Principles for Considering a Church Revitalization Restart Strategy
If you are ready to consider the church revitalization restart strategy there are several principles that should be considered. While leading church revitalization efforts all across North America for the RENOVATE National Church Revitalization Conference I have had the opportunity to work with many who look at the restart strategy as their last and only hope. This is a strategy that works and is effective if the present church cares deeply still about reaching the community it has been placed. Things change and community’s change and hopefully the church desire to change so it can continue to reach it ministry area for Christ Jesus. So just how do you go about restarting a dead church? In talking to restart pastors and denominational leaders across the country, these fifteen principles come up again and again:
Rejoice and Honor the Former Church's History
Before the former church passes away, gather together to rejoice, honor and celebrate its victories and historical past. One of the best lessons any church revitalizer could learn is the importance of honoring the former churches past while moving the restart into the future. During one service I participated of a church that was closing and in a few months would restart as an entirely new church, a long time member was asked to formulate a historical timeline of the significant accomplishments of the former church for distribution at its final worship service. The closing church and the local church revitalization transition team helped them put together a service, which was a time of thanksgiving for the past and a time of anticipation for the future. Members shared about joyful memories of significant events where God had displayed His marvelous blessings. Five to seven members from various stages of life took part in this portion of the celebration service. Some had been members for a long long time; others were recent leaders who had worked diligently to try to turn around the closing church.
The Restart Strategy Works Best when a Church Revitalization Transition Committee is made Up of Those Outside the Existing Church
Many terms work for this type of team to assist the local church in transisition from closing and reopening as a restart. Where I lead church planting and church revitalization efforts we use the term Church Revitalization Assistance Team. Others utilize the phrases that speak towards a restart transition committee. It is wise to consult your local Director of Missions for assistance in this effort. He should have the necessary experience to lead the former church through an exit strategy leading towards a closing and reopening as a new restart church. His advice while sometimes difficult to share will give the former church the best chance of surviving as a new work that can minister to the ever-changing community. Such a team usually is made up of more individuals from outside churches helping the weaker rapidly declining church. A sponsoring church will embrace this process and take the lead in this effort. The local association will have one or two individuals who work with the church restart pastor. One will usually be the church-planting leader and the other will be an individual who works in church revitalization within the association. As the church closes remember it is not the old church opening under a new leader but an entirely new church so there is only the need for a single leader from the former church to serve on the transisition team.
Consider if there is still potential for success in the former church’s setting!
Not every rapidly declining church is a suitable candidate for a church revitalization restart. Those, which refuse to allow a strong organization in to lead them through the restart, are poor opportunities because often what they desire is for someone to merely pay the bills and get them out of danger of closure. Those, which will not allow a new church revitalizer to come in and lead the new restart, will be poor candidates for a restart. Churches where the lay leadership has run the former pastor’s life and refused to follow the pastor shepherd will be poor candidates for a restart. When a church is guided by comfort over evangelistic fervor those churches will be poor candidates for a restart. Rural areas that are losing population base, areas of ethnic change, and deteriorating neighborhoods are very difficult to restart. The area around a church restart needs to have a definable target group of sufficient size, which may be effectively reached by the type of ministry that the local association, or state convention has to offer. It is amazing often to discover that what a church revitalizer has done to move the church towards growth, when he leaves it only talks a few months to revert back to the past stagnation by changing everything it took three to five years to change. Remember church revitalization is a minimal investment of one thousand days.
To use this model it is critical that a church revitalization restart contract be developed between the old church and the new restart
By having a contract or covenant agreement between the former church and the new restart it will help avoid any conflicts that arise once new changes and structures begin to be put in place. Many will be all for having another church take over the responsibility for financial and day-to-day operations. But once new changes and ways of doing ministry become the norm, without a contract or covenant agreement the restart could become sidetracked and loose any chance for a successful restart. So important is this issue that if a church refuses to agree to a contract or covenant agreement the embracing church ought to walk away immediately and allow the struggling church to continue to diminish. It is not worth the risk of putting in large sums of money only to see the vocal minority sabotage the new restart and cause one disruption and disturbance after another.
Empower the Church Revitalization Transisition Team to make all decisions from the beginning
When a transisition team is empowered initially there is less chance of power struggles impeding the new church revitalization restart. This team can allow the best prospect for developing new systems, structures, skill sets and services for the restart. Also by moving all leadership issues away from the former rapidly declining church and placing it in the hands of the transisition team it is much quicker to pass the baton on to the embracing church. Additionally, when some of the key decision makers of the former church are transferred to new church revitalizer leadership any fallout is focused on the transisition team and not the new pastoral leadership. Remember you only get once chance to do it right so utilize a Church Revitalization Transisition Team and you will benefit from that single decision many times.
Research the declining churches ministry area for what type of new work will have the greatest chance for survival
The reason a restart is even being considered is due to the fact that the former church has experienced plateau then decline and is now faced with the realization it does not know how to revitalize the church. Before any other church considers embracing the candidate for a restart research the ministry are to determine what type of new work will have the greatest chance for survival. Sometimes a restart will focus on a niche while other times it will emphasize a younger more relevant model more in tune with those who currently live in the community.
Close the Doors of the Church for a Time
Many church revitalizers when working on a restart strategy often wonder if closing the doors might help the restart. Comments are usually the same and surround ideas such as:
"We are not sure we ever expired or stopped being the old church.”
"The old rapidly declining church never closed so we grappled with change because there was no finality and closure.”
“Our services continued under interim leadership. To older members, it feels like we went through an illness and a trauma, which we have now come out. If we had closed the church for a time, renamed it, and done some renovation, the community would have realized what was happening. In the business world we would have put out a sign that said “Under New Management.”
Here is the issue: You lose every and all opportunity to say something completely new to the community.
One church revitalizer said it this way, "I question if we ever really disconnected, disengaged, and detached with the past? If we would have just shut down, let the building take care of itself, and kept the electric bills paid, perhaps we could have crossed these obstacles better."
A wise church revitalizer will see the need of a transisition time to allow separation from the former and the restart of the future. Pressure will come from those wanting to hold on to the past glories hoping to see resurgence though none will come.
Begin seeking God for church revitalizer for the new restart
Church revitalizers are becoming a new breed of pastoral leader that is equipped for the difficult task of revitalization and renewal. Not every pastor has the skill sets necessary for becoming a church revitalizer. This is partially due to the evangelical community no longer having the knowledge of what it takes to transisition a church out of decline into a healthy renewing church. Most pastors in declining churches when asked if they know what will turn around their ministry are unable to provide more than a wish list. On the other hand a church revitalizer while understanding that there is no single magic pill to instantly cause a church to become healthy, has been trained with various tools, which might give the declining church the best opportunity for revitalization. There is a new minister out there which desires to become part of the revolution to see the decline reversed in the American church.
Change the Church's Name and Give it a New Identity
One church in Georgia decided to change their name as they entered the church revitalization restart process. One of the things that was most symbolic for this church in giving up their identity was to change its name. By taking this measured step the people within the community could see that it was not just the same old group wobbling along, but a new church restart. Something new can compel and draw individuals, which would never have given a thought of visiting the previous church and ministry. Wise revitalizers will say the name of the new church often as it moves towards the restart and once the initial worship service commences utilizing the new name while allowing it to ring in the ears of the congregants moves the new away from the old.
Another important symbol might be transferring ownership of the property to the local association office for a period. While this seems drastic, death is drastic. It should be done for the right reasons, though. The protection the weak and vulnerable church receives from being taken over by outside groups is secondary to its symbolic value of death and breaking of power. When a church is facing rapid decline it is desperate and often makes poor decisions, which lead it to neither, be a possible candidate for a restart nor a church that can survive. By transferring ownership to the local association it allows its heritage to continue by allowing the church to be utilized for a church plant. Usually some type of covenant that the church will be a church plant for at least five years is a good way to insure a mission heritage that will honor the former church.
Transfer Control from Local Church Power Brokers to a Steering Committee of Mostly Outsiders
One of the most common barriers and roadblocks to growth in a rapidly declining congregation is leadership that is closed to faith and a vision of the future. Often these entrenched old timers have run off the very people who could have provided vital ministry. They are more interested with their personal preferences over what it will take to see renewal come back to “their” church. The need for a leadership transplant is parmount in a restart strategy. The failure to successfully change the leadership contributed to the failure of a restart of an old urban church in Kansas City. "The nucleus of old timers were still trying to call the shots and were not willing to see change," recalls a state denominational member. "When the few new people showed up they were intimidated by the older core of people. Right from the beginning," he counsels, "make sure you have the cooperation of the church people involved. Here there was an indication that the church people were only half-hearted about cooperating." So many churches will say they want to change until change begins to take place. Restarting a church takes a deep commitment of those joining the new restart. Be sure the steering committee is fully empowered.
Another church revitalization restart in south Florida did not use a steering committee. Here is what they shared during a recent conference in West Palm Beach. They said, "We did not follow the guidelines for a restart as advised, and we believe that was a catastrophic misstep. What we discovered after it was over was that we never actually closed the former church. One week we were the old church and the following week we were the old church with a new name but nothing else. The congregational leadership of both clergy and laity never changed. We were suppose to be a new restart but what we were was the old trying to put a face lift on someone unwilling to change. This has been one of the greatest obstacles to growth. I wished we had never done this because it repelled the new people who were coming hopping for something new and vibrant only to find the same old thing. They felt cheapened because they were used and once they saw no change they left hurt and disappointed."
One pastor from Dallas says, "The people from the church revitalization restart on the steering committee are part of the old power group. There is no change only someone else to pay the bills." Another church member from North Atlanta commented, "Some of the former members of the dying church have been quite reluctant to embrace any sort of change. They were allowed to become leaders in the new restart and they are already exerting a powerful influence on those deciding if they should join or not. Their practice of negativity on everything new is hurting our opportunities for success. They are domineering and despite more people joining you keep loosing momentum even though they are not in the majority they stall almost everything with pessimism.
What we have learned is that a steering committee of outsiders dilutes the stakeholders power base that has blocked growth and allows time for a new dream to grow. The restart leadership meetings should be very focused avoiding the same old tiresome rhetoric, the same old troublesome conflict, the same old dismal discussion over the same never ending issues of pacing blame on those not happy with the tried and true. Restart leadership must be more visionary and exclude looking back without seeking some forward direction. Understand that even a steering committee may not break all the negative power struggles.
Develop a Fresh Vision for the Community
Without a mission beyond its own survival, a church revitalization restart is neither new nor viable. The word restart is not fully appropriate. Remember you are not going to restart the old ministry. You are there to make a new beginning. You will have a new name, a new vision, and a new purpose.
Begin Outreach Activities and New Church Core Group Development
Developing a new thrust for evangelism in the restart is key as a fresh core group begins ministry and outreach. Those joining the church from the former church must join just like any new person coming into the congregation. Focus on what the church will look like in the future and how it will draw and reach new prospects and bring them to Christ.
Call a New Church Pastor with Energy and Faith
Church revitalization restarting takes mountains of energy and the faith in God's power. This deep faith and abundance of energy is necessary to ward off discouragement. One of the common ailments in a restart situation is the people's tiredness. If the restart seeks to bring most of the old church with them, there becomes a sense that the new church is not energized because the former members of the rapidly declining church are worn out. Their inability to rise above the negativity and weariness will hamper the work. There is a sense where they say; "You fix it for us pastor." Trying to do it all will burn out a Church revitalizer. The Church revitalizer’s energy must be focused on growth and advancement.
An old mainline denominational pastor living on the East coast recalls, "When I first moved here, I thought the denomination had done the right thing by not closing the church. There was a great facility and all I had to do was come in and begin to reach out into the community. I believed that I could build on the church's standing within the community. Previously I had been successful in connecting with community leaders in my former ministry assignment so I believed this would be the same thing in this ministry. It has taken me two years to see that you should not just make cosmetic changes such as a name but real changes that can give the new ministry the greatest change for success.”
One Church Revitalization Restarter from New Jersey said, "If the rapidly declining church does not die, the new life brought in by a church revitalizer which is expected to revitalize the old rituals. It take so much energy to make the transformation from the ceremonial there is not adequate energy left to do something new and vibrant."
The single theme which I hear again and again from Church Revitalization Restarter is be certain that the church is genuinely willing to die and help it to seal this decision with significant new symbols such as a name change, new leaders in control, property transferred over to new ministry, former leaders not able to be in leadership positions for the next three years.
Start Countdown to New Church Restart Launch and Grand Opening
While working in the background as the rapidly declining church celebrates its past and closes it doors, the new restart begins a countdown towards launch day. Though public ministry is not yet happening, core group meetings, home groups, and preparations towards the kick off of the new church are functioning. New assimilation strategies must be developed as well as launch strategy that embraces the new needs to be established. The best scenario is to close the old church after its final farewell service for about 90 days. I have had many people argue with me about this only to acknowledge later that shutting it down for a week was too little. You only get one chance to do it right so do not hurt this important opportunity by rushing too fast.
When you Launch Reach Forward, Draw a Line in the Sand, and do not Look Back
All looking back usually does is giving you a sore neck! There is a great deal of pastoral momentum that is gained by drawing a line in the sand proverbially and saying we are moving forward. Honoring the past is one thing but living in the past is another. Church Revitalizers need to spend all of their time moving and looking forward. Looking back will drain you do keep the throttle on and advance strategically. Too much effort is spent by inexperienced pastors looking back trying to fix old systems that cannot be fixed.
These fifteen principles will be most helpful in your church revitalization restart. Church revitalizers have practices these principles for years. Those who feel they are too harsh often live in regret that they had not followed these principles.
Next week we will revisit: "What Kind of Church is a Good Candidate for a Revitalization Using the Restart Strategy?"