Church Revitalizations Lessons from Nelson Mandela

I was hanging out preparing to watch Carrie Underwood perform in a three-hour remake of the Sound of Music when it flashed across the television with Scott Pelly that Nelson Mandela had passed earlier in the day in South Africa. I tuned in to watch the Broadway play put into a television version, but after the first hour though I was enjoying the cast, my mind kept thinking about the world’s loss of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was anextraordinary person and it is my belief that one of the reasons that people all over the world celebrate him is that he launched a movement. It was a movement, which clearly touched, exhilarated, inspired, and encouragedthe masses. As the world grieves the passing of one of the most admired human rights activists in history, tributes have poured in from world leaders, including our own President Obama, as well as everyday people whose lives were affected by his work and legacy.

What does this former President of South Africa have to teach us in the realm of church revitalization and renewal? Understandably, like so many, I had never met Mr. Mandela. But even for those of us who did not know him, his example instilled us with some powerful lessons, which would be worth all of us working in the field of church revitalization to consider.

Let us take a look at these lessons and consider their impact:

1. There is nothing more inspiring than forgiving others who have harmed you.

As church revitalizers we would learn well that not carrying around bitterness or rage over those who blatantly seek to harm you while you are seeking to renew their church (it is actually God’s, but many forget that within the church today). A church revitalizer must triumph over bitterness, which will defeat you and your effort towards revitalization.A study found that those who forgive others live longer. Bitterness can divide a church, but focusing on the church’s future over the past is the best prescription to be learned.

2. It takes more than one heroic leader to alter the course of a nation or a church for that matter.

Even with one of the world's most intrepid and enigmatic leaders at the helm, it takes time to move a nation or a church forward. As a church revitalizer you may have already heard me say that it takes more than a thousand days to begin to turn a church and the people within the church towards renewal. New leaders and young leaders must come along side of the church renewal pastor as they display the resolve to tackle the hard issues and face down the lack of spiritual depth required to make the change toward health and vitality. Even with the greatness of Nelson Mandela, one thing he failed to do was work towards developing leaders around him to move his legacy and strategy onward.

3. Lead with bravery.

Those working in the realm of revitalization and renewal must be servants, which possess a high degree of bravery. The inability to advance with an assurance that the Lord God is in control displays a lack of fearlessness required to be a church revitalizer. Brave leaders are public leaders and not private ones. Every undertaking needs someone who starts it and someone who sees it through to completion. As a church revitalizer, being one who leads is not enough; you must be a leader that everyone recognizes as the leader. Brave leaders know they are the face of the place and represent those who have joined the cause. Recently, a pastor I know in a church, which is desperate for revitalization and renewal stated from the pulpit to his congregants that he was not the leader and that he was better at being a second or third guy on staff. The reality of that day was that now those who want control are fighting one another for supremacy and in the end it is the church, which is loosing or has already lost its way. Church Revitalizers must lead with Bravery.

4. Every church revitalizer must desire to change his or her portion of the world.

Revitalization practioners know the importance of empowering others. They desire to change their arena of the church for the better. Nelson Mandela challenged a nation to follow him and to buy in to the great cause in order to make it transpire. One of the reasons why so few dreamers succeed is because they cannot do it on their own. Church Revitalizers must seek to empower others. One of the primary jobs of those working in church revitalization and renewal is to empower others to come along on the journey together and change their portion of the world for the cause of Christ Jesus together.

5. Suitable leaders can rise in good times, but only great leaders can bloom and succeed in bad times.

There is an abundance of self-purported leaders who can lead protests, give interviews or rev up an admiring crowd with arousing speech. But few leaders can inspire crowds from behind bars. Nelson Mandela did that for almost thirty years! As Church Revitalizers we would be wise to consider just how many self-propagated movements have fallen once a captivating leader is no longer in a position of power.
Though locked in a jail, much like the Apostle Paul, Mandela’s leadership competences and proficiencies were so extraordinary that the causes for which he fought and communicated thrived despite his incarceration.One of Mandela’s highest assets was his willingness to insure that his work would continue whether he was behind prison bars or was no longer on this Earth.

6. Courage is triumph over fear.

Nelson Mandela displayed his courage in his statement: "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear." Like Mandela, church revitalizers must care more about the best and the greatest good for the local church than for their own individual fears.

7. Ones character is always more important than ones strategy.

The best leaders possess to some extent a mixture of character and the ability to form strategy. Yet it is paramount to have at a much higher degree Character than the ability to form strategy. As a Church Revitalizer you will not always get the strategy portion right as you could see from Mr. Mandela. There were times that his strategic decisions were quite dubious. But he held an immense character, which made up for his imperfections of strategy formation. For the church revitalizer you will often place people you believe are committed to the challenge and ready to charge the hills of obstruction with you only to find out that they were not. While your strategy will at times suffer set backs your strong character will allow you to regroup and begin a new charge at a new moment in time once the timing is correct. When the revitalization leader leads through a strong character it will make up for the infrequent lack of clear judgement. Nelson Mandela's qualities and impact as a leader are indisputable. He was daring and unwavering. His character and visionary actions were profound. However, his most enduring legacy will not be the things he did, but what he did not do. He refused to capitulate to the seductive tug of retribution and the politics of hatred that was part of most of the anti-apartheid movement. The outcome for South Africa was that it was spared from a civil war that would have torn the nation apart. There is a big lesson for those in renewal to not allow the peripheral to bog you down and destroy any chance you have for renewal and revitalization.

8. The harder you work the easier comes success.

I hear many Christian leaders today that want the good life. They are continually requesting their individual right over the task God has called them. Ours is a calling of service and sacrifice for the work of the ministry. Granted all of us need some down time, yet great leaders sacrifice this commodity for the greater good when the defining moment is upon us. I had a discussion with one of my lead pastor friends recently about staff, which were unable to rise to the occasions given to them. It was quickly appearant that this particular staff member’s spouse had an entitlement issue and that the minister wanted to enact a time served mentality so as to never work more than forty hours per week. In talking with the pastor and asking many questions, I eventually suggested that no matter what he did for this minister it would never be enough and that he would always be facing this challenge with the minister. In the end the best thing he could do, since the staff member was unteachable in this issue, was to let him go before he hurt the ministry and the church. Nelson Mandela, despite his age, was a hard worker and the result was that the harder he worked the easier success came. God does not owe the church revitalizer comfort. He has said, “He would never leave us or forsake us.”

9. Pursue the dream and work towards the ideal.

When a leader refuses to allow the mundane to have precedence over the ideal, accepting anything less is a pruritic victory. Church Revitalizers can learn from Nelson Mandela that if you are the type of leader which continually settles, there will be no room in ones life for going for the ideal. The best gets closer the more you pursue the dream of renewal and are willing to pay the price for renewal. Pursue the dream and work towards the ideal and avoid those things that distract you from the best.It always seems impossible until it is done.Take pride in your convictions as you work towards your dreams and ideals.

10. Be nice, friendly, and likable.

It is hard for even you critics to be mean all the time towards you and your dream if you practice being nice, friendly and likable towards even those who are your adversaries. One thing, which surprised me about Nelson Mandela, was that he would send gifts to his opponents on a regular basis. That is an interesting idea to ponder as one who is working in renewal in light that there will be those who will oppose you and the goal of revitalization. It is not usually about you, but more about there unwillingness to see a new day and work towards a new challenge. Mr. Mandela would invite his foes over for dinner and he would consult with them even though he never truly trusted them or relied on them. Remember that as a church revitalizer even your biggest critic within the church towards the goal of church renewal has a vested interested (though usually unstated publically) in you being successful in your renewal efforts. When you are nice, friendly, and likable it is as much a tactical weapon towards your critics as it is a magnet for your followers.

11. Forgive others early and often.

Perhaps the hardest lesson we could learn as church revitalizers is that of learning how to forgive early and often.There was the angelic leadership in Mandela, the element of forgiveness. Just like Nelson Mandela who forgave the very people who captured and jailed him for almost thirty years, you too will need to have times where it is better to forgive early and often. He literally displayed a deep sense of compassion to all. That is a humble trait that is seldom found in the political realm today.Displaying grace and wisdom in this manner will help you as a church revitalizer.

12. Your later years can be significantly better than your first years.

Church revitalization is a fascinating observation about who makes a great revitalizer. Younger pastors today will begin their first ministry in one of those churches in need of renewal. They need to learn as many of the skill sets possible to help them become a strong church revitalizer. But consider if you will that like Nelson Mandela, some of ones greatest contributions can be made in your later years over your initial years of ministry. There is a call for ministers of all ages to consider doing the work of church revitalization.

13. Inspire others when you are in their presence.

Great leaders and successful church revitalizers inspire others when they are in their presence. One chauffeur at Buckingham Palace in London remembers Nelson Mandela as the only Head of State to have shaken hands and commended drivers during his State visit to England.

14. You are the band, the brand and the voice for the cause of revitalization.

Nelson Mandela was the band, the brand and the voice for the cause of freedom for South Africa. Likewise as the one leading the effort for revitalization within your church you will need to be the same. The one who is the initiator of the cause must lead the band of followers, be the brand that others can see, and be the voice for the crusade. The leader of the cause must be a regular and recurrent voice and be a known figure so others can easily follow.

15. It is futile to keep thinking about the past, think about what is happening now.

Far too many congregants and church leaders want to live and think in the past. Nelson Mandela reminds all church revitalizers it is best to think about the here and now over the past and previous. Revitalization is a now issue and only living in the past fogs ones ability to press forward towards a new future.

16. Remember to smile, be appealing, and continue to laugh often.

Almost every picture or video you see of Nelson Mandela was one where the former president was charming full of smiles and enjoyed laughter. Church Revitalizers would do well practice the same. When those all around you are stressed out and full of anxiety it is your job to remain calm and relaxed while they are freaking out. Remember, “A merry heart doeth good like medicine” Proverbs 14:7.

Nelson Mandela said of his long journey:

“I have walked that long to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that, after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

For those of us working in the arena of revitalization and renewal those are wise words. May they be taken to heart and may our journey be as rewarding for the cause of Christ and the local church.

4 comments (Add your own)

1. Mel Schell wrote:
I think this is an excellent analogy that you have used with Nelson Mandela. Because I am 75 years old and just getting involved in this church revitalization ministry I can especially appreciate your comments on the value of experience to those who enter into this challenging work.
Keep battling on my dear brother! Church revitalizers are very special warriors. We run with patience the race that is set before (Heb. 12:1,2) us carrying the full armour of God. (Eph. 6:10-18)

Mon, December 9, 2013 @ 4:11 PM

2. Sherman Smith wrote:
Tom, Great insights! Thanks for using a current event, a modern day icon to encourage and motivate. I can clearly see why God has put you in the place of leading the revitalization movement. May the Lord continue to use your gifts for His Glory! I pray your word on forgiving others will be heard!

Blessed by you....Bro. Sherman

Tue, December 10, 2013 @ 8:53 AM

3. Rodney Harrison wrote:
Your post is right on target. I truly believe God is looking to raise up a generation of church revitalizers who embody these characteristics. The hope of Revelation 2 & 3 is corrective change is possible, and that God often uses unlikely individuals to bring about that change.

Tue, December 10, 2013 @ 11:33 AM

4. James wrote:
I have come to expect nothing more than excellence form one who is becoming the "Father of the Church Revitalization Movement!" Spot on with the lessons and timely to say the lease. I look forward to your weekly blogs. Stay the course.

Tue, December 10, 2013 @ 12:13 PM

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