Tag: dying churches

A man in a pew seeking to revitalize

3 Reasons Churches Don’t Revitalize- And 1 Thing You Can Do About It

When thinking about the reason our congregations are hesitant to revitalize, we often say, “They just don’t want to change.” And while that may be partly true, it isn’t the whole reason, nor is it the sole reason.

During year three of our church’s revitalization process, my husband received an email from a long-time church member.  This church member was very frustrated and disgruntled over a decision my husband made regarding small groups at our church.  Instead of calling our Sunday morning groups by their former name, “Sunday School,” he opted to encompass all of our small groups under the name, “Connect Groups.” Sunday morning, Sunday night, weekday nights, on-campus, or out of homes, they would all be under the banner of “Connect Groups.” Her email started with her main complaint, but unraveled midway through to combine all of her frustration at the changes made during the three years we had been ministering there.  For several paragraphs, this woman compared the way things had always been done against the way things were being done now.  For each change, she listed all the ways it was better before– ending the email with the statement, “I just think there’s no need to change anything. Everything needs to stay the same as it always has. There’s no reason to do things differently.”

My husband responded simply, “Thank you for your email.  I certainly enjoy being able to get quick, efficient communication from my congregation members.  Seeing as how change is so frustrating for you, I will respond via a handwritten letter.  You should receive it in several business days.”

I’m kidding, of course.

My husband has infinite patience and responded kindly and warmly and explained the necessity of the change.  Unfortunately, he did not win her over; the woman would correct anyone who used “connect group” to refer to a group that met on Sunday mornings at church until the day she left our church, still angry and frustrated.  This woman is no different than countless congregation members across all of our churches, and I’m sure each of you reading this could share your own file of “Monday Morning Uplifting” emails from sheep that bite.  So why are some churches, and some congregants, so unwilling to revitalize?

In Episode 99, Jimbo and Bob (I’m really trying to get the “Jimbob” moniker to stick but I digress) discuss three reasons why a church might not want to revitalize: a lack of self-awareness, a desire to control, and the fear of loss.

The Crack in the Ceiling

A crack in the ceiling

One of the main reasons a congregation resists revitalization is a lack of self-awareness.  The church just isn’t aware of just how bad the issues are, whether they be the facilities, the programming, or the church governance and polity. Have you ever seen the commercial for the room freshening spray where the advertiser refers to being “nose-blind” to smells?  That’s the picture of some congregations.  They don’t see the need for revitalization because things don’t seem that bad to them.  It takes an outside perspective to address the issue, because only an outsider can see it.  

A pastor I know began to look at remodeling his church’s sanctuary.  There was money in the budget to do it without going into debt, and the sanctuary’s aesthetic was dated and worn.  But more than the cosmetic reasons for the remodel, the church had serious structural issues that needed to be addressed.  There were cracks in the ceiling that were so large, swarms of wasps would swoop down from them during the service and dive-bomb members of the congregation.  The addition and subtraction of several instruments and sound equipment over the years had resulted in wires and speakers dangling precariously from the ceiling.  And yet, when faced with the decision to remodel, the church voted to refrain from doing any major remodeling.  One long time member stood up and said, “That crack in the ceiling has been there since I started here in 1960 and it’s not hurting anything!”  The pastor left the church shortly after, discouraged and demoralized by the church’s lack of awareness and vision.

Sometimes this lack of self-awareness even extends past the facilities and into the church’s reasons for decline.  “The community changed, they just aren’t the same as they used to be,” is a common refrain. “The doors are open, but they won’t come in!” These church members resent the community, and as Mark Clifton often says, “You can’t reach people you resent.”  Until your church loves their community, they will never feel the need to reach them– and reaching your community is not just a vital part of revitalization, but is also a commandment from your Creator. (Thom Rainer’s book, Anatomy of a Revived Church and Mark Clifton’s book Reclaiming Glory are both excellent resources to help your church see the connection between loving your community and reaching them with the Gospel.) Sometimes, churches will say, “The church down the street is to blame!” as though there aren’t enough lost people to go around.  Or, “The former pastor messed everything up!” But the key is the lack of awareness of their own part in the church’s decline.  There is a reluctance to admit the need to change their behavior or their surroundings.

Who is in Control Here?

Another reason churches are hesitant to revitalize is the loss of control.  Maybe a former pastor came in with a “dictator” mentality and ran people off with his authoritarian style of leadership.  Alternatively, maybe the former pastor was weak and ineffective and the church is now used to controlling its own fate and the idea of revitalizing and changing pushes against that.  

Occasionally, there are “power brokers” in a church.  These people, and sometimes whole families, have gone from being generous givers in the past to controlling congregants now.  Having a new pastor come in and give them advice to change something creates conflict between them and him.  They may even “talk” with their wallets, refusing to tithe until their demands are met.  

This struggle for control can cause pastors who deeply desire revitalization to give in and yield to those who cannot be convinced of the need to change course.  The church then continues in plateau or in a downward trajectory until it eventually dies.

Change is Scary– but Loss is the Real Fear 

A cartoon where a man protests change in church

This brings us to the third reason churches don’t revitalize: Fear.  Many pastors assume that their congregation is scared of change.  But that’s not entirely accurate.  I would imagine most of your congregation is riding around in cars with fuel injection systems and power steering, and some have even embraced such modern amenities as backup cameras, remote start, and keyless entry.  Likely, too, that they use washing machines, dishwashers, cell phones, and microwaves on occasion. Remember our friend from the introduction?  She used email, a relatively modern way to communicate, to express her disdain for change.  So it isn’t a fear of change that scares people– it’s a fear of loss.

Our culture has created a climate of comfort in all areas.  We seek, above all else, to be comfortable.  And when so much of the world changes so rapidly, sometimes our congregation just wants Sunday morning to be the one place where their friends, their pastor, their songs, and their pew stay the same.  They fear not so much the change, but the loss of that comfort zone and that feeling of safety that comes with it.  There is stability in staying the course, even if we’ve determined that the course isn’t working. 

A Spiritual Problem with a Scriptural Solution

The problem with all of these excuses against revitalization is a central one– a lack of faith in Jesus and what He can do for our churches.  This is a spiritual problem, one where the culture of a church is based around the congregation’s abilities, not the supernatural power of God.  The lack of awareness, desire for control, and the fear of loss of comfort, are all symptoms of a larger problem in which churches seek their own desires above the need to evangelize, adapt, and love the community they have been given.  

The culture of the church has to change before any revitalization strategy can ever be effective.  This is why pastors who enter into replants and revitalizations must practice holy patience.  They must be able to pray while they wait.  The pastor must be able to, as Bob says, “lead his people to understand who they are in Christ. He has to lead them to understand the mission of the church. And he asked to lead them to understand the power of Christ to accomplish that mission.”  

This is a scriptural solution to a spiritual problem.  Scripture should be our basis for revitalization, not current trends.  When we seek out what God has to say to us and to our churches, we are better able to guide our church toward Biblical Revitalization that reaches our community with the Gospel and that breathes Holy Spirit-filled life back into the dying church.

Should we Revitalize or Replant?

Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to helping a dying church gain new life again? Or an instant formula that works every time? Unfortunately, no book you read on these topics will give you a predictable outcome for every situation. There are simply too many variables for a church’s factors of decline. And no two Revitalizations or Replants will be identical.

Conflict arises, culture changes, bad leadership exists, and churches sometimes fall out of touch with their community. Every church has glory days and difficult days. But if you’re reading this right now, it’s probable that you might be considering options for your church, or curious on what might be the best approach.

The Need for Church Renewal

When I first started working with dying or plateaued churches, I was overwhelmed at how many resources there were. In the past few decades, the need has become increasingly great for revitalization, because of the multitude of churches closing their doors.

The need for church renewal is urgent, and perhaps that’s why so many have turned to outside help for keeping their church alive. But there can be confusion on the language of so many books, programs, and resources. While revitalization is sometimes helpful, it’s not likely to work in every situation. 

With a huge stack of books on my desk, I started getting overwhelmed. I am still new to Associational work and needed some training on what to do with some of our churches who were facing closure and looking for answers. So, I attended a Replant training by NAMB earlier this year. Now, in a very rural setting with only 15 churches in our association, we have one church in Revitalization, one church in a Partnership Replant, and one church seeking to plant a church that died almost 10 years ago. 

There’s been confusion on the difference between Replanting and Revitalization. While there is some overlap, they are two different processes. Replanting is a form of Revitalization, but not every Revitalization is a Replant. So, what’s the difference?

Revitalization Defined

Church Revitalization is a deliberate, dedicated and protracted effort to reverse the decline or death of an existing church. Revitalization uses an existing church, with existing leadership, structures and history, but gives a renewed effort by addressing critical issues. 

Many choose this approach because it requires less change up front, and seems to be less invasive than other options. When church members are not ready for drastic change, they opt for this approach (if they opt for any at all). It can use an existing pastor and the pace of change is normally slow.

But there is some caution to Church Revitalizations. They’re less likely to lead to lasting change and more likely to be a continuation of the same, and for churches who are facing imminent closure, success is slim to none. In this situation, Revitalization may be possible, but it’s not probable.

However, God is more than able to do anything with any church for his glory. Some churches have experienced great success with Revitalization. 

How Revitalization Plays Out

After some conversations within a church, a church leader may either seek to be revitalized using their own congregation by suggesting a number of changes over a period of time to regain missional vitality and growth. The Church may address symptoms of the issues, but not causes. Sometimes, churches use outside help like a local Association or another ministry leader or team. 

In a traditional church, those suggestions normally go through teams or committees and need to be agreed on by the majority of the congregation. More organizational approaches see timelines and financial costs involved. A church leader may try a new methodology to doing ministry, but it sometimes gets pushback. 

According to a study by Thom Rainer, the estimated success rate of this type of revitalization is only 2%. But if there is a spiritually-binding covenant of agreement involved, its success rate is much higher. For churches facing closure, a more drastic approach may be needed to survive. As Bob mentioned in Ep. 1 of the Replant Bootcamp podcast, some churches have gone so far, they need a whole system reboot.

RePlanting

Replanting is a decision to close an existing church and re-launch as a new church, with new leadership (pastor), new name, new identity, new governance, new ministry approach and overall new philosophy of ministry. In some cases, it is not necessary to adopt a new name but simply to adjust it.

Replanting builds on the history of the previous church, but requires new leadership. A new identity can create enthusiasm and interest in the surrounding community. So a church that needs to Replant is one that does not have the time, energy, or resources to continue as their same church. 

Under this umbrella term, a RePlant can be done a few different ways: 

  • Replant Within: A Replant team is chosen out of the congregation under a Replant Pastor, and that team works together to relaunch as a new church.
  • Assisted Replant: Another healthy church partners with a dying church to provide leadership, accountability, and structure to Replant a Church.

Example

Thirty years ago, (Name) Baptist Church used to have about 200 in average worship attendance. They had an active Brotherhood, a WMU, children and youth programs, and lively worship. As they began to outgrow their facility, they decided to use their budget to begin building a larger sanctuary.

Through multiple conflicts involving prominent families and infighting about theological disputes, a group inside the church felt that their ministry staff wasn’t leading well. A large group of them wanted to separate and join another church. Others wanted to start a church of their own in a different location.

A large split happened. As a result, thirty years later a group of older members had done all they could to keep their church surviving. But without the giving they once had, their finances were quickly dwindling, and nothing they tried could reach a younger audience. Their reputation in the community was broken.

They grew tired of ministering, serving, and sharing the gospel after working so hard for so long. To make it worse, they couldn’t afford to pay a pastor anymore, so he eventually left. A long-time deacon went to the local association for help and their leader helped them consider some options.

All Things New

Another church closer to town wanted to help the church by restarting a new church in that location. Seeing that there was no way to remain open, the congregants decided to close as (Name) Baptist Church. They worked with another church’s leadership as they watched the church they once knew relaunch as a new church. 

During that time of closure, a new worship team and Replant pastor were introduced, a new mission and vision for ministry was birthed, new documents involving governance and membership were printed, and a new direction for the church on the horizon. 

Now, (New) Baptist Church has a different mission field. As they began to grow, baptisms and giving have increased, and they have plenty of space to meet in their sanctuary.  Their reputation in the community is restored, and their identity has changed.

Similarities in Need

This may sound like an awesome example. But it’s just that, an example. While many churches have experienced new growth and success with Replanting, it can’t always be guaranteed. But whether your church decides on Revitalization or Replanting, both have similar needs:

  • Both require time, energy, and effort
  • Both require a renewed spiritual commitment
  • Both require a high receptivity of change

As a final word of encouragement, Remember that God is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20). We need that confident assurance during this type of work. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Association, Convention, or NAMB for help with leadership, advice, counsel and care. Doing the task of Replanting or Revitalizing alone can be a lonely road. But Jesus cares deeply about the health of his local church.

If you think your church is in danger of closing, take this church health assessment. This self-assessment is meant to help assist you in determining the current state of your local church. Another way to get started is by taking an introductory course that will help anyone understand what church replanting is and how it provides hope for dying churches.

EPISODE #97 – IS REPLANTING WORTH THE ROI (return on investment)?

Replant Bootcamp
Replant Bootcamp
EPISODE #97 - IS REPLANTING WORTH THE ROI (return on investment)?
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The Bootcamp boys are back talking about why it’s worth saving dying and declining churches across N. America and around the world. Often, we hear pushback on investing time, money and resources in Replanting dying churches.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • A dying church doesn’t bring glory to God-that’s why Replanting is important
  • In history, a group of people determined that location needed a gospel witness-make sure to examine the history and see if that original decision still stands
  • Is there a pocket of “lostness?” Are there people to be reached?
  • Every church provides an opportunity to reach a person who is not presently being reached by the existing churches.
  • It’s worth the investment, you cannot buy in today’s dollars what was built with yesterday’s resources.
  • Replanting requires followers of Jesus to take a step of faith and live it out-primarily by dying to their self (and their preferences)

On very rare occasions you might consider repurposing and reinvesting the resources for kingdom purposes rather than replanting or revitalizing a particular church.

What are you thoughts? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line, leave a comment or contact us on the Bootcamp Hotline.

Are you a Replanter? Need some encouragement? Join us in Atlanta August 25-26, 2021. Register now for the Replant Summit  

Let’s be honest-your web presence needs to be spot on. You likely need help. Our great partner can help you with all your website needs, check out One Eighty Digital today!

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Episode #3 – How NOT to Lead Facility Changes

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Replant Bootcamp
Episode #3 - How NOT to Lead Facility Changes
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In this episode, Bob and JimBo start a new segment called, ‘Stupid Stuff We Did and Survived’. JimBo will share a few stories of how he unwisely led facility changes. We invite you to laugh at us and with us during this episode. Hopefully, you will be encouraged and challenged as well.

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Episode #2 – Advice for Replanting Residents and Rookies (with Boots on the Ground Guest Jesse Peters)

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Replant Bootcamp
Episode #2 - Advice for Replanting Residents and Rookies (with Boots on the Ground Guest Jesse Peters)
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In this episode Bob and JimBo are joined by BOOTS ON THE GROUND GUEST Jesse Peters from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Henderson, NC. Jesse is helping start a replanting residency at his church and wanted to know what advice we would have for replanting residents and rookies.

Replanting is not easy work, but it also isn’t super complicated.

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Episode #1 – What is the Difference Between a Replant and a Revitalization?

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Replant Bootcamp
Episode #1 - What is the Difference Between a Replant and a Revitalization?
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In this episode, Bob and JimBo discuss and define terms. This is one of the questions we get the most. What is the difference between a replant and a revitalization.

Replanting is a form of revitalization. Every replant is a revitalization, but not every revitalization is a replant.

REVITALIZATION = existing church + existing leaders + existing structure + history or legacy + renewed/new effort (over a protracted period of time)

REPLANT = new qualified/skilled leader + existing people + new structures/approaches + outside partners + new people + history

Want to read more? Check out this blog post

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