Should Dying Churches Replant or Revitalize?
Aubrey Malphurs has extensively researched the characteristics and attributes of what it takes to revitalize a church—I’m not going in that direction. I agree with him—it takes an apostolically gifted individual, someone charismatic, a self-starter, self-motivator, and magnetic personality, gifted by God, to revitalize a church. All that stated, we don’t have a lack of pastors, we have a lack of gifting and understanding of the gargantuan task at hand.
Revitalization is extremely difficult—yes, I’m showing my cards, now, looking at the diagram again (below), once a church has moved from the downward turn (not to a downward turn, which ambiguously can be a myriad of factors: pastoral change, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc.) and drifts toward dying—the closer that church body gets to dying, the less of a chance it has of revitalization. This is not an opinion, and assuredly, there are exceptions, but seems to be the rule. The church I serve may be one of those exceptions—possibly—only time will tell.
In nearly all of the cases that I’ve looked at (and I haven’t seen them all, I’m not declaring I have), replanting is better suited. Why? For a congregation of people affected by culture and demographics—all churches will be—but now facing a constant downward spiral—they become more concerned with keeping it alive than in flourishing and making disciples. This is a natural inward digression, but it’s a church killer. The reality of keeping the doors open can be correlated to when my 13-year-old Lab had cancer—I know Labradors are bigger dogs and have an approximate 8–12-year window of life. My wife and I decided it was better to love and lose than not to love at all. But when the veterinarian stated that our beloved companion had cancer, refusing to eat, we knew the answer—we had to put her down. To keep her alive was to not face reality— (1) motivated by selfishness; keeping her alive for us, (2) the inevitable was still going to take place—death, and (3) we would not be good stewards of God’s creation. There comes a time when “putting the church down” is the better way.
I know you’re asking…What constitutes a downward turn?
Remember, I stated, from a downward turn—meaning, the church is not facing a sudden decrease, but have progressed into a continual unhealthy downward spiral and now face the inevitable—cancer.
For a church to revitalize, it usually needs to substantially alter its missiological (and at times, orthodoxical) DNA. The DNA is culturally created to match that of, and for, the reaching, serving, and making disciples among the community. Often the building is emphasized more than the people, who make up the church. The dying church no longer views itself as living, breathing, and untethered to material possessions, to serve out the mission of God.
Replanting on the other hand is a new beginning—which seeks to begin the process all over again. Usually replanting includes renaming, selling property, revisiting the mission and vision, for the purpose of seeking a vibrant passionate gospel calling back into the community. If a dying church assesses that close to 75% of the members are not living within the community—my advice—shut the doors—offer the building (if it’s paid for) to a church planter for the kingdom, or sell the building and proceed with a replant somewhere else—but make no mistake—either a replant or revitalize will take a new “leader” and equipping of the five-fold ministry gifting (Eph 4:11–12).
I’m not saying that a revitalize cannot work—surely, God can do all things. But the likelihood of it happening for any length and sustaining time period is unlikely. There’s so much more to this conversation—but I pray it leads you and others into that conversation and if you want me to join in with you, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon Penfold, Re: Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 30.