for their prayers. You will be amazed at how much better your evening with your family will go if you choose to humble yourself before them.
Do not drop out of whatever community you are in when things get tough. During the hardest season for us my wife and I felt we had too much on our plates and dropped out of the Gospel Community (Missional Community/Small Group) we were in. That was a big mistake. It just led to us feeling more isolated. As Lead Pastor I was the one constantly dealing with those who had issues, I eventually started to feel that the whole church hated me. I had someone come to me and suggest I get back in a GC. It was great advice. It was so good for us to weekly meet with people who became like family to us. As we honestly shared with them where we were at as a family these saints graciously served us and met our needs. God used them to nurse us as a family back to health.
When you least want to be in community is when you most need it. Lean into Jesus, Lean into those that love you and he has placed around you. Talk to older wiser Pastors as often as you can. Pick their brains. Learn from them. Don’t be afraid to get counseling if it comes to that. Actually, do it before it comes to that. Remember Hebrews 12:5-11. Particularly verse 11, ”For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Realize your Father in heaven loves you so much he is sending you through elite training. Let the hope of that peaceful fruit of righteousness encourage you. Know that it will eventually come if you remain faithful.
In our context we are just starting to see some of the first fruits of staying faithful. In the last few weeks we have seen multiple people decide to follow Jesus. Stay faithful brother. The harvest it will yield in your life and in others lives is worth it. Jesus is always worth it.
3. Don’t let Mr. or Mrs. Poopy Pants define the whole church for you.
As you lead a congregation through change it can be really easy to let a group that in reality is often less than 5% of the church define the church for you. It really only takes one person in a key position to make your life really miserable. Don’t let them do that to you. Refuse to allow them to define the church for you. Make a habit of rejoicing in every small victory. Take even little things as a sign that God is up to something, because He is. If you have a positive conversation with a person who had been very at odds with the direction the church is going and they still aren’t completely on board but it was a step in the right direction. REJOICE! Celebrate that. New babies being born, baptisms, people confessing sins, folks being willing to join a discipleship group, people joining a Gospel community, a guy in your small group praying out loud who you can tell has never done it before, lost people choosing to walk in your church doors and join you in worship. All of these things are worthy of celebration. God is doing so many wonderful things in your church body all the time. Part of your job as Pastor is to help everyone see that. Weave all this good news into your sermons, your board, elder or deacon meetings, your Pastoral staff meetings, and your conversations with folks that you visit in nursing homes or hospitals. The people in your church need hope. They need a compelling vision. Show them regularly how the church is accomplishing that vision that God has given you all. Don’t allow the cranky people to monopolize all your time. Spend time with people in the church that love you and love what is happening at the church. It will be so good for your soul.
Church revitalization is one of the most wonderful, challenging, terrifying, beautiful things I have ever been a part of. I am grateful that God has given me the privilege of walking alongside this church, his Bride. I pray I would be faithful to do my part in His Bride being prepared when Christ returns.
Brent Wildeson is a Pastor at Chambersburg Brethren in Christ Church in Chambersburg PA. He and his wife April have 4 Children. After 7 years as a missionary in Taiwan, he is now serving as Pastor in the church he grew up in.