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.
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.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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
Also, in Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam believe 89percent of all churches are not experiencing healthy growth.
Rick Richardson, in his recent work You Found Me, notes that based upon research only 10% of churches are growing by conversion.