Church Revitalization and Realignment

“You don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to know where to find them.”

Albert Einstein

 “Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died a at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance…After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord, nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” (Joshua 2:8-11, NIV) Moses, the Patriarch of the Jews, the giver of the Law, the friend of Jesus who meets Him on the Mount of Transfiguration, and one of the greatest strategists in biblical history, mentors Joshua to carry his mantle in leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Fearless Joshua follows the Lord and the example of Moses, leads the people into the land of “milk and honey” and lives to the distinguished age of 110 years only to have the next generation completely reject God. The logical question is, “How did that happen?”

Whenever you as a church leader are feeling defeated or frustrated regarding your calling, just remember that Moses and Joshua had their challenges as well. The good news is that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” according to Jesus. Now that’s a promise to hold on to! The church today, regardless of cultural challenges and difficulties, simply needs godly men and women to remember that we are on the winning team; if Moses, Joshua and even Jesus encountered trials and set backs in their ministry, leaders today must be ready to encounter the same.

Proverbs states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV) Church growth will always decline and wickedness prevails when there is no leadership pointing the way and challenging men. Edmond Burke is often quoted in regard to this sentiment when he said, “All that is needed for evil to prevail in the world is for good men to do nothing.” I am sure there were many so called “good men” in the days following Joshua’s death, but apparently they did not lead, and the next generation literally went to “hell in a hand basket.” I know there were good men in my church and others growing up during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, but by the ‘80’s most of these men were elderly and rested on the accomplishments of days gone by, “the good ole days,” with their heads buried in the sand, unable to cast a new vision for a new generation. It took the men and women coming out of seminary at the same time that I did to begin to “break the mold” of the past and to move forward to the future in preaching revival and breaking traditional church trends. The church culture wars over music, women in leadership, liturgy styles, acknowledgement of spiritual gifts, and the co-utilization of unused church buildings, could have all been avoided if the leadership had honestly desired to embrace change. Kevin Ford noted in his book, Transforming Churches, notes that, “Church members frequently invoke the need for transformation when they hire new pastors or ministry leaders. But these same leaders face a paradox: The churches resist the very change they claim to need.” (Ford, loc. 109) Many of the churches struggling today would be in a much better position if in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s they would have embraced a more adaptive leadership style in seeking to develop a healthy church.

Churches who are ready to embrace Revitalization and Realignment must also adopt an adaptive leadership style. Adaptive leadership is specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive. (Heifetz, loc. 419) It is not, as Ford so aptly points out, enough to change for the sake of change, but to determine exactly what needs to be changed and then to act upon it. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, explain that adaptive leadership is a twofold process. “The practice of leadership, like the practice of medicine, involves two core processes: diagnosis first and then action.” (Heifetz, loc. 289) The diagnosis process is not only of the organization that the leader finds himself, but also of himself and how he relates to that organization. There is a process involved in identifying the problem through the collection of data within the organization; then there is an interpretive stage of the data discovered and a plan developed to act upon the data received. Sometimes surveys may be utilized, interviews conducted, or even an outside unbiased consultant brought in to help determine the current needs of the organization at large and to help develop a plan of action to carry out the new vision. In essence “adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” (Heifetz, loc. 413)

This concept of an organization “thriving” is taken from the same biological concept of a plant or species adapting to it’s environment for continued survival and finding a means to thrive by discarding or rearranging the species basic DNA, by preserving what is essential, but then creating new DNA to adapt in order to flourish. “Successful adaptations enable a living system to take the best from its history into the future.” (Heifetz, loc. 414) I think of the psychological negative of this concept in early childhood education when the term “failure to thrive” is used of healthy babies who do not grow and develop, even though they are given proper physical sustenance, but do not receive love or bonding with a mother figure. The child eventually dies. Likewise, if a church does not adapt to its cultural surroundings to be relevant to those whom she serves, she will die a slow death as well for lack of bonding with the community.

Kevin Ford lists five key indicators between an unhealthy and a healthy church that should be considered by a leader who desires to practice adaptive leadership. They include: Consumerism vs. Community; Incongruence vs. Code; Autocracy vs. Shared Leadership; Cloister vs. Missional; and Inertia vs. Reinvention. (Ford, loc. 175) Each indicator is a comparison of the negative cultural influence upon the church vs. the biblical need to counteract that influence. “The common thread running through all five dysfunctions is the overriding tendency to shift the focus from the biblical “we” to a cultural “me.” (Ford, loc. 190) There should be no surprise regarding Ford’s statement in the current culture of I-Phones, I-Pads, and I-Watches that the current focus is on self; we have even dubbed this generation as the “Me Generation.” Ford’s emphasis is to encourage the church leader to be intentional in seeking to find connections between the church and its local community and not feed into the culture’s consumerism mentality by seeking to appease a selfish and spoiled generation through more and more programming, but to rather focus on their spiritual needs in small groups, service groups, and establish a “Third Place” within the church where members can meet up and feel apart of something larger than themselves. He encourages shared leadership with pastors and making sure that the leadership understands the basic DNA of its organization so as not to eliminate what is good about the church in an effort to change the church; in other words try not to throw “the baby out with the bath water.” He places a strong emphasis on every member being a missionary instead of seeking only to send a few out into the world to evangelize; his point being that God has called us all to serve wherever we are placed, not just the career missionary. And finally he makes the point that truly healthy churches will be able to make changes over time to adapt to an ever changing world through effective strategic planning to keep them from inertia and eventual death. This final point, I believe, is the most crucial in revitalizing any church ministry.

Aubrey Malphurs in his book, Advanced Strategic Planning: A 21st Century Model for Church and Ministry Leaders, states that strategic planning does make a difference in the church’s overall effectiveness. “Survey results show that 85% of churches which have grown off the plateau have reevaluated their programs and priorities during the past five years, as compared to 59% of churches which have remained on the plateau. Similarly, 40% of breakout churches have developed a long-range plan, as compared to only 18% of continued plateau churches.” (Malphurs, loc. 419) He goes on to say that strategic planning helps churches answer three very important questions: Who are we? (Identity) Where are we going? (Direction) How will we get there? (Malphurs, loc. 430) Malphurs is convinced that the key to long-term survival for any church in an ever-changing world is to engage in a strategic planning process with the leadership and members of a congregation.

The problem with many a pastor or church leader is that they just can’t believe that what once worked 10 years ago, is no longer working today. I will never forget sitting on a bench with my husband’s uncle, Dwight Swanson, who had retired as the former CEO for Iowa Power and Electric, and in his retirement went on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ under Bill Bright. We were visiting a very prestigious retirement community and observing the well manicured lawns, beautiful landscaping, as well as the bustling activities of a craft fair in the center of “town.” Out of the blue, he leans over and says to me “Estelle, just remember, everything comes to an end. Change is inevitable.” My own father used to say, “All good things must come to an end.” Christian psychologist and author, Dr. Henry Cloud, even wrote a book entitled, “Necessary Endings.” The point being that no matter how good the past was, it is not the present, nor will it be the future.

Adaptive leadership values the past and brings forward the good, while discarding old routines and programs that no longer resonate with the current generation; all the while creating/reinventing new ways of doing ministry. Malphurs brings to light the fact that the church is not exempt from following the same growth and development patterns as that of any other organization as seen in the Sigmoid Curve. “The S-Curve depicts how virtually everything in life begins, grows, plateaus, and then ultimately dies.” (Malphurs, loc. 150) This is true of all relationships and businesses and even nations. Malphurs relates it to the church: “Like people, churches have a life cycle. In general, a church is born and over time it grows. Eventually it reaches a plateau, and if nothing is done to move it off that plateau, it begins to decline. If nothing interrupts the decline, it will die. Each stage represents a growth challenge for the church. Growing, plateaued, and declining churches all face growth challenges.” (Malphurs, loc. 150) Bottom line, the moral of the S-Curve is that all good things do come to end. But the good news is that there are new beginnings right around the corner. “The answer to the problem of church decline is to start new S-curves. This necessitates a strategic planning process.” (Malphurs, loc. 261)

Kevin Ford stated, “Most contemporary church strategy is focused on achieving success. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But the goal is to be a transforming church- to aid in transforming people to the image of Christ- and this requires congregational health.” (Ford, loc. 376) The goal in developing a new strategic plan is to be a transforming church. Churches who commit to going through this process will insure the overall health of their church in the years to come. As the church remains focused on revitalization and realignment, keeping their focus on reaching the lost and making disciples, they will move forward. The result will be “success” in the eyes of God, whatever that may look like on this earth.

Go, therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even unto the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20, KJV)



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Ford, Kevin G. Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great. Colorado

Springs: David C. Cook, 2008. Web.

Gruder, Darrell L.,ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in


North America. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 1998. Web.

Heifetz, Ronald. Grashow, Alexander. Linsky, Marty. The Practice of Adaptive

Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009. Web.

Malphurs, Aubrey. Advanced Strategic Planning: A New Model for Church and

Ministry Leaders (2nd edition). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005. Web.d

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