20 Steps to Awaken a Sleeping Church

“God bless all pastors who have a heart for him and are not satisfied with ‘good enough’ or the status quo.”

“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” (Eph. 5:14)

A pastor I know has a problem. It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.

He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people. When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.

Sound like your church? Because it sure sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.

The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice. Had I ever written anything on how to revive a comatose church? Does our website have any help for him?

I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance. More and more, I kept thinking: This is an uphill task, wakening a sleeping church. If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining.

[Nine changes dying churches must make immediately.]

Here are my observations, for what they’re worth, on how to transform a collection of stagnant do-nothings into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements. Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip past the rest.

1. Understand the bad news.

You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve. No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent. It’s a human thing. In high school physics, we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling. So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor—how to get it up and going.

2. Don’t quit.

Leaders must not be discouraged by those who sit and stare when they should be receiving your message as what it is, a holy word from the heavenly Father. We must not let the lack of response—or more likely, a negative reaction—dishearten us. The harvest is worth the effort, so keep at it. “Be not weary in well doing,” said Paul. “In due season we shall reap … if we don’t quit” (Gal. 6:9).

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3. Stay focused.

Get your eyes on the Lord, and keep them there. Whether the church is responding and growing, or ignoring you and fossilizing, leaders who want to make a lasting difference must stay focused on the Lord. You do that in a hundred ways: staying in the Word personally, staying on your knees daily, self-talk (“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with you” [Ps. 116:7]) and continually bringing all you do and all who depend on you before the Father.

4. Understand the good news.

Some people will respond to you quickly. Go with those who are listening, who show up, who are responsive and want to move out and obey the Lord.

Put another way: Do not wait for the entire congregation to respond before you do anything. Get this vehicle moving and others will climb aboard. And even if they don’t, don’t punish the faithful by making them pay for the sins of the majority.

5. Stay positive.

Don’t fuss, complain or harass your people. And you must not let those who are responding become critical of those who aren’t. That’s a strong temptation they will need to guard against. All negativism will accomplish is to further harden the resistance of the pew-dwellers. Instead, they should encourage them to “get up and come join us.” The Tom Sawyer episode with the whitewashed fence comes to mind. Let them see you having a great time and some will want to get in on the fun.

6. Start small.

Think of starting a fire. You gather a small amount of the most flammable material you can put your hands on—pine kindling, a fire log, shavings or a newspaper. You strike a match. The old campfire chorus said, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing …”

7. Look around.

Ask yourself: Who in the church is most on fire for the Lord? In love with his Word, truly worshipping and sharing their faith? Who is already experiencing revival? To put it another way, where is God already blessing this church? Do I see his hand at work in any particular place? If so, start there.

8. Pray, pray, pray.

Get more serious about prayer than you have ever been in your life. I have no specific suggestions on how much to pray, how long or how intense. Do it your way. But remember that “the effectual FERVENT prayer of a righteous person availeth much” (James 5:16). Fervent surely means you care deeply and are praying intensely.

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Also, enlist a few prayer warriors both from within the congregation and outside it. The latter may be people you’ve known in previous churches, but who can touch heaven with their prayers and will not talk about your church’s struggles with others. Get them praying, and keep them informed. (But never tell them anything you don’t want repeated. A lesson learned the hard way!)

9. Preach Jesus.

Don’t talk or preach about revival. Talk and preach about Jesus, about loving him and obeying him and being found faithful. If he is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself (John 12:32).

10. Wait on the Lord.

Even as you continue preaching and leading, wait and watch for the Spirit to do things in answer to your prayers—perhaps to send a key leader who will be a great influence, to start a small movement with great potential, or to make some change in you. Stay alert. “Wait on the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage. Yes, wait upon the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

David said, “I waited on the Lord and he heard my cry …” (Ps. 40:1). He may have been waiting, but he was crying at the same time. Our Lord told the disciples to “watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). I think that’s the same idea. We can wait and watch while remaining on the job (see Neh. 4:17).

11. Seek outside help and counsel.

If you know a dynamic, successful leader whom God has used in significant ways, invite him or her to visit your church and make recommendations. Or, travel to their city and interview them.

In the interview, tell them your situation, then ask “What would you do?” Take notes, ask more questions, thank them and leave. What you do with their suggestions is between you and the Lord. Write a note of appreciation (and possibly, enclose a check) immediately on returning home. And if the consultant offers to be available for further meetings, promise nothing. Your major adviser is the Holy Spirit, and you will be seeking his counsel on what to do next.