Maranatha and Mission: Hearing the Gentle Whisper to Stay on Mission

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This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can find it here.

Over the course of the last year, I have been training for triathlons. When I have a long training session or I’m in a race, there are two moments where I feel like giving up. First, I think about quitting when I experience a shortness of breath due to the physical activity. Second, there are times I want to throw in the towel when I feel the physical pain in my legs, calves, and shins.

In those moments, when my mind and body are telling me to stop, I hear this faint whisper: “Keep going; just put one foot in front of the other; you got this.” In other words, this faint whisper—in the sea of physical pain and emotional stress—exhorts me to stay on mission.

Maranatha moments, for me, are filled with the physical pain and emotional stress of life. All I want to do is cry out to Jesus…please come! And while he is more than likely not going to come back physically at that moment to make all things new and to right every wrong, I do believe he answers that cry and prayer in another way. He sends the Spirit to fill us as he lovingly whispers, “I’m here with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you; stay focused and stay on mission.”

It is the Spirit of God that brings comfort and peace in Maranatha moments. Not only does he bring peace and comfort, but he reminds, refocuses, and refreshes us to stay on mission.

What I’ve found in my own life, and what I suggest to you, is that Maranatha moments can serve as a catalyst for mission.

Here’s how.

First, Maranatha moments remind us that this world is not our home; we are sojourners between this broken and dark world and a world fully mended by the blood of Jesus and effusively lit by the glory of our King.

As John writes towards the very end of Revelation,

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, Look, I am making everything new. (John 21:4–5)

While Maranatha moments might give us pause in this world, they do not paralyze us from courageously and boldly moving forward towards the next in the power of the Spirit.

Second, Maranatha moments refocus us, as believers, on the primary mission to share and show the good news of Jesus.

It seems that much of Christianity today—particularly in the West, and specifically in North America—revolves around squabbles of secondary and tertiary importance. My observation in contemporary evangelicalism is that we occupy our time by vehemently debating matters such as the role of the church in American politics and the role of the church in culture.

While these issues are important—and there is a time and place to have such discussions—the time, energy, and sometimes visceral, prideful, and declarative tone eclipse the primary issue of making Jesus known. It comes across as if we are trying to make our stance known.

Some believers reason that the role of the church in American politics is more critical and crucial than ever. Believing such, Christians will exert their energy calling out the other side in militaristic language. They’ll go after brothers and sisters who are on different sides of political policies. [Note that I said policies, not doctrine. For while one may hold a particular doctrine, that doesn’t mean he or she will necessarily hold to the same policy.] Some will even opine that a fight for conservatism is a fight for Christianity in America.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage in the political realm; what I am saying is that Maranatha moments should refocus us to engage in our primary calling of making Jesus known through both word and deed. As we beg and cry out for Jesus to come, we are reminded that it isn’t about an elephant or a donkey, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Another issue that tends to eclipse the primary call of mission is engagement with and in culture. This is close to the previous point, but still unique by itself.

Here’s the million-dollar question: How are we called as Christians to engage a pluralistic, pagan land—even one that was founded in part by Judeo-Christian principles?

In reality, it’s only been in recent times where the church in America has had to wrestle with answering it. And because many Christians—both in leadership and followership—have not seriously wrestled with the theological and missiological understanding and application with such a question, we find ourselves reacting to the cultural typhoon we call secularism, pluralism, and rugged individualism.

As a result, we may find ourselves sounding like a clanging gong, expressing our position and point without doing so in love or humility.

Maranatha moments re-attune our hearts on the primary mission of making Jesus known instead of on transforming the world into our preference. We are reminded when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” that he is bringing a new city adorned as a bride prepared for her husband.

Therefore, we don’t have the primary call and pressure of transforming this world. We can work, serve, and love the culture faithfully as we faithfully share and show Jesus’ love.

We can partner, in a spirit of common grace, with the culture working towards its flourishing. We can commit ourselves to a local faith community that seeks to embody and enact the coming Kingdom of God in our midst—thereby serving as a preview of the new city to come.

Third, Maranatha moments refresh our lives to give us the breath to breathe into others.

Maranatha moments arise when we are spent, exhausted, hurt, or in pain. Maranatha moments come when we are depleted and feel hopeless and helpless. The weight of life has become too much. However, while we are vociferously crying out “Maranatha!” because the struggle of life is too real, the Spirit is gently reminding us about mission because the need of the world is too great.

Here’s what we all know: Everyone has Maranatha moments. That doesn’t mean everyone is crying out for Jesus to come. Those who don’t know Jesus may be crying out for relief. They may be crying out, “Enough! Make it stop.”

They may be yelling curses to God. Maybe they are dealing with loss.

Maybe they are battling depression. Maybe they are struggling with an illness. Maybe they are in a crisis of identity.

Whatever it may be, our Maranatha moments can be leveraged to refresh our lives so that we can be aware of the needs around us that we might breath gospel life into their weary souls.

In closing, this is the tension we believers live with on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. We are pelted constantly with the darkness and horrors of life in a fallen world. Such onslaughts leave us wailing, demanding, and even beating our chests, calling on Jesus to come quickly.

But on the other hand—amidst the train horn of brokenness, rawness, and vulnerability, Jesus sends his Spirit who speaks with a a still small voice, whispering, “Stay on mission.” Don’t lose sight of your planted purpose on planet earth—to demonstrate good news living and to declare the good news life.

As Peter quipped, “The Lord…is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, while we wait, we work. While we somberly mourn, we stay on mission.

Maranatha Moments in a World Filled with Tragedy

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This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can find that original article here.

Years ago, I remember a Chris Rice song that resonated with my soul. It was called “Hallelujahs.” It described scenarios of life, like experiencing a purple sky to close the day, wading in the surf to see dolphins play, and tasting the salt while watching the dancing waves. At the end of the refrain, these words would echo throughout the song, “And my soul wells up with hallelujahs.”

Yes, there are certainly times throughout life where my soul wells up with hallelujahs—with “Praise the Lord!” However, I have also experienced my fair share of instances where my soul wells up with Maranathas!

Have you ever found yourself crying out, “Maranatha?” Maranatha is an Aramaic word used in 1 Corinthians 16:22 that can mean, “Our Lord, Come!” or “Come, Lord Jesus!” Interestingly, as Trevin Wax notes, this second interpretation wasn’t widely used until the last couple of centuries. In fact, as he notes, throughout the ages, Maranatha has been mainly used as a declaration, “Our Lord has come.”

Both are appropriate, but one version finds itself on the minds and lips of people when faced with life’s pains and sufferings. This week has been one of those weeks where “Maranatha” has been uttered from the lips of many, including myself.

I found myself crying out “Maranatha!” as I scrolled through the feeds that marked the 18th anniversary of 9/11—the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The devastation caused by those acts of terrorism almost 20 years ago will be forever stitched in our minds: planes flying into towers, people jumping from buildings, dust filling the city air, lifeless bodies under piled rubble, and grieving families and friends who in a twinkling of an eye lost husband, wife, parent, or child.

In addition to the anniversary of 9/11, the evangelical world experienced the loss of a prominent young church leader and mental health advocate who died by suicide—Jarrid Wilson, a man who loved Jesus and people, and who had dedicated his life to helping those in need. Jarrid preached messages, wrote books, and faithfully ministered to a broken world, only to find himself losing the battle (but not losing the war).

Having heard the news while driving, I had to wait until I stopped to see it for myself. As I sat and scrolled through the feeds, my heart was broken and grieving over what I read. There were so many comments that expressed heartbreak, grief, sadness, and lament.

The most jarring comment was a twitter post from Jarrid himself the day of his passing. As somewhat of a last, parting words of this life, he posted,

Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.

My response is a resounding, AMEN!

But it is the irony of his words and parting action that wells up in my soul a Maranatha! I get how the weight of this world and the struggle with illness and disease can crush the drive to live. And therefore, I couldn’t help but cry out “Maranatha!” over and over. Lord Jesus, come! Lord Jesus, come!

Have you been there? Are you there? If so, it is perfectly acceptable for there to be dry moments and seasons where no Hallelujahs flow from our tongues. It is alright if we somberly sit and utter groanings of Maranatha. This makes me think of Romans 8:22–23, where Paul writes,

For we know that the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

We live in a world filled with compounding brokenness, hurt, pain, and suffering. It’s not like we face one experience of hurt and pain; Oh no, we face a life filled with such. Sexual brokenness, divorce, betrayal, abuse, violence, discrimination, racism, poverty, abandonment, addiction, illness, disease, and more—not to mention death. We are victims of multiple counts of pain and suffering.

In short, the fallen world, the opportunistic enemy, and the fleshly nature of sin lay claim to many a victim—everyone included; yes, even pastors.

As believers, we believe Jesus is in the process of making all things new. But there are times where our hopeful knowing gives way to our groanings of “Hurry up!” In those times, the struggle with life is just too real. We are simply too overwhelmed with the ugliness and darkness of life, and therefore we cry out—maybe with more of a tonal demand—”Maranatha!”

While we groan, we wait. Will Jesus answer our prayer? Will he, at that moment, physically come and make all things new? In all likelihood, possibly not. But one day he will.

In the meantime, what do we do?

When nothing but Maranatha comes from our lips, where should our minds and hearts go?

Let me share a couple of thoughts.

First, we can attune our minds to the empathetic yet finished work of Jesus. 

The eternal God made flesh entered into the fray of humanity, bore the cross for our sins as he absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf. In clothing himself in humanity, Jesus experienced life, and thus pain, in a fallen world. He experienced betrayal, disease, poverty, abuse, violence, hatred, and even deaths of loved ones.

By taking upon himself the sin of humanity, he entered and endured the greatest of all pains—the wrath of God—and thus, separation from the Father. So, when it comes to our Maranatha moments, we can rest assured that Jesus knows and understands where we are. His empathetic and yet finished work becomes the fuel for the courage to face another day.

Second, we can attune our hearts to focus on the hope of glory. 

One of my favorite passages on this is 2 Corinthians 4:17–18, where Paul writes, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”

Regarding this passage, John Piper says,

Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all of it is totally meaningful. . . . Every millisecond of your pain—from fallen nature or fallen man—every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that suffering.

In short, Jesus is in the process of making all things new, and somehow, in some way, even though we cannot see it, God is in the Maranatha moments preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

God is in the Maranatha moments preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

In closing, depravity casts a long and dark shadow. When that shadow hits our lives, Maranatha may be the only word welling up in our soul. And that is perfectly ok.

But as you sit in your Maranatha moments, let the Spirit speak hope and peace that Jesus is indeed in the process of making all things new. As a result, you can also whisper to your soul, as the old hymn writer Horatio Spafford quipped, “It is well with my soul.”

Chasing Donkeys: How Ministry Can Feel

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This article originally appears on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. Click here to access it.

Disclaimer: I’ve never chased donkeys. I have been in a situation where I’ve feared donkeys running me over—that was in Santorini, Greece, which is another story for another article. So, what’s the correlation between rural ministry and chasing donkeys?

The concept of chasing donkeys comes from 1 Samuel 9. From the account in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, I believe there are some lessons we can learn and apply to church leaders and pastors in any contexts—especially rural ones.

Do What I’m Called to Do

The backstory to 1 Samuel 9 is that Israel had demanded a king. Having expressed his disapproval and disappointment for what Israel did, Samuel nevertheless sent everyone home while he allowed the Lord to sort through the resumes.

The narrative then shifts to a wealthy man, Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin. Kish had a son, Saul, who was extremely impressive. No one measured up to Saul. One day, some of Kish’s donkeys had enough and broke loose. Guess who Kish wanted to send to track them down and bring them back? Saul!

Remember Saul’s description? He was extremely impressive. No one was like Saul. I could imagine if I was Saul, I would whine and complain about me having to go. If Kish were my dad, I would have responded, “Send the servant. Send my younger brother. Don’t send me! Chasing donkeys is beneath me.” But Saul didn’t respond that way. He simply heard the call of his father and went.

It’s a fact that well over the majority of churches in America run less than 100 members. Yet, we live in a culture (and Christian subculture) that celebrates big.

While there is nothing wrong with having a large and growing ministry, I do believe—to a degree—our Christian subculture over-celebritizes the larger churches and their leaders.

In doing so, this can serve as an unintentional shaming mechanism for pastors and church leaders faithfully serving in smaller churches—or praying about serving in such contexts.

Maybe you’re a pastor or church leader and you have these feelings that what you are doing is beneath you. Maybe you feel like you were made for so much more and have way more capacity than what you are doing. Perhaps there are days you feel your call is too miniscule, or maybe it feels meaningless.

I know that I have certainly been there. But let’s take a cue from Saul and do what we are called to do.

Nothing to Show for It

The story of chasing donkeys continues. Interestingly, Saul and his servant searched tirelessly for these runaway donkeys. They went through four different regions…still no donkeys.

Having been in ministry for almost 20 years, there are seasons where I have felt like I’m spinning my wheels with no forward traction. I know that I have felt this way when I’ve looked at numbers and seen no real growth. I’ve felt this way when I have given deep study to the Word and have preached with all the gumption and passion in the world, only to be told, “That was too long, pastor!”

I’ve felt this way when the back door of the church seemed to be as big as the front door—maybe even bigger. I’ve felt this way when there has been no excitement around our mission and vision, but everyone seems to be talking about the church down the street.

And I’ve felt this way when serving in a rural context with corn fields surrounding the church.

What do we do when we get to an intersection of ministry where we seemingly have nothing to show for all the energy we’ve spent? What do we do when we get to a point in our ministry where we feel like we have failed? What do we do when we reflect on a seemingly fruitless season and we feel like throwing in the towel?

Answer: Just keep going!

God at Work behind the Scenes

When Saul and the servant arrived at the intersection of nothing-to-show-for-all-their-energy-spent-searching-for-the-donkeys and Saul was thinking about turning around and going back home empty-handed, the servant suggested they try one more thing.

For me, it’s quite humorous to read his idea. He suggested they go and enlist the preacher’s (Samuel’s) help.

Off they went to find Samuel with the hopes that he could point them in the right direction of where to find the donkeys.

But little did Saul know that God had met with Samuel and told him that God was “sending” (see 1 Sam. 9:16) a man from Benjamin that he would anoint to become the first king of Israel. Saul believed he was going up to inquire about donkeys, but God was sending him to inherit a kingdom. For many of us, that’s the story of ministry!

Because many of us feel empty-handed and frustrated in ministry, we search for the expert to share insight to help us do ministry better. We want to inquire about where we should go, what books we should read, and what we should do to see greater fruit in our call.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that enlisting the help of experts and leaders to learn and grow in ministry is bad. On the contrary, it’s good and necessary!

The lesson I’m pointing out from the story of Saul and applying to us today is that while our micro call is chasing donkeys (doing ministry), the macro call of God for us is inheriting his kingdom.

In other words, the narrative of our ministry is embedded in a greater narrative of God’s kingdom. In short, God works behind the scenes of ministry to prep us for the inheritance of his kingdom.

Dear pastor and church leader, ministry isn’t the telos; it is a responsibility handed to us as we journey towards our ultimate destiny, our ultimate aim—to be heirs with Jesus in the kingdom of God. And from the biblical perspective—having received a glimpse of how God thinks and works—regardless of how insignificant or small we think our ministry is, it is the kingdom telos that keeps us chasing donkeys.

Does God Care about the Donkeys?

With all this talk about the seemingly menial task of chasing donkeys, of having nothing to show for our chasing donkeys, and the ultimate telos being the inheritance of God’s kingdom and not chasing donkeys, the question will naturally arise, “Does God care about the donkeys?”

In the narrative, we see the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes!” Before Saul could utter a word about the donkeys, Samuel says, “As for the donkeys that wandered away from you three days ago, don’t worry about them because they’ve been found” (1 Sam. 9:20).

While Saul was busy chasing donkeys, God was watching over and leading them.

There will certainly be seasons where ministry is dry and we feel as though we are spinning our wheels, going nowhere. However, that doesn’t mean that God is not doing something with our ministry.

The Apostle Paul was the one who said that he planted, Apollos watered, but that God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). In planting, Paul wouldn’t have witnessed much movement. In watering, Apollos would have seen little movement. But God saw the greatest movement as he was sovereign over the growth.

Our role in our call from God is faithfulness. God’s role in his call to us is fruitfulness.

Knowing that God cares about our ministries (our donkeys), regardless of the size or scope, we can faithfully set out to chase them, knowing ultimately that our chasing them is leading us in the direction of his kingdom.

In closing, to all my brothers and sisters in ministry—especially in rural contexts—keep chasing donkeys!

Leaving the Faith by Losing the Focus

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This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original article.

Another high-profile Christian voiced his decision to “fall away” from faith. To be fair, Marty Sampson did walk back the position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.” Nevertheless, both Sampson and Josh Harris chose to invite the public in their season of struggle and straying.

As one would imagine, such public displays of de-affection has led to a range of reactions from the social media sphere—support, shock, and outrage, to name just a few. As we all wrestle with such public vulnerability and rawness, we must always begin with prayer for those who are struggling, and those who have laid the proverbial line in the sand regarding their denial of the Christian faith.

As we pray, there are two particular things I believe those secure in the faith can do. First, we can seek to understand why such people fall away. Second, we can discern and devise ways we can strengthen our discipleship environments to allow the full spectrum of seekers and strugglers have safe environments to belong, become, and believe (and keep on believing).

To help our understanding of why people wander or are tempted to wander from the faith, we can look at the Book of Hebrews, which addresses the need for endurance to not fall away and the environment that tempts one to fall away.

The Endurance to Not Fall Away

The writer of Hebrews addresses believers who were undergoing severe persecution to the point that they were tempted to waver in the faith. So the author writes a letter aimed at encouraging them to endure. In Chapter 11, we find the “Hall of Faith”—and these words:

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For by it our ancestors won God’s approval. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. (v. 1–3) 

In an environment where people experienced pain and suffering, which ignited feelings that buffeted their faith, the author described the essence of faith. Faith isn’t about the reality of the moment, but on that which is hoped for. Faith is something you believe, even though you cannot tangibly see it nor fully explain it.

And it is faith that receives the approval of God.

After briefly describing the essence of faith, the author moves to provide examples of Old Testament saints who exercised faith. Abraham, for example, was told by a God he just met to leave his hometown and go to “a place” that this God would show him. And he went!

Although Abraham is a fallen and flawed individual with a roller-coaster life of obedience and disobedience, he had a fixated faith. He believed God. Not only did he believe God—which was accounted as righteousness—but he believed he was moving towards a city built and established by God.

God wired all of us in a very complex pattern of mind, heart, spirit. All of us have emotions we feel.

But faith is not about fixating your mind on the feelings of the moment, but on directing your heart towards the promised future.

Many of those who have followed God had to discover this reality:

  • Take Abraham, who lied to Pharaoh when he felt afraid.
  • Sarah felt desperate and told Abraham to sleep with Hagar.
  • Moses killed an Egyptian when he felt indignation.

But each of them overcame their doubts, fears, and anger and continued on living faithful and faith-filled lives towards the future promise. And what was the future promise? Jesus. The Son of God who is higher than the angels, greater than Moses, instituter of a superior covenant, the perfect sacrifice for sin, the King of the unshakeable kingdom, and the steadfast anchor of the soul.

For the Old Testament saints, fixating their eyes on the future promise balanced their lives when buffeted by feelings of doubt, anxiety, and fear. And just to think that the author of Hebrews describes the New Testament saints having been provided something better (Heb. 11:40)!

The bottom line is that when our lives are centered around feelings, they become shaky; but when our lives are centered around faith in Christ, they become secure.

The Environment that Tempts One to Fall Away 

But what’s the environment today that is making people like Josh Harris and Marty Sampson question and even walk away from the faith? For starters, it’s not like the environment the audience of Hebrews experienced. Today, there may be philosophical, relational, and verbal hostility towards those of the Christian faith, but not life-threatening hostility as many of our brothers and sisters face in other parts of the world.

The cultural environment in which the Church of the West now find herself is one that is pluralistic, skeptical, hyper-individualized, personalized, and syncretized.

Our culture operates as a marketplace of competing ideas. Therefore, is truth real? Is there really one way to God? To heaven? This pluralism, coupled with a dismal track record of institutional and authoritative integrity, has caused systemic skepticism.

People question everything. But not only that, our culture is one of hyper-individualization and personalization where the individual’s needs and desires are prioritized over others. Given this cultural landscape, there’s a syncretistic tendency for individuals to craft their own morals, views, and standards to create a worldview and micro-narrative that works for them.

The church is bombarded with these cultural mortars daily. And at the heart, the Christian faith runs counter-culture to many of these environmental mortar shells. And what I think happens is that over time these shells have a tendency to test the faith of Christians by tempting them to take their eyes off Jesus.

For example, my takeaways from Marty Sampson’s post were:

  • Pastors fall
  • Christians can be the most judgmental people
  • No one talks about the hard issues of Christianity
  • The Bible is full of contradictions
  • How God can be love but then send people to hell
  • The Christian faith is not for me
  • Christianity seems to me like any other religion

Question….where’s Jesus?

There’s something similar with Josh Harris’ post. If you read his post in its entirety, there’s nothing about Jesus.

On a deeper dive, it seems that the Christian faith—that they once so boldly declared—ceased working for these men.

All the reasons why they are leaving the faith or struggling with the faith have little to do with the actual essence of the Christian faith—Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

Without knowing these men, it seems that what transpired—and we will continue to see it in the lives of others as we move further into this century—is that they grew weary trying to understand, interpret, communicate, and explain the infinite through the lens and to the lives of the finite.

And as a result, focusing on the secondary and tertiary issues of the Christian faith allowed their eyes to wander from the author and perfecter of the faith.

Anytime we take our eyes of Jesus during turbulent storms—be that physical, philosophical, practical or emotional storms—we drift away from Jesus. [Peter is the poster-child for this.]

Exhortation and Conclusion

To the Joshs and Martys of the world, I get the difficulty of navigating the intersection of the Christian faith (and all the voices present there) and contemporary culture. I understand the emotions, the doubts, and the skepticism that such a congested chaotic environment can cause. And I truly believe there’s no shame in doubting, questioning, wrestling, and even struggling with the unknowns of how our faith intersects with a broken and finite world.

On the other hand, like the author of Hebrews did to believers living in a hostile land in the first century, let me remind us all that lying at the core of our faith is the King of Glory who died, was buried, rose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God. And he is in the process of making all things new.

Therefore, don’t give up. Don’t walk away. Endure! “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Heb. 10:35–36).

Indeed, there’s a mystery to the faith, but there’s also a great master and perfecter of our faith who conquered death and sin. Resist the temptations to take your eyes of Jesus. Rather, as the old hymn suggest,

Turn your eyes to Jesus and look full into his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Redeeming Rural

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This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original link.

A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicks on Hoosiers. Now, a movie as old as Hoosiers certainly raised my children’s eyebrows—and even complaints—since they weren’t born in the century that churned the movie. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the storyline of the 50-year old Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who moves to rural Hickory, IN to coach the Hickory Huskers. Through a battled journey, Dale victoriously leads the Huskers to the echelon of Indiana High School basketball—the State Championship.

Underneath the grand storyline (main plot) is a subplot. And this subplot has stuck with me as I continue to think, dream, and plan for rural ministry through the Rural Matters Instituteat the Billy Graham Center. What’s the subplot you ask? Redeeming Rural

In this post, I want to outline three redeeming (wrongs made right) elements seen in the subplot and exhort the church today to enact a similar redeeming quality in their mentality, ministry, and mission to rural areas. 

Redeeming the Rural Mentality

Early in the movie, Myra, a teacher at Hickory High, engages Norman Dale describing the rural-nessof Hickory. She vociferously notes that Hickory doesn’t appear on most state maps and that the only thing that comes through Hickory is a train. She goes on to explain that people—especially 50-year-old men—don’t move to Hickory for good reasons. 

I think Myra’s understanding of Hickory has been (and to some degree continues to be) a realistic understanding of many today—even those in the church. For decades the church has promoted ministry and mission in the urban (and suburbia) areas, as these centers continue to experience upticks in population. 

When figure heads of evangelicalism call young leaders to give their lives in strategic areas like cities, and when large denominations have church planting initiatives that focus their resources and efforts on cities, it’s no wonder why there has been a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas. And if someone does move in or stay rooted in rural areas to do ministry, they probably face the Myra’s of the world thinking they had no better opportunity or offer elsewhere. 

It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas. Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity but prime locations for opportunities. The problem Hickory faced and that many rural areas today face is that fewer are willing to mine and leverage the potentiality of resources of small towns to [figuratively speaking] “put” them on the map. 

Jesus had to overcome the stigma of what comes out of small towns. Nathanael, prior to following Jesus, is quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The church must redeem the mentality towards rural areas by seeing them as places of great potential.

Redeeming Rural Ministry

Hoosiers depicts a great deal of brokenness—a town inhospitable to outsiders, a teenager who had suffered great loss, a town drunk living in shame and isolation, and a failed basketball coach in need of a second chance. Who knew rural towns had so many problems? [When I think of small towns, my mind typically goes to Mayberry—a quaint little town with very little problems.] 

The reality is, rural areas aren’t immune to the depravity of humanity. Whether it’s an area with a sparse population of 26 or a small town of 26,000 every single person is in great need of redemption. Every area, regardless of how small has wrongs that need to be made right. 

Residing in rural communities are cold hearts of pride and racism that need to be melted. There are tears of grief being shed that need a shoulder to rest. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There fractured marriages in need of healing counsel. There are orphans that need a family. There is the unemployed searching for meaningful employment. There are failures in life longing for dealers of hope. There are prisoners in need of visitors. And there are searchers for purpose in need of people of direction. 

In order to redeem rural ministry, the church must focus on the needs of people rather than the number of people in the area. 

Redeeming Rural Mission

When thinking and discussing rural, almost everybody wants to focus on size. For many, size dictates importance. That’s exactly what some thought about Hickory, IN. This concept of the importance of size has creeped into the church’s understanding and impetus of mission, which has deterred many away from focusing on and going to rural areas.   

Today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem rural mission. To do so we must understand a few things. 

First, the size of the place has no bearings on the scope of God’s mission. God has called the church to go into all the world! A Christ-centered mission will have a church moving for and towards the whole world regardless of location.

Second, the purity of God’s mission isn’t the call to scale or multiply, but to faithfully make disciples.

Redeeming rural mission will require the church to decommercialize God’s mission. Instead of going where we will get the biggest bang for our gospel-buck, we will go where the Spirit prompts. 

Third, the size of the place does not affect the size of the impact. In fact, mission to rural areas has the potential of seeing greater community impact. If you did a cannon-ball in the middle of Lake Michigan, few will see and experience the impact; if you did a cannon-ball in a swimming pool, everyone around (and in) the pool sees and experiences the impact. Rural areas are the swimming pools the church can do gospel cannon-balls that can be felt and experienced by many in the community. 

In closing, after overcoming the less than 21st—Century cinematic affects, the Laxton children sat through the entire movie. They were captivated by the overall storyline of defeat, struggle, redemption, and celebration that captivated their imagination, spoke to their hearts, and inspired their lives. 

While my kids were into the overall drama of the movie, my mind raced to how basketball transformed a small rural town in Indiana. And to know that the church has something so much greater than basketball! 

My prayer is that the church will not neglect its responsibility to take the gospel into the rural areas of the world. To do so will require the church to redeem rural by seeing such areas as places for opportunity, people in need of ministry, and platforms for mission. As the church does this, there will be a glorious subplot of the gospel redeeming rural communities for the glory of God and the good of the world! 

We’re Not from Here

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This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.

When people ask me where I’m from, I think to myself, That it’s a tricky question. Do I answer where I currently live, where I currently moved from, or where I was born? In all honesty, I think they are trying to locate the accent they hear from the words coming out of my mouth. So, I answer, “Memphis, Tennessee.”

Truthfully, I’m not from Memphis. I’m actually from Munford, Tennessee. But most people wouldn’t have a clue where Munford is located. It is a town about 30 miles north of Memphis.

Munford was a small town. Growing up, there was no McDonalds, Walmart, or BP Gas Station. Everything was mom and pop. It wasn’t until years later, after I had moved, that Munford began to commercialize. Munford was your typical small southern town—simple, conservative, religious, connected, and friendly (still to this day I tell my wife about the “index finger” wave). This was the cultural environment in which I was raised and in which I became a Christian.

At the age of 15, I sensed a call to vocational ministry and began to lay out my future plans; I planned to attend college, then seminary, and finally land at a church serving God in some capacity. Participating in several overseas mission trips as a teenager gave me a perspective of the world that was bigger than Tipton County. Thus, I never thought I would stay local.

At least my 40,000-foot plans panned out. I attended Union University, graduating with a degree in Biblical Studies. Prior to graduating, I met my wife. As newlyweds, we embarked on seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Full disclosure, I was your typical Bible College, young seminarian. I was consuming so much Bible, theology, and Greek—in addition, serving in local churches—that I was overweight with pride.

Shedding pride 

But there were two practical things that happened that help shed some of that overweight pride. I was part of a church planting team in urban Atlanta and a few years later—upon completing my MDiv—I entered a PhD program in Missiology.

Remember, I’m from Munford, TN—population under 5,000. I found myself on a small church planting team in urban Atlanta where there were 5,000 people in a few blocks. No building, no budget, no people.

How in the world do you reach people—without borrowing members from other churches—with no church building, no members, and no money? Maybe I was a bad student, but from my perspective, neither college nor seminary had prepared me for this environment under these conditions.

There, I learned the precious principles of proximity and presence. It was great that college and seminary had built a theological foundation. But that theological foundation would be useless unless first, I knew the people living around me and, second, I knew how to contextualize the gospel and church in their heart language.

The second practical thing that led me to shed some of my pride weight was my PhD studies in Missiology. In that program, it occurred to me that I’m not as smart as I thought. In addition, it taught me that if the church is going to reach a changing culture, we must change our perspective and our paradigms. Both lessons require a posture of humility.

I remember reading a statement by Ed Stetzer (at the time, one of my professors, now my boss), that if the 1950s came roaring back, there would be so many churches ready to engage. That’s so true of many established churches.

But then, one of the problems with Western Christianity is that it is a copy-cat culture. We copy what we perceive is working.

The church growth and seeker church movement captivated so many young leaders 20 years ago, and since then, such churches have popped up all around the U.S. to the point that they’ve saturated many of the suburban and urban markets.

Why do I say, “saturated the markets”? Because there are those like Aubrey Malphurs and Rick Richardson that accentuate, based upon research, that only a fraction (10 percent or less) of church growth is from conversion growth. In other words, the church is having a difficult time engaging an ever-changing culture with the good news of King Jesus.

Navigating the unfamilar…

I woke up to the realization that I was no longer in quaint, conservative, religious, down-to-earth Munford years ago. I had to wake up from my presuppositional stupor if I was going to be evangelistically effective.

The lessons I’ve learned over the years remind me of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy woke up realizing she was no longer in Kansas on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm. She was in Oz. Oz was a strange, unfamiliar land. Oz was a place of witches, lollipop guilds, lions, scarecrows, tin mans, and flying monkeys. Dorothy had to learn how to navigate Oz if she wanted to get back home.

Navigating unfamiliar, strange, and even hostile territory was something the people of God in Jeremiah 29 had to do. Could you imagine being a captive, taken from your homeland? You find yourself stunned, marginalized, uncomfortable, oppressed, and even despised.

Wondering what to do, God tells them to settle down—for they will be there 70 years! He proceeds to tell them to get back to the basics of family raising, field planting, and community building. In addition, he tells them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city of Babylon.

In short, God tells His people to enact Promised Land life in Babylonian captivity and to engage the Babylonians with grace and mercy.

Talk about a tall order for a marginalized, oppressed people!

Also, in God’s directives, you won’t find instructions to retreat, to become sub-cultural hermits. They weren’t to sit and sulk—longing for the good ol’ days back in the Promised Land. They weren’t to become mean-spirit, violent, and intolerant. They were to navigate the new, strange, unfamiliar, even uncomfortable land with grace and grit.

Truthfully, the Western Church today is like Dorothy in Oz and the Israelites in Babylon. Foreign and unfamiliar describe their environment.

In such environments, there’s a natural inclination to long for home. And that we do. But, I’m not talking about a home in which we go back to. And it’s not a home that is three-clicks-of-the-heel away. Our home is a future City—The New Jerusalem.

While we wait for home, let us as the church of the Living God, the Bride of Christ, live for the peace and prosperity of the unfamiliar, the strange, the one different than us. Doing so will require a posture of humility, a heart of grace, and a mind of understanding. And this is the essence of our podcast, Living in the Land of Oz.

Undermining Revitalization–Part 4

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Here’s the conclusion to the four part series on undermining revitalization.

An Alternate Ending

I read an article once that revealed how the endings of Star Wars: The Return of the Jediand Rocky Iwere altered.[1]The original ending of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedihad Han Solo dying. The original ending of Rocky Ihad Rocky receiving money to throw the fight against Apollo Creed. If you’ve seen either movie, Han Solo is one of the heroes of the rebellion against the empire and Rocky victoriously (in a motivational fashion) defeats Apollo Creed. Both are glorious endings.

Today, many churches in need of revitalization are experiencing more of a tragic ending like the original endings of Star Wars:The Return of the Jedi and Rocky I. Such endings are very similar to the ending of the children of Israel in Numbers 14 because of the ten spies who gave a negative report. 

However, we can change the endings of churches in need of revitalization. The endings can be much more encouraging and glorious than we could have imagined. To help rewrite the ending of the stories—from gloom to glorious—I’ve created a code or a set of five guiding principles for all church leaders to follow.

  1. It’s not about me, but HE. Remember, it is not about you! It never has been, nor will it ever be. It is about the King of Glory and making much of Him—not only in the church but through the church.
  2. It is definitely bigger than us, but NOT TOO BIG for God. Turning around a church; jump-starting a church from years of plateau; bringing a church back to life; whatever you call it, revitalization is bigger than one person, or a group of people. It is a task that only the Spirit of God can empower a people to accomplish.
  3. If I don’t check my heart, I can wreck the church. Just because someone has been marked by salvation doesn’t mean they are currently living out their salvation. In other words, people can know Jesus but presently not be obeying Jesus. I think of Peter in Galatians. Paul had to call him out for his behavior that was in direct contradiction to the gospel. Leaders must constantly check their heart to make sure it is connected to and walking with God. I cannot tell you how many leaders that I have come across in my years of pastoring that were “good” people but their heart was in no condition to be leading God’s people—in any way.
  4. If I’m not growing as a leader, I’m holding back the church. Leaders are learners. When it comes to leadership in the church—especially in cases of revitalization–if you want the church to grow (in any capacity) you must be growing as a leader. This principle applies to any leadership position: paid staff, lay elder, deacon, finance committee, personnel committee, etc. Such people in positions of leadership should be reading books and articles (listening to podcasts) on theology, ecclesiology, mission, revitalization, leading change, on their specific areas of leadership, etc. If you hold a position of leadership in the church and you’re too busy or too lazy to grow, you need to step down. It’s just that simple.
  5. It’s a mud-run marathon, not a stroll down Main Street. There’s nothing easy about leading a revitalization. I could get into all the specific difficulties associated with leading a turnaround. But in general, revitalizing a church is a battle. Keep in mind, the devil does not want you to succeed! In addition, the proclivity of the human heart is stubbornness. Thus, revitalization is messy, demanding, painful, and, at times, lonely. Revitalization is like constantly running into a head-wind. To be honest, this is why many churches won’t make it. And they won’t make it because they don’t have the leadership with the backbone to stay the course, to finish the race. They think church should be a place or a people without friction—just an easy stroll down Main Street. Know this: moving in the direction of God will cause friction with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In closing, churches in need of revitalization can rewrite their ending. But for their ending to be rewritten from one of gloom to glory, there will need to be—undergirding the guiding principles mentioned above—a persistence in prayer, a grounding in the word of God, a commitment to the gospel, and a passion for mission. But rest assure, as this article has contended, it will require a body of leaders undergirding, rather than undermining, the God-given vision of moving forward. The promised land awaits. 


[1]Stacy Conradt. “The Alternate Endings of 28 Movies.” Mental Floss, July 29, 2014. Accessed June 28, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58013/alternate-endings-28-famous-movies.

Undermining Revitalization–Part 3

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I’m continuing my series of undermining revitalization. The following are the last two ways leaders undermine churches turning around.

Third, these leaders believe the cost is too great for them.

When the majority of the spies looked at the Promised Land, they saw too great a cost. Their standard of forward movement became the peopleof the land instead of the promise of the land. In other words, the fear of losing their lives trumped the faith of living out God’s promise. 

Many church leaders within churches in need of revitalization allow the fear of “what if” to prevent the faith of “what could be.”

Another way to put it—They kill ‘wow’ with ‘how.’There are a least three areas where the fear or the cost of the former overcomes the faith of the latter.

First, the cost of giving up methodological preferences proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.Preferential methods such as style of preaching or music, structure of small groups, philosophy of children’s ministry, or a strategy for engaging the community prove to have more of a primary rather than tertiary root to the heart. 

As a result, when a decision is brought to the table to change structure and strategy in order to be more efficient and effective at reaching people far from Jesus and discipling them into His image, that decision is met with opposition from leaders who are attempting to ultimately preserve their religious way of life and worship rather than doing whatever it may take to advance the good news of Jesus. 

Second, the cost of giving up friends one has worshiped with for years proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.When it comes to revitalization, not everyone will make the journey. 

The changes may prove to be too much for some for whatever reason. In many revitalization cases I’ve seen people leave to seek church membership elsewhere. And in some of those cases (while they don’t publicly complain or voice their opinion for the sake of peace in the church), they confide in church leaders that they are leaving to seek church membership elsewhere because there is something about the new direction they don’t like. 

Such an exodus of people (especially those who the leaders have known for years) sets off a panic alarm, causing the leaders to retreat from moving forward—thus relapsing to the past. In the end, no one wins since those who leave tend to stay gone and the church is paralyzed from moving forward into the new direction the Spirit is prompting. 

Third, the cost of giving up the safety and security of the feel of the church proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.

When a church becomes a vehicle for mission—reaching people far from Jesus—it will be a church that receives, not repels, new people. 

New people joining the church changes the dynamic of the church. Such changes make people uncomfortable. Some members may even negatively voice that the church is not what it once was. Some may voice that they feel like they no longer have a voice. Some may voice they feel like their church has been stolen from them. 

In any case, leaders who undermine revitalization begin fighting for the “comfort” of the long-standing members. As a result, they suck the life out of the vision.  

Fourth, they fail to trust the process.

Revitalization, as stated earlier, is basically a corporate form of sanctification. Thus, it is a process of being corporately formed and molded in the body of Christ. Such a process will include highs and lows, celebrations and confrontations, and opportunities and obstacles. Those churches that successfully experience revitalization (and thus revival) are the ones that have leaders who trusted the process. 

The key to trusting the process is knowing God’s promise (promised vision) for who He wants you to be and what He has called you to do. In other words, it’s imperative to anchor the process of revitalization to the glory and command of Christ rather than the experience and demands of the people. 

It’s imperative to anchor the process of revitalization to the glory and command of Christ rather than the experience and demands of the people. 

When leaders don’t know God’s promised vision or His preferred future for the church, then they are driven by experiences and feelings. As a result, leaders jump ship rather than stabilizing the ship through the storm.

In the process of revitalization, it’s not that people’s voice doesn’t matter, it’s just that Christ’s vision for His church matters more. 

Undermining Revitalization–Part 2

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Most have heard the leadership adage “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” With regards to church revitalization, this concept couldn’t be more accurate. If a church is to be revitalized and renewed, and experience health, vibrancy, growth, and multiplication, it will need to be led by a group of godly, knowledgeable, tenacious, loving, fierce, patient, unified, humble, and faith-filled leaders. 

Depending upon the church governance, these leaders can range from vocationally paid leaders (staff) to lay elders (who oversee the church’s direction) to the various committee members who hold positions of leadership. 

Church leaders—holding any leadership position in the church—are the key to the church’s revitalized future just as the group of spies held the key to Israel’s future in the Promised Land.

The problem for many churches in need of revitalization today is that they don’t have the leadership necessary to lead the church towards the land of revitalization and renewal. 

In this post, I will outline the first two ways leaders can undermine the vision of a revitalized church. Understanding these points will (1) help pastors and church leaders to ask the right questions as they lead struggling churches towards gospel vitality and (2) prevent many leaders from undermining the revitalization process. 

First, they believe everything is fine.

Churches are perfectly conditioned to continue doing what they are doing. In other words, they don’t have to change one thing to sustain their current condition. For many churches, this means a slow leak of membership, baptism, and finances while maintaining the image that everything is fine. 

The truth about revitalization is that every church must be constantly engaged in the process of revitalization. Revitalization for a church is like sanctification for a believer. Sanctification, for a believer is the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus. Revitalization for a church is the process of being conditioned for gospel witness and mission. Revitalization seeks to center a church’s DNA around the message and mission of Christ while adopting methods and strategies that effectively disciple and evangelize their context.  

The first step towards revitalization is acknowledgement. A church might be in need of revitalization if:

  • It has been running the same amount of attendees for ten years and has never participated in either a church plant or sent people out as missionaries
  • Everyone they baptized is primarily children of members
  • They have no footprint in the community with regards to their engagement and interaction

The gospel hasn’t called churches to run activity centers of spiritual development for members; instead, it has been called to release saints for mission advancement among the nations.  

Where revitalization is undermined is when leaders verbally acknowledge they want to grow and reach people far from Jesus, but inwardly they are hoping they can keep everything the same and yet see different results. 

Once vision moves from theory to execution, the undermining begins. Those who undermine revitalization typically are in agreement with pastors expressing the theory of vision. However, executing the vision is where they begin a subversive undermining (that is, a passive aggressive stance and language which cuts down or delays growth and change). 

This can manifest itself in a host of ways. Below are some statements that such leaders may make which express they are not fully on board with the changes of revitalization:

  • “What if we did nothing?” 
  • “Let’s sit on it for a while.”
  • “Let’s do some more homework.”
  • “Do we really need to make that change? We’ve been doing it that way for years.”
  • “Let’s bring some others in on this and get their opinion.”
  • “According to our bylaws, that’s not a decision for us to make.” 
  • “I’m not comfortable with it.” 
  • “The pastor is being too pushy.”

In order for revitalization to occur, we need robust conversations, dialogues, and discussions. There will certainly be times for pause so that the team can pray more and do more homework.

However, subversive undermining comes from those individuals who secretly have a problem with the overall trajectory of the revitalization. Now that revitalization is moving from concept to implementation, they are vocalizing their opposition in subversive ways. As a result, revitalization is undermined either for a season or indefinitely. 

Second, these leaders sympathize with complainers and naysayers.

Church leaders ought to have a loving and caring disposition when it comes to others. Love should be the motivating factor in all that we do. Jesus said it Himself: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). Of course, these are the two greatest commandments. Even Paul in his letter to the Ephesian believers addressed how the church body should build itself in love (Eph. 4:16).

Revitalization tests one’s biblical understanding of love. It tends to stir up complainers and naysayers who don’t like change and are accustomed and prefer the status quo. These complainers look for someone who has the capability to stop what is causing them discomfort. As such, they prey on the leaders who will listen and empathize with them—giving platform and credence to their complaint. In all fairness, many of these leaders are simply trying to love these people well. Despite this, their act of love undermines the church’s attempt to revitalize. 

Let me share an analogy. What if a child comes to a parent and begins complaining about the healthy food that has been placed before them? What if they insist on having a diet of french fries and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Anempathetic parent can understand their child’s frustration, but then must guide them through why their diet needs to have healthy food as the foundation. While the child may still long for french fries and ice cream, at least the loving parent has taken time to engage and explain the healthy course of action to their child. 

In order to maintain calmness and a mirage of order, a sympathetic parent, on the other hand, will work to ease their child’s feelings of discomfort. Therefore, they’ll give in to the demands. In doing this, the parent has given credence and validity to the child’s desired nutrition. 

Can you guess which act of love is selfless and the other selfish? The selfless act of love is taking the time to empathize with the child and to enter into a dialogue and discussion about the child’s feelings and why the parent has chosen to place this kind of meal before them. The selfish act of love is the sympathetic parent who feels for the child, but because they don’t want to listen to the complaining anymore gives into the child’s demand, thereby undermining the very health of the child. 

This kind of selfish love takes place all the time in churches desperately in need of revitalization. 

The most loving thing church leaders can do with complainers and naysayers is to help them see the biblical vision of a God-breathed church compared to a personal preferred vision of a self-absorbed church.

…Stay tuned for Part 3 as I cover the two other ways leaders undermine revitalization.

Undermining Revitalization–Part 1

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Imagine you have spent your entire life enslaved. Freedom seems unattainable, and hope is scarce. However, one day a strange man—a fugitive from Egypt—shows up with the message that God sent him to Egypt to demand Pharaoh to let God’s people go so that God can bring them to the land of promise. 

A hope that was once extinct now started to emerge. Freedom’s light was beginning to shine.

Over the next several days drama ensues as competing miracles, plagues, destruction, and death pummel around you. When the dust settles, Pharaoh releases the slaves. He releases you. 

Freedom! Or so you think. Not much time elapses between release and vengeance. Pharaoh and his army set out to wipe you and all the other freed slaves. You plummet back into fear, panic, and fading hope. 

Suddenly, however, there is a commotion, people pointing towards the sea. You look up only to see two walls of water—one on the right and one on the left. You hear a loud cry telling you to march towards the sea. With adrenaline taking over, you enter to where the sea should be, but instead of water, you are on dry ground. You walk forward in the place where the sea had been laying since its creation. You cross the sea and arrive at the other side. When all the people cross safely to the other side, the sea walls come tumbling down over the entire Egyptian army. 

Now what? 

Here you are—freed slaves in the middle of the desert. Who are you, where are you going, and how are you going to get there?These are the questions racing through your mind. Days and weeks pass. Life is tough. Whispers of grumbling began to filter through the camp. These whispers grow louder and louder until they become full out complaints towards God and His leader, Moses. 

Just when you think about joining in the complaints, fire from heaven consumes a portion of the camp, and immediately, there is a hush. The complaining quickly turns to concern. 

On the next day, rather than eating manna, you eat meat for the first time. Nothing has tasted so good in such a long time. But as you were enjoying your quail, you hear cries in the distance. Those who had craved and obsessed over the meat begin to die. And as these people are buried, you begin to make the connection that when people complain against God and obsess over things other than Him, they end up dying. 

You think to yourself that there has to be a reason God freed you—us—from slavery. Certainly, as you sit there and ponder, there has to be more to God bringing us out here other than to teach us some spiritual and life lessons around complaining, gluttony, and idolatry

About this time, you hear reports that Moses has put together a spy team. These men are going to go scout out the Promised Land—the land that God had promised to give Abraham’s descendants. You haven’t been this excited since the day Moses showed up in Egypt to share the good news of freedom and redemption. Now, there is news of a Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey—a land of blessing, prosperity, and flourishing. 

Finally, a land to call home. 

Waiting for the return, however, feels like an eternity. Your soul hungers for God’s blessing, for God’s best, for God’s promise, for God’s life for you and His people. You believe that their return means you are one step closer to experiencing God’s movement and blessing. 

After 40 days, news spreads throughout the camp that the scouting team is back. Everyone, including you, jostles to hear about their escapes and what God has in store.

As people gather around, the spies reach into their bags and pull out mouth-watering fruit from the land. They verbally describe how the land was indeed bountiful and fruitful. 

However, what comes next is not what you were hoping for—or expecting. Rather than words of positivity and affirmation, their words are filled with negation and prohibition: The inhabitants of the land are too much for us to handle. They are simply too strong to overtake. We cannot enter the land of promise. 

But from the back of the pack there is another voice. One man, Caleb, says that the people ought to go and take possession of the land. In the sight of God, the inhabitants of the land are no match for the power of God, Caleb reminds the community. Your excitement grows, only to be eliminated once more.

The naysayers win as fear, trepidation, and disbelief spread throughout the entire camp. Now, rather than moving towards the vision God has laid out for His people, many want to return to slavery in the land of Egypt. As a result, God issues judgment on the community that no one 20 years of age and older will see and enter the land of promise. You will never see that land.

Obviously, this was the story of the children of Israel outlined in Numbers 13 and 14. However, when we draw on the contemporary relevance for today, we can equate what transpired in the wilderness to what has transpired and is transpiring in many churches today—namely, there is a leadership vacuum to champion and protect the gospel vision of reaching people far from Jesus in struggling, dry, and barren churches. 

The result is that hundreds and thousands of believers will spend much of their church days—if they don’t leave for another church—in safe mediocrity, monotony, and even gospel (mission) malnutrition with their souls longing to experience God’s vision for their church. 

To address the topic of revitalization, in this four part series, I will first note the stark reality for how many churches in the West are struggling in the wilderness of mediocrity and malnutrition as they experience plateau and decline, and with very little impact in the community. The second and third part will then turn to how leaders can and do undermine the revitalization process. And finally, the fourth part will conclude with an exhortation for leaders to choose an alternate ending—one of hope and flourishing rather than one of struggle and survival. 

Struggling in the Wilderness 

Churches in the West should be concerned regarding their health and vitality. No longer enjoying the prominent role in society and culture, the church in the West has struggled greatly over the last few decades to keep and even reach new people. In fact, over the last couple of decades Mainline Protestantism has been hemorrhaging.[1]In addition, many evangelicals realized the struggle the church (in general) was having to reach a changing culture, which led many in the 1980s and 1990s to shift their methodological strategy in hopes of reaching people who had left the church as well as those who were far from Jesus.[2]

This era saw the rise of Willow Creek, Saddleback, North Point Community Church, and similar style churches. However, some practitioners and church growth experts like Aubrey Malphurs see most of the numerical growth during the church growth movement as mainly the results of transfer growth (Malphurs, 1994, 62). 

Even though numerical growth has been the story for some churches over the last few decades, that hasn’t been the story for the majority of established churches. 

David Olsen, in The American Church in Crisis, predicts that approximately 55,500 churches will close between 2005 and 2020 (Olson, 2008, 176). 

In Comeback Churches,Mike Dodson and Ed Stetzer accentuate that 70-80 percent of North American churches suffer from decline or plateau, and 3,500-4,000 churches close each year (Stetzer, 2007, 17).[3]

Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, notes in The Incredible Shrinking Church

According to a special report published in Leadership Magazine, of the approximately 400,000 congregations in the country, 340,000, or 85 percent, are either plateaued or declining in membership. Some are in crisis while others are soldiering bravely on, grateful not to be in worse shape than they are (Page, 2008. 8). 

There is an apparent backwards ecclesiastical movement taking place across America in the majority of churches. Rather than growing, many churches are suffering from severe decline and facing impending death. The state of our churches’ effectiveness, fruitfulness, and missional impact in the West is bleak.[4]

While many advocate for church planting as the antidote to this deadly infection of Western churches, the question still remains: “How do we revitalize these struggling churches?” 

Revitalization is no easy task. In Planting Missional Churches, Ed Stetzer writes,

Saving dead and dying churches is much more difficult and ultimately more costly than starting new ones. Some authorities even argue that changing a rigid, tradition-bound congregation is almost impossible. As Lyle Schaller has indicated, even if it is possible, nobody knows how to do it on a large-scale basis…Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs… (Stetzer, 2006, 11).

George Barna also comments, “In many cases, trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort” (Barna, 1993, 15). This sagacious comment comes in light of how rigorous and demanding church revitalization can be. Although revitalization is difficult, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. 

If the gospel brings the dead to life, shouldn’t it be able to awaken declining and dying churches? Absolutely! Thus, revitalizing churches is a gospel task.

What is involved in this gospel task of renewing and revitalizing struggling, dry, and barren churches? Much ink has been spilled addressing what is involved in revitalization (e.g., the importance of preaching the gospel, being a leader who leads with conviction and courage, praying to undergird, having patience to wait, and embracing unity around a new or renewed vision). 

With such good theological and practical content today regarding revitalization, there’s one element to this gospel task that is typically overlooked. That element is a group of leaders championing and protecting the vision of a renewed (and revitalized) church. To that I turn in Part 2.


[1]Ed Stetzer, “Churches in America—Part 2,” July 6, 2016 The Exchange, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/july/state-of-american-church-part-2.html

[2]Many refer to this shift as the “Church Growth” movement as many church leaders attempted to see the church increase in numbers of converts, attenders, and members. 

[3]Also, in Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam believe 89percent of all churches are not experiencing healthy growth.

[4]Rick Richardson, in his recent work You Found Me, notes that based upon research only 10% of churches are growing by conversion.