Pretend that your church is declining and in danger of closing. Would you want to help save it? Why would you want to save it? What is your motivation? Is it because you love your church family and want your family to have a church home? Is it because you’re attached to the building-a place you’ve invested so much in and don’t want it to be empty or be sold? Is it because you love the Anglican tradition and want it to be available in your community? Those are good reasons, but they aren’t the right reasons for saving a dying church. If those were your primary motivators, you would eventually lose your church.
Any reason other than advancing the Gospel of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ to all people is the wrong reason to save a dying church. If you want to save your church family, your buildings that you’ve sacrificed to build or keep, your Anglican presence in your community, you must give them up.
Matthew 16:23-25 (NLT) tells us, “Jesus turned to Peter and said, ‘Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.’”
I’m sure you have heard sermons on “Taking up our Cross” and the need to “Die to Self.” But have you ever thought to apply this principle to your local church? To put it another way, if you try to hang on to your church, you will lose it. But if you give up your church for Jesus’ sake, you will save it.
It’s one of those frustrating spiritual truths we must grasp. If we try so hard to hang on to and grow our churches for our sake, we will lose them. If in trying to save your church, your church becomes more important to you than Jesus, you will lose it. If liturgy is more important to you than Jesus, you will lose it. If being Anglican is more important to you than Jesus, you will lose it. However, if you give up your church, letting it and its growth and “success” go into the hands of Jesus, and put your relationship with Jesus and following him first, you will end up saving it.
If revitalization is to happen in any congregation, there must first be an ongoing personal renewal in the hearts of everyone in it. The clergy must love and follow Jesus more than the congregation they lead. The laity must love and follow Jesus more than the building, the history, being Anglican, or whatever else. Personal renewal always precedes congregational and missional renewal.
In my first position as an associate priest in Midland, TX, I was hired to implement church growth strategies primarily from The Purpose Driven Church book by Rick Warren. This was before The Purpose Driven Life book came out and he became famous. Well, in the three years I was there, the church went from around 180 to over 330 in average Sunday attendance! I thought, “this church growth stuff is easy!”
It wasn’t until I became a rector of a church in need of revitalization that I realized the “success” I experienced in Midland was based on the years of personal renewal that took place in that congregation prior to my arrival. The congregation had experienced such a personal renewal of love for Jesus that they were compelled to do whatever it took to reach more people with the Gospel. I was hired to help later and got to enjoy the harvest of their years of sowing seeds of personal renewal.
As a young rector I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to have that luxury (inheriting a field that had already been planted) and had to start from scratch, so to speak. Through me, the Lord led the new congregation into a deeper relationship with Jesus and then revitalization began. To be clear, we didn’t wait until some magical time in the future when everyone in the congregation was fully in love with Jesus to start making important strategic changes. But let me tell you, as the congregation fell more and more in love with Jesus, they more and more put his mission ahead of other important aspects of church, and revitalization accelerated. Personal renewal precedes congregational and missional renewal.
So, what is your motivation for church revitalization? Is it to save your church? Or is it that you are so in love with Jesus that you’re compelled to fulfill his mission – whatever it takes?
Allow me to ask you a question. How is your personal relationship with Jesus? Is he first and most important to you in all things? Is Jesus more important to you than your church? Do you look to Jesus for peace and security more than your church? Is his mission to establish his Kingdom in you and everyone you meet more important than your church? If so, you’re well on your way to saving your church.
If you try to hang on to your church, you will lose it. But if you give up your church for Jesus’ sake, you will save it.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization at the American Anglican Council.