Developing An Intentional Church Revitalization Paradigm

“For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” 

2 Timothy 1:7

The word paradigm comes from the Greek word paradigma, which means a framework of thought or a pattern. With that in mind I would like for us to consider a church revitalization paradigm as a system or structure for understanding and explaining various phases, parts and pieces of a realistic paradigm which walks pass the bigger is better church growth paradigm of the 1980’s. The word "Paradigm" was all the rage as a buzzword in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  However its "overuse" and lack of clear understanding led to a quick demise.

So would you consider with me today an entirely new church revitalization system or structure for understanding and explaining various phases, parts and pieces of a Church Revitalization and Renewal Model?

What we need in our churches today is not simply renovation of the old but innovation of something completely new. The whole ministry philosophy and ministry stricture has to be completely reshaped for the church to survive in the future!

Churches rarely renew or revitalize themselves in significant ways unless they come to a point in time where the pain of supporting the status quo is greater than the pain of making changes and then they almost never voluntarily shift to an entirely new pattern for the present culture in which they are ministering!

What Does Church Revitalization Mean?

Every place I go people ask me for a definition of church revitalization. Church Revitalization is a movement within protestant evangelicalism, which emphasizes the missional work of turning a plateau or rapidly declining church around and moving it back towards growth. It is lead through a Church Revitalization Initiative, which is when a local church begins to work on the renewal of the church with a concerted effort to see the ministry revitalized and the church become healthy. Church Revitalization means that the local church knew how, at one time previously, to renew, revitalize, and re- establish the health and vitality of the ministry. One of the challenges for the laity in the day in which we live is that they have lost the knowledge of church renewal and no longer want to cultivate the skill sets necessary to see their church experience revitalization. Even sadder is when a congregation does not have the corporate memory that there was a day when the local church was reaching people for Christ Jesus and active as evangelistic witnesses into their community.

Statistical Realities Concerning Church Revitalization

Most of long time members in churches today think that our churches are doing fine. Statistically however, we see that this is not true. Did you know that:

• There are 344,000 protestant evangelical churches from the eight mainline denominations in the western hemisphere, which are in plateau and decline.

• 95% of all churches in North America average 100 or less.

• Over 82% of American Churches are in decline or on a plateau.

• Each year 3,500 to 4,000 churches die in North America (900 last year within our Denomination alone).

• Studies have shown that churches typically plateau in attendance by their fifteenth year, and by year 35 they begin having trouble replacing the members they lose.

• They have the inability to regain the critical mass necessary to regrow the church utilizing the tools and techniques they are presently employing.

• 50 – 60 churches in North America close their door every week.

• A more recent series of studies (The State of the Church) was conducted by Bill Day; Associate Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, who serves the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as the Gurney Professor of Evangelism and Church Health in his sequential studies on church health and growth of 2003, 2007, and 2010 where he reports that currently there are less than seven percent (6.8) of our SBC churches which are healthy growing churches. That means 3,087 of our 45,727 SBC churches are healthy.

So you can see that the church today all across America is in a time of transition. Some local churches are transitioning from pastor to pastor hoping that this will revitalize their church. But all churches are transitioning to the change that must be made in order for us to be faithful to the Great Commission. Understanding that things change is biblical.

“It can be said that most churches in almost any North American denomination is in rapid decline or plateauing in its membership!  Involvement within these churches is dwindling and the laity seems powerless to muster the strength needed to get it growing again.” (Adapted from: The Biblical Foundation for Church Revitalization and Renewal, by Tom Cheyney, Renovate Publishing Group, 2014.)

Church Revitalization is important because so many churches are dying and or are all but dead. It is also important because even today’s healthy churches run the risk of developing the same illness that other churches are experiencing. God’s people desperately need a biblical foundation for church revitalization! Many Christians today actually attend a local church, which needs to consider learning and practicing the various principles for Revitalizing Churches.

The Seven Pillars of Church Revitalization and Renewal

In many areas of ministry there are models, patterns, or paradigms to follow! In church planting alone there are around 28 church planting paradigms each specific to the design of the plant.  There are at least Seven Biblical Paradigms for Church Revitaliztion and Renewal and most of these are found in the Book of Revelation in chapters two and three!

Our Lord loves the local New Testament Church and it is His desire to see it grow! As you begin working in the area of Church Revitalization and renewal it will lead you eventually consider the Seven Pillars of Church Revitalization. This is a model or paradigm designed to assist a church revitalizer in considering the phases, parts and pieces of a Church Revitalization and Renewal Model?

A Church Revitalizer will not be working in all of these areas at the same time but you will eventually find yourself working in most of them at one time or another. Take a moment to reflect upon the Seven Pillars graph as we discuss these areas of renewal and revitalization.Revitalization and Realignment (Rev. 2:1-7).

Perhaps the easiest pillar to address. Some observers of church revitalization and renewal argue that the era of small churches is over and that the future belongs to the arising mega churches across North America. Granted mega is an amazing phenomenon of the past thirty years which seems to have arisen with the concept of the massive campus church. But to ignore the 340,000 plus churches in North America that average less than 100 weekly in church attendance would be ill advised! Those who serve and those who attend these churches are an enormously significant network of Christian influence.  Even the mega church finds itself struggling to avoid plateau and decline.

There is the plateauing or declining after a phase of recent or initial expansion; then the Church experiences the beginning of a high turn-over of lay leaders; there becomes a shorter duration of stay of fully assimilated people within the work; the church morale and momentum level drops; the church coasts for a brief time and then drops again, only to see the cycle of decline repeated again and again.

The result is the church hits a new low! This new normal is the first sign of a church in need. Refocusing (Rev. 2: 12-17).

Refocusing is the second pillar and it helps churches that are growing but still need to set new challenges and look for new opportunities to expand their gospel witness into their target area.  Questions such as what is your biblical purpose and why do we exist, as a congregation must be addressed. Looking at how God showed up in the past is a good way to get the church unstuck by addressing where it has been, how God has worked and what does He have for its future.  Addressing the churches focus, vision and leading them to discover God’s new direction is just the beginning of helping a congregation to begin refocusing towards the Lord’s new calling plan for the church! Many a pastor today has never been taught how to grow a church and they feel quite stuck and in need of someone to come along side of them and challenge them to refocus one’s self and the church!

Re-visioning (Rev. 2:8-11).
A little bit harder certainly but not as hard as the descending order of decline that will eventually lead to the Restarting pillar of revitalization! Have you ever seen a church that once was alive and vital begin to lose its focus and drive for the cause of Christ? That is a church that needs to work on its Re-visioning strategy! Any Re-visioning strategy works to help churches dream new dreams and accomplish new goals that lead towards regrowing a healthy church! This strategy is designed for a weekend retreat tailored fit to foster a sense of ownership and team ship related to discovering a shared vision for the church. Understanding the critical milestones necessary for a new vision will help foster healthy church practices that might have been lost. Something as simple of achieving a great goal of some sort can begin to launch a church back into a Re-visioning strategy. Something as simple and dangerous as the Lord’s children taking an ill advised rest that resulted in a slowing or stalling of the momentum into a maintenance mentality can cause a church to become stuck. Renewing (Rev. 2:18-29).

Church Renewal is the forth pillar of the Seven Pillars of Church Revitalization process. Often the church simply needs to get back to that which was working and get back on track.  When that is needed a careful renewal strategy needs to be planned and carried out. Renewing a congregation becomes much harder than the refocusing, re-visioning and revitalization process. Not everyone who works in church renewal is wired the exact same way and it is important to understand each congregation’s individual needs and not try to make a one size fit all! There is no magic pill in church revitalization. Far too much writing on church growth of the 1980’s was designed in a one size fits all “Bigger is Better” model and while it may not have been the only cause for declining numbers in our churches, but certainly contributed!  It is vital that you prepare the laity for the work of church renewal as well as yourself. Communicate early and often with the church how the renewal process will take place and how it will be implemented. Prepare yourself spiritually and then prepare your leaders spiritually. Then begin preparing your church spiritually for renewal! A Church Renewal Weekend is a great way to start! Church renewal is not about finding the magic medication or treatment to get growing.  It is more about discovering God’s vision for the church and practicing it for the long haul. The utilization of a Church Renewal weekend works well top draw God’s people back towards health and vitality.   Reinvention (Rev. 3:7-13).

This fifth pillar of Church Revitalization deals with tools and techniques necessary to assist the church when it is necessary to reinvent itself to a changing community.  When a church experiences a shift in the community makeup, often there will be to various degrees the need to redevelop a new experience for those who make up the new context! New experiences must replace old experiences. New practices likewise will replace old practices. A church that is experiencing the need for reinvention must take seriously the need and make the commitment for reinventing itself, revaluing itself, reforming itself, and reinvigorating itself to fit the new context. Restoration (Rev. 3:14-22).

This sixth area of Church Revitalization deals with things a church and a minister must go through when circumstances necessitate that a restoration process is called for! Things such as:

  • Gaining a new and fresh understanding of the new prospect for the church is vital if success is in the churches future.
  • Inspiring new prospects with a vision that is both compelling and motivational. Prospects seek to be inspired and not drugged down in the world in which we live in.
  • Meet new needs in order to give you a restored place among the community in which you seek to further minister.
  • Become prospect driven during these days of transition. Look for new and yet to be reached opportunities to minister.
  • Remember if you try to do everything you will end up doing nothing. Therefore pick your greatest opportunities first and let the rest follow along later.

Craft something that comes out of a community in flux and look for ways to reconnect to the community where you once were firmly entrenched. Keep in mind you have been given a second chance so don't blow it.  Prayerfully seek the new things because it might be something you will be doing for a long long time! Restarting or Repotting (Rev. 3: 1-6).

The final (seventh) Pillar of Church Revitalization is the hardest and often only happens once the churches patriarchs and matriarchs have tried everything else they could think of to grow the church with no success! The challenge here is that most churches wait to long to enter into this area of revitalization and by the time they are willing to utilize this strategy they have sucked out all of the life within the church and it is no longer a viable candidate for this effort. When a sick church no longer has the courage to work through the various issues that led to its poor health, it is usually identified as being on life support and in need of a restart. This type of church has been flat lined and just holding on by means of its legacy and the faithful few who attend.

The Restarting Strategy (also known as a Repotting strategy) is for an unhealthy church to once again begin growing and to engage in a renewed vision that is demonstrated in ample demonstrations of hope. The restart based church revitalization model is being used all across North America.  Any group planting churches or working in the area of Church Revitalization should have a restart strategy if it is going to be a wise steward.  One critical point from the start is a complete change of leadership and direction is a must for this revitalization model to be successful.  Lyle Schaller reminds us that 85,000 evangelical churches are running fewer than 50 on Sunday.  Being aware of their “critical” condition, however, is not enough.  They have got to become convinced they need “major” surgical treatment.  One church I have worked with still believes that they have more to offer though their decline has been meteoritic and yet they refuse to allow a restart to take place.

Changing the mindset of the residual membership can often be very difficult.  Senior adults occupy most of these restart candidate churches for which change is often hard to come by. Until the church is ready to make drastic changes, it is useless to become involved. There are thousands of churches like this all over America: Some are Baptists, others are Methodists, even in the Assembly’s you can find them, Presbyterians, the Lutherans have them, Congregational, Christian, and many others, waiting for a mission-minded congregation to get involved in offering “new life.” There is a tremendous need to recreate the mindset of the remaining member in renewing church.

One startling phenomena is there are churches today that as the laity begin to depart this life often see nothing wrong with taking the church to the grave as well. Their moto could be: Would the last one alive, please turn the lights off! That was never part of God’s plan for the very thing He gave up His life.

For the last 20 years, there has been a great deal of focus around the world on evangelism through church planting. Tens of thousands of people are coming to Christ each day around the world. Thousands of new churches are planted every week. We thank God for this spectacular growth!

However, there has not been corresponding attention given to the revitalization and renewal of our churches on the home front during this time. Consequently, today we have an increasing deficit of church revitalizers and a shortage of committed renewal leaders within our existing churches! As more and more Godly men are going into church planting we have a crisis of pastors and ministry leaders seeking to lead the declining church out of its challenges and obstacles. We need new leaders and better-trained leaders in the area of church revitalization and renewal.

But hear me in this, if it were just about making a better leader we have so many Christian leadership groups training and individuals going to weekly or monthly meetings and yet the pace of decline has not been slowed by building a better ministry leader to serve as pastor and shepherd. Clearly, our conventional methods and established approaches of leader development simply have not delivered either the quantity or quality of leaders that today’s plateaued or rapidly declining churches need. We cannot keep building leaders the same way while merely trying to do it faster and on a larger scale.

It would be careless and irresponsible for us to simply rejoice in the great harvest of souls that is happening today through the planting of churches without addressing the issue of the development of Church Revitalizers for our churches across the state of Florida! If we do not take this seriously and address the issue of plateau and declining churches in a generation or two much of today’s glorious harvest may be lost. More of the same will not do! We need to transform the way today’s church revitalizers are trained.

Seven Paradigm or Model Shifts for Church Revitalization

There are Seven Paradigm or Model Shifts for Church Revitalization that addresses the current crises of leader quantity and quality:

1. A new goal of sustainable critical mass.

Traditionally, within the local church, our primary goal has been the ability to preach and maintain the traditions of the particular church. Keep us at or near our capacity and things will go well. Yesterday’s leaders were selected and assessed in relation to degrees and years of service. Today’s church revitalizer is assessed and selected as to ones ability to turn around a church, which is in decline. In fact churches are being assessed today by the candidates as to their ability to be revitalized as well. In the next 15 years there will be a growing shortage of pastors willing to fill our churches, which have low renewal potential. In our denomination we have 6,000 Southern Baptist Pastors who leave their ministries each year. More than 200 pastors are fired each month. In one recent article from LifeWay there are 70,000 vacant pulpits in America.

( stated that 6,000 Southern Baptist pastors leave their ministries each year. Over 200 pastors are fired each month. There are 70,000 vacant pulpits in America.)

Today’s pastors who serve as church revitalizers know that when an exsisting church falls below 50 adults workers, the church is in danger of loosing its critical mass of workers necessary to turnaround the churches decline. Keeping a church from falling below the necessary critical mass to allow it to have renewed life must become a priority focus before it is too late. We work hard around GOBA to help churches, which want to keep from declining to face the key issues early before it is too late. Some churches ask for our help only to decline it and then once they are polorized and in rapid decline come pleading for the exact help, which they refused previously. The sad thing is most of the time they waited too long and now there is little which can be done other than a church merger or giving of the property to the association for a church plant.

In this new model the shift of a new goal of sustainable critical mass we focus on building skill sets deemed necessary for revitalizing churches. Biblical knowledge (alone, is no longer sufficient) is still an asset yet todays revitalizers must have skill sets which will allow the church a best chance of reversal of decline. Transformation of declining churches takes a different set of competencies than pastoring twenty years ago. We must seek to build healthy church revitalizers able to develop sustainable critical mass.

2. A new methodology for rebirthing something new from the decline.

If today’s challenge is to revitalize the local church it is apparent immediately that we need a new methodology for rebirthing something new from the decline. A purely traditional process of pastoral shepherding will not effectively build congregants spiritual life, character and practical ministry capacity. Many church revitalization organizations have recognized this and are supplementing their information downloads with a variety of intentional spiritual, relational and experiential dynamics (transformation). In this new paradigm, we must implement a holistic process that gives strong and integrated attention to four dynamics for church renewal:

•Spiritual Transformation. Experiential union with Christ is the center of a truly transformational revitalization paradigm. We must move our developing church revitalizers from the sanctuary sitting in our worship centers and exchange their posture to walking our streets sharing Christ!

•Relational Transformation. Developing church revitalizers need journey! They need daily relationships with mature fellow revitalizers, role models, and examples. They need spiritual Paul’s – in the context of normal daily life and ministry. In the encouragement, support, challenge, teaching, discipline and accountability of these relationships, the shepherd’s character is built, marriages are strengthened and spiritual life is nurtured.

•Experiential Transformation. Developing church revitalizers learn by doing and not only by listening. Activity is the new norm not audience participation. They are transformed through the fires of trail and pressure. The church revitalizer is stretched by challenging tasks that focus on church revitalization and renewal.

•Proclamational Transformation. Developing church revitalizers must work on new ways in teaching of the Word of God – in an engaging way, and woven into the ongoing daily realities of life, family and ministry. This new is central to healthy leader development.

All four of these dynamics must be strongly present in an effective church revitalizer’s development process. The second paradigm is a new methodology for rebirthing something new from the decline.

3. A new ministry design developed from church assessment and leader assessment.

Traditionally, we have not given sufficient thought to a new ministry design developed from church assessment and leader assessment. Our designs of the past have perpetuated tradition and modeled teaching as we have been taught. Jesus, however, designed an extraordinary collage of diverse learning experiences for His developing leaders.

Churches in decline and pastors of declining churches both need an assessment. Shepherds need to know what the strengths and obstacles of the church may be and the church needs to know if the skill sets necessary for a turnaround are within the leaders ability to learn or possess already. Within this new paradigm, we learn how to design learning experiences as Jesus did. Imparting and acquiring skill sets necessary for church revitalization is a rather chaotic, complex and multifaceted issue of relationships, influences, tasks, responsibilities, duties, opportunities, pressures, crises, blessings, sufferings, successes, and mistakes, which all work together to build the emerging leader.

Thus, an effective church revitalizer development process is not a neat series of sequences but a fiery immersion in real-life, real-time experiences, reflecting the complicated and fundamentally difficult nature of church revitalization and renewal, bringing deep heart issues to the surface to be dealt with, and compelling the individual church and individual revitalizer to look utterly to God for success. A new ministry design developed from church assessment and leader assessment.

4. Church Revitalizers embracing and building new Revitalizers.

The fourth Paradigm or Model Shift for Church Revitalization is that these leaders must become the embracers of potential and builders of new Church Revitalizers. Jesus came to the earth to do three things: To die on the cross for the sins of humanity; To proclaim the Kingdom of God and reveal the Father, through His words and works; and to build a team of emerging leaders. And that is all He did! So we know that building leaders is one of the central things that healthy church revitalizers do. Thankfully, we do not have to die on the cross for the sins of the world, since Jesus has accomplished that once and for all.

We must, however, embrace the other two responsibilities. While we have focused on proclaiming the Kingdom and revealing the Father – that is, doing the “ministry stuff” – we have rarely, however, embraced personal and systematic responsibility for building new leaders equipped for the revitalization of our churches. We have been too busy with doing the leading of the church to build today’s new leaders! There needs to be a reconnection of the two – leaders do ministry work and they build tomorrows church revitalizers at the same time.

Within this new paradigm, Church Revitalizers face the personal responsibility for embracing and building new Revitalizers as a core part of what it means to be a leader. This shift alone has the potential to raise up a new army of missional pastors equipped for the task of revitalization and renewal.

5. Churches building new revitalizers.

Biblically, the primary place for the development of new church revitalizers is the local church or a cluster of churches. That is why I still believe in the importance of the local Southern Baptist Association. In this paradigm, just as church revitalizers personally embrace their God-given responsibility to build other church revitalizers, so healthy local churches must embrace their God- given responsibility to build their own future ministers. Some of the benefits are:

Multiplication. The church-based revitalization approach provides a paradigm or model that can be multiplied virtually endlessly with every local church or cluster of churches providing a church revitalization-learning environment for their new leaders. If every local church would build only one or two new leaders for church renewal, the quantity crisis would be over!

Holistic development. The church renewal learning process becomes considerably more effective since the local church provides the spiritual, relational and practical context for the development of the church revitalizer.

The right people receive training. The emerging revitalizer and existing church pastor who need training the most are those who are already engaged in renewal ministry. Whit the training focused in the church we move from training the wrong individuals to training and equipping the right people.

Flexibility. When it comes to church revitalizer development, “one size” does not fit all. Around the world, Church Revitalizers from a vast variety of cultures, backgrounds, experiences, education levels, need to be fostered. Our renewal approaches must be flexible and customizable. In addition, the environment is rapidly changing around the church today so flexibility in our approaches to renewal is required.

Self-supporting, self sustaining and self propagating. The local church provides the financial support for the learning process, thus maintaining both responsibility for and control of the development of its own emerging church revitalizers. The church must also become self-sustaining so equipping future revitalizers for the work of the ministry is essential. Then the local church must become self-propagating in its effort to regrow the work of the Lord in their setting.

Ongoing skill sets and life long revitalizer development. The equipping and training is not limited to a certain period of time, but continues throughout the church revitalizers lives. Leaders are built over lifetimes!

Effective evaluation. Members of the local community who know the emerging church revitalizer and who work with him on a regular basis are the best ones to help him both establish clear goals for his development and evaluate his growth toward those goals.

6. A Move from a Church Growth Paradigm to a Restored Emphases on a Biblical Paradigm

For the past three decades "church growth" has been the focus of many American churches. All this emphasis on size, numbers and programs has been to no avail, for every year thousands of churches in our land close their doors. In fact, in any given year the American church closes more churches than it starts! We are learning the hard way that church health must precede church growth. Only healthy churches manifest well-balanced, long-term and scriptural growth. Church health is based upon God's precepts, principles and patterns in the New Testament. The Scripture presents a paradigm of moving from spiritual decline and functional malaise to Spirit-engendered vitality: the Church at Ephesus. God's instructions to that church serve as a curriculum outline for Church Revitalization: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first..." (Rev. 2:5) That is the three-fold emphasis of the paradigm: Remember...Repent... Recapture the first things.

Church revitalization is the sovereign work of God's Spirit whereby He restores His people to spiritual and functional vitality that inevitably leads to statistical growth in conversions and scriptural discipleship for His own glory and our own good.

A PARADIGM is a way of thinking. When our lives come into alignment with Romans 12:2, our way of thinking gets re-aligned with God’s thoughts and ideals.

What about your journey right now is shifting? Opportunity beckons for each one of us to embrace the shifts that Christ is calling. Every shift that God leads us into will be grounded in the Scriptures and call us to a more biblical life. You can never go wrong when you prayerfully and humbly shift towards God through the Scriptures. My challenge is to call you to embrace the paradigm shifts God is leading you into and watch what God unfolds in you, your church and through your ministry.

Lead the Change!

Think about how you would answer the following questions yourself, then discuss your responses together as a leadership team ...

1. In your opinion, where is your local church on the Life Cycle? (Mark an “x” on the curved line indicating where you think your church health is currently.) Why do you believe this?

2. Based on the “general characteristics” on the previous page for the category you marked, do you agree or disagree with this as a description of your local church? Why or why not?

3. What key factors are influencing or support your opinion about your church’s overall health? (List them in the box that contains your “x”.)

4. What numerical and financial trends during the last five years support your assessment?

5. What issues need to be addressed as your church strives to improve its overall health?

6. If it is time for intervention in your church’s life cycle, what steps will you take to launch into new growth patterns?

1 comment (Add your own)

1 Keith Jefferson - Thu, November 2, 2017 @ 9:02 PM

This is an excellent article on revitalization. There is clearly a need for us as Southern Baptists to give our utmost attention to the revitalization of our 900 plus churches that are disappearing annually.

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