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Want to dive deeper? Check out this blog post

Welcome Bootcampers! Today Jimbo and Bob get down to the serious business of talking about the lifecycle of a church. Seasons of growth, plateau and decline are present in almost every church at some point in its history. For some churches a season of decline could lead to its eventual demise. The task of every church is to be keenly aware of where it is presently and what steps toward its future it must take.  Is it time to revitalize or replant? Today’s EP will help you know which is right for your church.

A church asks different questions in different phases of its lifecycle. Which question is your church asking?

  • The question a growing church asks: What must we do?
  • The question a plateaued church asks: How are we doing?
  • The question a declining church must ask: Why are we not growing?

A declining church often asks the wrong question.  It asks “what can we do?” rather than, “why are we dying?”

The Revitalization Window

There is a time period in the life of a church when it has the opportunity to ask the right questions, discern the answers and then chart a course in a new direction.  This is a “revitalization window.” There are perhaps one to three revitalization windows in the life of a church.

  • Revitalization Window 1 – Plateau Stage or onset decline (Change required)
  • Revitalization Window 2 – Persistent/continued decline (Significant change required)
  • Replant Window – Late/critical/significant decline. (Radical change required)

Check out the entire Windows of revitalization Bob wrote here: The Revitalization Replant Window


Our sponsor, One Eighty Digital, can revitalize your church’s website-contact them today and let them know you are a Bootcamp listener!


JimBo Stewart: [00:00:00] All right, here we are back at the bootcamp. Bob, I hope you’re ready for the next episode. Are you, Are you bright eyed and bushy-tailed? Ready to go with a good night of sleep?

Bob Bickford: Jimbo, I’m not. I wish I was. but last night I was sleeping and I got hot and then my hand, I thought a bug bit my hand. So I had kind of a itch on my hand. And, then my mind clicked on and I, couldn’t shut my mind down, so I had to get up Jimbo. So I’ve been up since three 30, am Central time and it’s, it’s about 10 in the morning, Central time now.

So, I think my day’s almost over after this podcast. I’m gonna get a warm glass of milk and go to sleep.

JimBo Stewart: you couldn’t, you couldn’t, you couldn’t go back. You couldn’t make it happen to go back to sleep.

Bob Bickford: No, man, I can’t, like, once I’m up, like there’s a point when my, my mind clicks on and it’s over. It’s game over.

JimBo Stewart: Yeah, I, uh, I had a little trouble sleeping as well at some point. You know, when I, one, I always am hot when I sleep, always. it could be negative 20 degrees and I’m [00:01:00] gonna sweat in my sleep. And, so, I always have a fan going and I never know what to do with my arms, Bob, when I’m asleep, like I can’t because I create a lot of body heat.

I can’t cuddle with my wife because then her body heat and I’m gonna be too hot. So the solution I found is I just put a pillow in my arms and it gives my arms somewhere to go. But I guess somewhere in the middle of the night, the pillow started to like slip out of my arms and in a not awake, barely awake stoop.

I just like freaked out and flailed my arms everywhere. Knocked my phone off the charger and my AirPods halfway across the room. It was, it was chaos. I don’t even know. I think it was like three o’clock this morning. Probably about the same time. Who knows, man, Maybe we were on wave lengths together and we both, Maybe your hand was itching because my hand was hurting from hitting my charger.

Bob Bickford: Yeah. Cause cuz we’re twins like that

JimBo Stewart: We’re just, we’re linked, man. We’re, [00:02:00] we’re, we’re in this, we’re in this together at the bootcamp.

Bob Bickford: Sweetheart, did you, did you wake up your wife, did you frighten her? Like what did she sleep through? It like,

JimBo Stewart: She, she woke up, but she just ignored, snorted, and ignored, ignored me and turned the other direct.

Bob Bickford: Barb would’ve scolded me for making so much noise and, and, uh, I would’ve been in serious trouble at that point.

JimBo Stewart: Oh man. Well, speaking of trouble, and we’re a few weeks, ahead in recording, so who knows what’ll happen over the next couple weeks, but, Bob, earlier you made a prediction that the Cowboys were done, but, as of the time of the, this recording, that does not seem to be the.

Bob Bickford: no, Jimbo. I’m gonna have to, uh, eat some football crow here and at least pause my prediction that the cowboy season is over. their substitute quarterback has led them to a four oh, uh, record under his leadership. And so, you know, they’re looking pretty good and, and hopes are pretty high in Dallas, but I’m [00:03:00] fairly confident that when they start hitting some of the meat of their schedule that it’s all gonna fall.

But I could be wrong. I mean, they may have, they may have found their new quarterback, their backup is a, you know, kind of paid the minimum and Dak is paid like the maximum. So this, this kind of is a good life lesson. You, you don’t always win the games with the contract guy. Sometimes the re planter comes in and like, you know, makes it happen.

JimBo Stewart: Saves the day doing more

with basically nothing.

Bob Bickford: yes,

JimBo Stewart: That’s how we do it.

That’s how we do it.

Bob Bickford: how we do it.

JimBo Stewart: Hey, uh, one of the questions we get the most often speaking of things falling apart is what is the difference between replanting and revitalization and what are the replanting options? Now we’ve done one of our most listened to episodes ever is what is the difference between replanting and revitalization?

So we’ll link that in the show notes, but we’ll kind of address that again a little bit, uh, and you’ll see it, but,[00:04:00] One of the things that you’ve done is put together a really great presentation. I would love Bob if you would just, just hit kind of the tip of the iceberg for us here in the podcast today.

If anybody is registered and attending the am I A re planter conference that we have at Southern coming up real soon. When this goes live, and then we’ll have some more next year. If you missed that one, you’ll do the whole presentation there. but, you’ve done a great job doing a presentation on the revitalization and replant window.

Based on the idea that really there are predictive patterns in life cycles in churches, which we’ve talked about some life cycle stuff before with predictable success. But this is a little different in that just kind of the predictable bell curve pattern that we’ve all seen before. and talk to us about what are some of the important things for churches to consider when they’re looking at something like,

Bob Bickford: Yeah, Jimbo. The, cycle of a church from its inception, from its birth, from the time of planting till about 20 [00:05:00] years typically represents a time when a church is gonna grow. And our good friend, Double Doc is doing some research for us, and he discovered that church plants really need to have a conversation about their, their future, about year 15 to 18, somewhere in there.

Because when the church. Rises to what we might call maturity, they tend to plateau. And if they don’t address those circumstances that cause the plateau, then they’ll experience decline. And so this idea is that you have to arrest and reverse that decline in order to see the church walk into its future.

So we talk about the two things of revitalization really are the efforts that address a church that could be vital. And could be growing again if it has some focused attention and makes some adjustments and changes. But a church that is in the replant, situation or cycle is really, has experienced prolonged decline, like 10, 15, 20 years plus of decline, probably 15, 20 years more.

And [00:06:00] at that point, their options are narrowed. So this idea of windows of revitalization, Is this idea that you have to address a church according to where it is in the decline cycle on the backside of the curve.

JimBo Stewart: Yeah. So if on the growing side we’re asking what, what must we do? And kind of on that plateau, how, how are we going evaluative questions, on the backside we have to really decide, decide. Why we exist and why are we dying? Like what, what is it that God has uniquely called this church to be a part of in his story?

What is our role as a local expression of the body of Christ? and why? Why are we dying? Why is this happening? Why are we in this place?

Bob Bickford: Mm-hmm. , most churches will, ask that question and really find or give themselves answers that are, It could be accurate. But they may not tell the full story. Like the most common answers of why are we not growing is a church will say, Well, the community’s changed, right? The the people are less likely to [00:07:00] come to church.

Another thing that happens is the longer a church exists in a community, as community demographics change, the church doesn’t look like the community anymore. Right. They, the, the existing church is all a commuter church, right? They all drive in from 20, 30 more minutes away. And in a suburban, in an urban context, that’s really not helpful or healthy in a rural context, it’s a different situation.

But if, if I don’t live in the neighborhood in which my church resides, the church that I belong to, me inviting somebody to come from my, my neighborhood, 20, 30 minutes away. In to attend church, that neighborhood is likely not going to happen, right? So the community has changed and the church hasn’t, and people may have moved outta that community.

Another common reason is they say, Well, you know, we’ve had a few pastors that didn’t work out and, Man, that’s our, our good friend, the Velvet Hammer Walker Armstrong has a great kind of, reiteration of conversations that he’s had with churches that say, you know, [00:08:00] well we, we’ve had a few pastors that haven’t worked out.

And he will say, Well, really, how many? And they say, Well, six. And he goes, Wow, you guys must really have a chosen, really six. Pastors that just couldn’t do it. Imagine the luck of that, right? I mean, you just kind of makes a big deal of it and the reality. The commonality is not necessarily the pastors, it’s, something’s going on inside the church right there.

So there’s, there’s a challenge there. when churches don’t ask the right questions, and the right phase of life, what happens is, man, they just, they struggle to find the real reasons why they’re not growing. So a couple couple of things that we’ve seen in our consultations, and I think you’ve probably seen this too, is, The, the answers that are true, but you probably won’t hear a church say, and here here’s some of one is we’ve run off, we’ve run off pastors when they challenge us to mature in Christ.

Or to let go of our preferences, right? So we’ve heard of those churches [00:09:00] that, you know, the pastor’s been there three years and they decide, well, it’s time for a pastor change. And if you look back in the church’s history, they probably had every three to five years they’ve had a pastor change. Another answer that you may not hear is that when people say, you know, we’ve tolerated a lot of division.

And sinful behavior here, , and and we’ve lost a lot of people, over fights about stuff that’s really. Of primary importance, it’s like secondary rights, like politics or it’s like style or it’s, you know, the youth pastor wanted to, you know, use the sanctuary for an event. You know, just any number of kind of crazy and silly sorts of things that typically, really lead to church’s decline.

And so the church never asked the why question on the backside of the curve, why are we in decline? And, and until they do men, I think they just kind of look at surface issue.

JimBo Stewart: so when I’ve seen you do this presentation, Bob, one of the things I’ve seen is you, you’ve shown how in that predictable pattern, there’s not [00:10:00] only a life cycle, like a bell curve that we see in predictable success. We see it in Robert Dale. Mouthers, all these other guys who have done life cycles. But you got a piece that I think is really good of these revitalization windows

that you just, you’ve seen observationally in all the consultations that you’ve done.

You’ve seen it in some other data that there

usually is kind of two opportunities for revitalization and the, the way that the charts play out usually identify these kind of two windows. Talk to us. Those two windows of revital, the windows of revitalization that most churches see.

Bob Bickford: Yeah. So the first one, Jimbo, is as things are initially showing incidents of decline, right? So it’s the

first time that somebody looks around and goes, You know what? I,

I don’t think we have as many people as we had here last year. I mean, it’s, I mean, people aren’t attending church as much

granted, but if they do the average attendance for the

year, they realize, okay, we’ve dropped by maybe.

And that’s, that’s [00:11:00] a pretty good sized church. Maybe it’s a, a smaller, normative sized church under a hundred, maybe you’ve dropped by 10. Right? It depends on, on the size of church. And the larger the church, the, the longer it takes to be aware of this decline, it may, May show up in a focus, uh, or it may show up in, uh, the reality of the giving is not as high as it used to be.

Maybe it’s dropped by some percentage points. Maybe you’re struggling to get people to serve in volunteer roles or mission, maybe have a few less youth or children. It’s just those initial stages of If people don’t really look at it and they’re not keenly aware of, of the fact that the church is in decline.

So I would say this is probably the five to 10% window where people are, you know, they can tell there’s a little bit of a difference, but they’re not alarmed by it, right? So they just look, Okay, well, things are a little bit different. That’s the first window. So if you’re paying attention in the first window, And it matters to you to, to address some of those things, you realize there’s gonna be some sort of change that’s required in this first window.

Like we, [00:12:00] we’ve gotta tweak things a little bit. Maybe we’ve, we’ve gotta ask ourselves some questions. We’ve, we’ve gotta be concerned about the 10 or the 20 or in some cases, you know, a large church, the hundred that, that we’ve lost over the last year and we’re not seeing new people come in. So that’s when you rally the leaders.

When you start having honest discussions, you look at the data and then you begin a prayerful approach to, to say, what are the changes that we need to make?

JimBo Stewart: I would say, I would say evaluation at that point is so important, but it can be painful.

Right. And, and that’s where, you know, you talked about asking the right questions at that time and, and good diagnostic questions and what’s actually going on, gathering the leaders. Man, this, part is really hard and I think it’s one of the reasons we missed this window is it’s because, because we.

Really wanna look under the hood and see how things are actually going, cuz it’s kind of scary. And part of that is whenever we tie too much value to attendance and worth, like we’ve talked about in being versus doing [00:13:00] last week. And, and so because of that, we’re scared of what it means about us if things aren’t going great and so, I’ve met a lot of pastors and a lot of church leaders that they don’t really want to look under the hood and admit.

They, they just kind of hope that if, man, if I just keep going, like eventually it’ll, it’ll be okay. Like, check engine lights come on. I can smell oil smoking off the engine, but, but I mean, it’s still running and so,

Bob Bickford: Yeah.

JimBo Stewart: let’s, let’s just keep going and, and surely. And obviously covid years were hard for everybody. And so that one, that was hard for everybody. So I think everybody saw a decline during at least the beginning of covid, if not

still trying to come back from that. but, you know,

worldwide pandemics, precluded, when we

see some of these things happen, it’s, it’s hard to make ourselves. Ask those difficult questions, but,

 if you miss that window, if you miss the first window,

then you end up in the second window. And [00:14:00] the, When I’ve heard you talk about this, the amount of

change required in that second window is even more.

Bob Bickford: Yeah, it’s significant change cuz the second window is when decline persist. And those underlying causes just remain unaddressed, right? So you start seeing, and this can jimbo, this can occur over like 10, 15 years, right? So, so this could be a really long, slow decline where there’s, there’s loss, but it’s imperceptible almost, that people get comfortable with it and they get acclimated to it.

So, At the end of the second window, typically what you have is you have departures of key leaders and active missional labors. you also might see the, the, that your full-time staff now has to become part-time staff. They forgo raises because the budget is just not, they’re not able to support them, right?

Even though the church may have lots of reserves, right? They’ve thousands, hundreds, [00:15:00]sometimes hundreds of thousands in reserve. They’re saving it for a rainy day and Jimbo this time to get the umbrella out cuz it’s probably raining here in the second revitalization window. . Cause there’s like, hold the phone, man.

Like something is, Something is not going well. So in the first window, you need to change. In the second window, you need significant change. You, you can’t ignore it any longer. Something must change.

JimBo Stewart: So how do you identify whether you’re in the first window or the second window? How would a church know which of those that they’re in?

Bob Bickford: Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with the number of folks that are lost in terms of regular attenders, active missional laborers, and budgets. Right. When you. We start, this is the, the place where you start losing ground. You start pairing the budget

back, you start

shrinking ministries and outreach. You, you’re in a full on defensive mode at this [00:16:00] point.

Right? And the decision making mindset is we can’t do, we cannot. Lose people. We cannot make decisions that will cost us anything. And the the trouble is, is that the folks who wanna move forward, Missionly are leaving during this stage or have already left. And so what you have is you have a, a group of folks, some really good sweet folks who are hanging on and trying to, to stop the decline, but the only way that you stop the decline is to reenvision who God has called you to be.

As a local church in that context and. Step out in faith, take those risks and move forward. But this is kind of the play it safe and not move many things mentality kind of, kind of sets in at this point in time. And so people don’t wanna see significant change because they’re fearful that significant change will lead to loss.

Cuz Jimbo, typically when you change something significantly in a church, you’re gonna lose some folks. Right? And people just want to, they, [00:17:00] they like church how they like it and they, they. Particularly want things to stay the same, but the reality is the church that stays the same really is changing in the opposite direction, right?

Cause the Lord is always, always calling us to move forward in mission and cause us to move, calling us to move forward in faith.

JimBo Stewart: One of the things that you said I think is so important is the talking about the, Missionly active laborers, like the people who are proactive in going after it in, in predictable success. Les McKean would, would probably put your two windows, both on the front and back end of what he calls treadmill, and,

What Les would say is after, during treadmill, all your kind of proactive, what he would call visionary and operator, people are gonna leave.

Meaning that you’re gonna be left with more reactive people rather than proactive, who are much more comfortable with status quo. And I was having this conversation with a pastor here recently, because his church I believe, has [00:18:00] missed. Both revitalization windows and they’re now in that third window, which I want you to talk to us about just in sec, in just a second.

 the, the replant window. and part of the reason that replanting becomes necessary at that point is because you don’t have a lot of those proactive missionally active type people. And, as a matter of fact, this pastor that I met with has already decided that it’s time for him to transition out.

But he’s a little bit more of that reactive than proactive himself. And so he’s given them his resignation, but told them that he would stay until they found another pastor. and so I, I was telling him all this to say, Most of the people that are left, most likely are not proactive people, so they’re not gonna go find another pastor, until they feel an urgent need to have to do so they’re gonna let you just keep doing the bare minimum for as long as you’ll do it.

if you’ll just keep showing up on Sunday morning and Wednesday night and that’s it,

they’ll be okay with that [00:19:00] until they. Pay the bills. and this is one of the dangers of that next window where we get into a spot that really you need outside perspective and you need outside people. And so talk to us about that.

If you miss both the revitalization windows, what comes next?

Bob Bickford: Yeah, this is the replant

window where your options

to see the church have

a vibrant future, really narrow. So, you know,

there are different kinds of revitalization. There’s a assisted revital. There’s the,

first of all, just revitalization where you and your leaders in the church, you know, come together, pray together, and move forward. That’s really

mostly helpful. In the first window, as you move towards the end of the first window, the beginning of second, you need outside help, right? Cause you, you can’t do it your own. So you’re talking about an assisted revitalization where. An association or state convention or someone like Corpus Rob Peters with, Refocus comes in and helps you where, where you’re not just dependent upon the leaders in your [00:20:00] own leadership, intuition and knowledge to do it.

Covenant revitalization would be in the second window where you have to sign a covenant to say, We’re committed to this and we’re gonna see it through for the next 18 to 24 months, and we’re not gonna fire the pastor , right. If we’ve got a pastor, because that’s what happens so much is when the pastor sees where the church needs to go in terms of becoming healthy.

And we’re just talking. We’re not talking about necessarily anything with stylistic or changing a bunch of stuff, changing the name. We’re just talking about functioning healthy, biblical. Church, right? Where there’s mission, there’s discipleship, there’s church discipline, there’s outreach, and all of those sorts of things.

That there is oftentimes a, a, a push to remove the pastor as he’s leading the people forward because there’s always a point of pain and pain is always part of change. There’s personal loss, there’s personal pain where you let go of what you want to grab onto, what God is leading you towards. And so in, in a covenant revitalation, you, you basically [00:21:00] just say, We’re gonna, we’re gonna sign up to do what, what, uh, the Lord leads us to do here through the leaders that we’re gonna trust.

So you get past those windows and you get into the, the replant window, you’re really at a place in time where the church can no longer do it by themselves for themselves, for God’s glory, you have to have an outside leader. A new leader, not necessarily a non, you know, one that’s been there for, for a long time.

You have to have new decision making structures, new missional approaches, and everybody has to give a thumbs up to that. So most of the time that, and being in replant within that, that’s very rare that a church can do that on its own. it mostly looks like a partnership replant, so it could be an adopt.

It could be a marriage or a merger between two congregations. It could be a short term fostering situation where a church gets help to become, healthy again, but they, they give over authority and decision making to an outside church. And it [00:22:00] could be a family network church. So those are some of the options that could address, uh, the, the church’s condition during that replant window.

But Jimbo, all of those are radical, right? So you’ve gone from change required to significant change, you’ve gone to radical change, and I liken it to, an airplane. And you and I fly quite frequently. And if we fall. We can probably tell where we are in the stage of flight, right? If you’re, if you’re falling asleep at take off, you feel the plane moving up and then you can kind of feel the, the speed come off and you’re kind of at the cruising altitude.

Well, that would be plateau, right? That’d be kind of at the top of your maturity cycle, but you feel it when there’s, when there’s a dissent, right? You can feel the, the, the plane going down well, A church often is like a plane that’s in a nose dive, a declining church particularly that there gonna, there’s gonna be a point of physics, Jimbo, if you and I are flying somewhere, if the pilot’s falling asleep, if something radical has happened in the cockpit and it’s in a nose dive, there’s a point of no [00:23:00]return when it doesn’t matter how much you want to see the plane come outta that nose dive, you pull back on those controls, it’s gonna nose dive and it’s gonna crash.

And so some churches. Who are in that third window that replant, they’re in that crash situation. It’s just a matter of time. Five years, seven years, 10 years. And one things I often tell the church is add five. Add 10 years to the average age of your attenders, and what does the church look like then?

Right? And just have them think about that. And most of the time it’s like, well, they haven’t thought about it. , you know, they just haven’t thought about it. And, and so that’s where a lot of our churches unfortunately are. and at that point, you’re looking at basically, at the end of the replant window.

You’re looking at a partnership replant, or you’re looking at closure and donation to a new work like church plant, and your options are much more limited in that third window, which is the replant window.

JimBo Stewart: So just to summarize, if you’re in that first window, starting to plateau or onset decline, There’s [00:24:00] some change required. You gotta ask some hard questions and you gotta make some hard decisions, and you need to preemptively go ahead and make some changes to, you may need to adjust to a changing neighborhood.

You may need to, realign some things back on mission. and hopefully the, at that point, the changes aren’t really that drastic or radical, but some minor adjustments, just realigning back to who God’s called you to be. In, in the second window, if you miss that first window and you end open the second window where there’s really persistent and continued decline, the change becomes much more significant.

and you really need some level of outside perspective at the very least to help you, if not outside resourcing but the very least you need some outside perspective. It’s some outside eyes to help you, make the changes that you need to make. And it’ll be hard questions and it’ll be hard changes.

But if you miss both of those windows, then you find yourself in the replant window. And at this point, we’re late in the stage. It’s critical, significant decline for a long time, [00:25:00] and you probably do not have

within your current body the laborers needed. To

do the mission that God has for you in that community.

And it’s a Galatians six moment where you need somebody else

to step up and help you carry that burden. and here’s what I’d say is don’t

let’s avoid the shame

talk and feelings about that, but let’s just take the steps that, that are necessary to keep a gospel presence in your community.

Bob Bickford: Exactly. I think you’ve really, you know, summarized it well in churches who find themselves in the replant window, have to have the courage to face their reality, to have the right kinds of discussions, and then by faith to make those bold decisions to see their church. be a place where the gospel is

going to be proclaimed well past their season of ministry, which is drawing to a close.

And so that requires, you know, one Luke 9 23 moments, like dying to yourself, taking up your cross and like following Jesus boldly to your, to your death. The death of your preference [00:26:00] really, and the death probably of your favorite style of ministry in, in some regards. Here’s some good news. We’re seeing more and more congregations.

Choose that as an option. Right? And so I think it’s really awesome through the work that our, our boss, Mark Clifton, has highlighted and elevated that there is a future for your church with, with our good buddy, Mark Hallick, who wrote the book, God’s Not Done With Your Church. There’s, there’s a way that the church can be, continually renewed where it can be vital in the future, and it may be revitalization.

Or it may be replanting. And there’s really those two options. Most of the churches that have had 15 to 20 years plus decline, it’s really gonna be through replant. Through replanting, where that church is renewed and. That’s just the reality that we see. And, and so my hope is some of our boot campers, they might put themselves in the second revitalization window towards the alone, towards the end of that revitalization [00:27:00] window.

Not too late for you, but here’s what, here’s what you’ve gotta be able to share with the, the, the folks there. It’s not just a little bit of change, it’s probably significant change. And then it’s gonna have to be, everyone agreeing and praying and, and working and operating in unity towards that. And here’s the good news too. In those situations where there’s radical change required, we’re starting to see churches partner for short term, but also partner for long term so that the gospel presence can ma be maintained in, in that location, and that that people, men, women, boys, and girls, can hear about Jesus. And so it’s an exciting time to be part of the replant movement.

And it’s also a difficult time. More and more churches are finding themselves in, in the space where they’re having these conversations. So I’m thankful for the work that we’re doing and associations, state conventions are doing and, and hopeful that this will be helpful. We’ll put this document, this, this white paper about the windows of revitalization on the show notes for you guys to, to download and use as helpful.

And, man, we’re praying for you and pulling for [00:28:00] you.

church revitalization, Life cycle, lifecycle, replant, replanting, windows of revitalization

Jimbo Stewart

Replant Bootcamp Co-Host

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