One of the most helpful bits of information about church revitalization that I learned at one of the many conferences I have attended over the years is this: “When God wants to revitalize a church he takes them through 5 types of renewal. These NEVER happen out of order.” That’s a pretty bold statement, but I’ve found it to be true. The five types of renewal are: 1. Personal Renewal, 2. Relational Renewal, 3. Missional Renewal, 4. Structural Renewal, and 5. Cultural Renewal.
When a church is in the lifecycle stage of recline (plateaued) or decline and decides to work on revitalization, most of the time the first instinct is to jump right to the fourth renewal, structural renewal. This makes sense because structures deal with possible solutions which are most easily visible.
I live in Florida and it is already 98 degrees – 98 in May! – and my air conditioner is straining to keep the house cool. We had an expert come to assess the house to see what we could do to help. It’s an older house so our first guess was to upgrade the windows because we can see they are old and we feel the heat coming through them. Although the expert said that is not bad to address in time, it is not the best or most cost-effective solution. He said by far the better strategy would be to add insulation to the attic. It costs less and would have a greater impact on keeping the house cooler. He explained the problem is that since people don’t see the attic, this better solution is often overlooked and people spend a ton of money on windows for very little results and then are upset.
This is how it often works with church revitalization. The thought is, if we can just reorganize the organizational structures, make some tweaks here and there to ministries, or add just the right program, then things will turn around. Those are not bad things to do at the right time; however, doing them first without the first three renewals in place usually doesn’t result in growth. A lot of time and energy are spent with little results and then people get mad and think revitalization doesn’t work.
It’s like when the prophet Samuel looked first to David’s older brother Eliab and assumed he must be the one to anoint: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7)
If you want to see your church grow, avoid looking first at the outward structural issues, and instead look, as God does, at the heart. And you look at the heart by addressing the first three renewals: Personal, Relational, and Missional. In the next several articles I will write about each of these renewals and suggest practical ideas that will bring these renewals in your congregation. For now let me simply summarize them with this question: Is your church truly committed to obeying the Great Commandment and the Great Commission? These two scriptures capture the heart of these three renewals.
The Great Commandment
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
Personal Renewal: Do you and others in your church truly love the Lord with everything you have? Is the goal of abiding in his love (John 15) and doing life with him your absolute first priority? Is there a deep passion for a real relationship with Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, running throughout your congregation? This kind of personal love for Jesus will do more for church growth than any amount of structural changes – which are also important!
Relational Renewal: Do you and others in your church truly love one another? Are you quick to forgive one another? Is there a genuine care for each other when you are together so that a visitor would sense it and want to be a part your community? Unchurched visitors can sort of “smell it” if love is not there and they will instinctively not want anything to do with you.
The Great Commission
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Missional Renewal: Do you and others in your church truly love lost outsiders? Do you see those around you who are unchurched with sincere compassion rather than judgment? Do you see that they are either visibly or invisibly broken due to the world, the flesh and the devil and, in love, do you want them to know the way, the truth and the life, Jesus? Does your love for lost sinners compel you to go to them in order to make them disciples of Jesus, too?
Even though these renewals are not as easily seen as structural needs, being renewed with genuine love for the Lord, for one another, and for the lost will do more for your church being revitalized in the long run.
Canon Mark Eldredge is the American Anglican Council’s Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching