Church revitalization starts with reframing on the grace of God. That’s just the beginning. Here are the rest of the steps to resurrect a dying church.
Recently, I participated in the Gospel Project webcast, along with a bunch of other pastors and leaders. You can find the full list of videos here. My focus was specifically on gospel centered church revitalization. We’ve turned my talk into a short series. For more on church revitalization, you can find my new course, Renewing Your Church.
The word revitalize comes from a Latin word that we probably know: vitalis. We think of vital organs as those that are necessary for life. So a church needs life, or it will die.
A different metaphor of church as a blighted urban neighborhood might help us to understand how to bring a dead church back on track. Basically, planners can either gentrify or revitalize a neighborhood. Gentrification is a kind of top-down approach where the urban planners allow the neighborhood to go downhill. When the neighborhood becomes so blighted that people don’t want to live there anymore, the planners bulldoze the place and build million dollar condos. Revitalization of a neighborhood is more of a ground-up approach where people are empowered to use their abilities to make the neighborhood better. It takes time and shepherding, but it can work. The same thing goes for a church. And revitalization is possible because we serve a God who specializes in resurrections.
That’s the gospel. That’s the good news that God can revitalize the dead.
What does it mean to revitalize a church in a way that that is gospel-centered? Let me share the five R’s of revitalization: reframing grace, realigning mission, recasting vision, remembering the journey and renewing all things.
1. Reframe on grace.
When we consider what good church revitalization looks like, we must ask God to reframe us on grace. I read an article a few years ago from a secular publication. In the article, someone was sharing that he had visited and became involved in a church, dropped out and didn’t have a spiritual transformation. Instead, this person felt like part of a multilevel marketing scheme.
That’s not the intended message, I assure you.
Let’s be honest: Church revitalization does not come through you getting more volunteers into your spiritually tepid church. There must be a reframe on grace, and this is ultimately not something we do. We don’t try harder or recruit more people.
The gospel is not “you do”; the gospel is “Jesus did.”
Because he has changed us, reshaped us, remade us and transformed us, grace ought to overflow out of us.
I was on a plane recently flying to San Diego to speak at a meeting, and woman sat next to me. We started having a conversation that led to spiritual things. (To be honest, I tried to lead the conversation to spiritual things.) She started to talk about some of the bad experiences that she had had in church as a kid.
She called it a cult-like experience and she said she was now on a spiritual journey, exploring all kinds of different things like gurus and scriptures of other religions. I asked her, “Could it be that your experience of Christianity was just a warped, broken, inappropriate experience of what that would be?” I then talked to her about the gospel of grace—that Jesus died on the cross for her sin and in her place.
I also asked her if she would be open to consider a different way. And she said she was, so right there on the plane I ordered a couple of books for her. I knew she lived close to the church where I was preaching, so I said, “Would you come to church this Sunday? I’ll buy both these books for you.” She showed up on Sunday and we were able to talk again about Christ.
People live under many restrictions and perceptions that religious people put on them. But when they hear about the message of the grace of God, their thirsty souls see and eventually drink water.
That changes everything.
And I think that should shape everything that we do. A grace-driven approach to revitalization is not driving people to change. It’s Christ-honoring and grace-centered, and it’s ultimately leading them to change.
2. Realign on mission.
People often ask me if I have actually led churches through revitalization. I wrote about this in my book Comeback Churches.
So, yes, I have led churches through revitalization and it was a powerful journey that first takes a reframing on grace. It also takes a realignment on mission. In John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” We are sent by Jesus on mission. It’s not just a personal thing or something only for missionaries. No, it is what revitalizes a church.
I have said it before: Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 should be our first priority. And it’s not just in Matthew, but four separate times between the resurrection and ascension he calls our focus to mission. So when I ask a church to consider making substantive change, I ask how they intend to live on mission in their specific context.
Churches that are revitalized are pointing to a realignment on mission. And that makes it not about them—which is the first step of letting go of the unhelpful so we can focus on what is needed.
3. Recast gospel vision.
How do we recast gospel vision? Part of gospel vision is tied to this idea of the grace of God. It’s understanding that God is at work in you, “both to will and to do for his good pleasure,” Paul writes in Philippians (2:12–13). The question is the where question. It’s so much more than being gospel centered in church.
If you don’t talk about the gospel to your neighbor, you’re doing it wrong.
Recasting gospel vision means that it is the gospel vision that shapes us. It’s not getting saved and then getting over the gospel. Instead, we have the privilege of dwelling in the beauty of the gospel by keeping our conversations peppered with the gospel. So recasting that gospel vision continues to put before people both a way to behave and a way to believe. This changes everything.
4. Remember the journey.
This is church revitalization, not church planting. A lot of people in the gospel-centered movement have gotten a little bit ahead of themselves. They’ve fallen in love with the church that does not yet exist.
They go to a church that does exist, but they don’t remember its journey. They may not know the history of all that God has done in and through the church. Maybe they read a book or went to a seminar, but they really don’t know what the church used to be, and all the good it has done. We must remember the fact that our churches, and the people in them, are on a journey. We must love our people, lead them, teach the gospel to them, preach the Bible to them, lead them in sharing the gospel and then share back their journeys.
One of the things I do at Moody Church is quote former pastors. I talk about how people have worked in the past, and then I share what God is doing today and in the future.
5. Renew all things
We need to consistently ask, How is God at work? I love church revitalization and the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of churches that are stuck and stagnant that need to refocus to see a change take place in the way they are doing ministry. Our hard work to keep these churches going, I believe, is honoring to God.
So my exhortation to all of us is to renew all things by constantly asking, How can we celebrate the gospel even more? How can we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit even more? How can we share the gospel with people who do not know it even more?
When we begin to seriously address these questions, I believe we will experience church change, and God’s name and fame will be more widely known in our church communities, and ultimately, around the world.
Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. This article originally appeared on The Exchange.