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 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.