Chasing Donkeys: How Ministry Can Feel

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!

Undermining Revitalization–Part 4

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

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

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

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.