“But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8–9).
Bloom Where You’re Planted
When writing to the Corinthian churches, the Apostle Paul provided insight regarding his mission work. Paul let the church know that he would come soon, but that God had “opened effective doors” of ministry for him—and so, he was going to remain in Ephesus for as long as the door remained open.
While our hearts desire to be frutiful in ministry, we shouldn’t prescribe this text as a justification for leaving “unfrutiful” areas—especially if God has called us to a people group or location. Follow God at all costs. But, Paul’s wisdom does demonstrate that when opportunity knocks, we’re to answer and to be hospitable.
The old saying, “bloom where you’re planted” sticks out. Paul desired to stay in Ephesus while the ground was fertile. While God was continuing to do mighty works—Paul wanted to keep up with His leading. It would behoove those in ministry, especially church planters and missionaries, to see Paul’s witness as a season for continual plowing and reaping.
Like a farmer during sowing and harvesting seasons—life can become overwhleming and busy, but there will be no harvesting without sowing. Whenever God grants us the ability to be effective gospel witnesses, we ought to take every opportunity to take advantage.
Recognize Seasons of Favor
As Paul desired to remain in Ephesus, he did so because he was able to recognize that God was at work. As ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), we ought to have the spiritual receptivity to see, know, and “feel” when God is granting us a season of fruitfulness.
Recognizing seasons of favor is important. Again, to utilize an agricultural analogy, a farmer must acknowledge the seasons for planting and the seasons for harvesting. I know that in my life, there are obvious and evident periods of God’s overflowing favor—it is during these times that I want to be especially open to receiving the divine appointments that are set before me.
I know that I never want to miss a great opportunity. It seems that life is a finely spun web of intricate relationships. For the most part, I am where I am because of God’s divine appointments, open doors, and taking advantage of those seasons of favor. Whether I can “shoehorn” one more meeting in my schedule or not, I try to accommodate the appointments that God brings to me—especially those unannounced marketplace ones.
Big Opportunities will face Big Opponents
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the four hundred pound gorilla at the end of Paul’s statement—those big opportunities caused some big opponents to appear. It is inevitable that when seasons of favor occur that you can (and should) expect some spiritual warfare.
Whenever the Lord begins to bless you and grant you favor, especially in gospel ministry that breaks through into the darkness, you can rest assured that evil will not cease to hinder the mission. As Peter stated, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When big opportunities arise, so does your adversary.
But, remember that you are never alone and never without the presence of God. The Great Commission is one big audacious “God-sandwich” (Matt. 28:18–20). The commission of Christ begins with Christ’s universal authority over all things, granted to us, and ends with Christ always being with us—the middle part is the commission work.
Reminding ourselves that wherever the Lord is sending, He has ultimate authority and is always with us. God will never leave you, nor forsake you.
Aubrey Malphurs affirmed that 80–85% of churches in America are either plateauing or in decline and barely 10–15% of pastors are equipped to turn them around.David Olson identified that only 26% of Americans are evangelical.
It is obvious that American Christianity is hemorrhaging. Revitalization is essential. While I am a huge proponent of church planting, I believe we drastically need to revitalize our churches. It’s not easy and there are many variables, but, as someone who was a revitalizing pastor, here are three must-haves to turnaround churches.
The Apostle Paul declared, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woeto me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). The pulpit is not for politics, social agendas, or movements, but the expounding of God’s Word—the proclamation of the gospel. Preachers who teach five reasons why you’re awesome, or four ways to overcome depression, are not gospel-centered.
Transformation can only occur when the convicting power of the Holy Spirit begins work and repentance is set forth. “Churches” presenting a false gospel may be growing in size, but they are not growing in spiritual formation and discipleship. Revitalization is not about how big a church gets, but how many disciples it makes and sends.
The captivating call of the gospel will bring a fire to a gospel-centered pastor’s bones—not to be confused with yelling or screaming—but experienced passion. John Wesley once declared, “Catch on fire for the gospel with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”
Leadership, innovation,& change
All of these go together. While it should be obvious that lazy leaders cannot bring revitalization, the big issues are a lack of innovation and change. In my assessment, innovation and change are key factors of church revitalization. The greatest roadblock that halts innovation is the fear of change.
We need to remember that God never does what we expect him to do. Effective church leaders are visionaries, risk-takers, and faithful to God. Look at the plans that God delivered to Joshua (Josh. 6:3–7). Marching around a city and blowing trumpets doesn’t exactly sound like a great military strategy. Revitalizing churches must let Holy Spirit innovation guide their leaders.
While some statistics show that new pastors spur revitalization, I don’t believe it’s altogether necessary. Church revitalization comes from the Holy Spirit and the people, not one person. The problem is that most pastors of tenure will not receivethe ability to lead through change, or may not be innovative. It’s also possible that there isgood leadership, but the church refuses change—in which case, death is certain. Effective leadership, innovation, and change will stimulate revitalization.
I don’t care how big a church becomes; community impact is important and expressive because God has called His people to be the light of the world. Let’s be clear: The gospel and serving community should never be separated—they belong together. It’s not one or the other—it’s both.
Community impact is importantbecause Christians are “ambassadors of Christ” who bring the ministry of reconciliation to the world (2 Cor. 5:18–20). Christians have a duty to serve one another and others (Gal. 6:10). Addiction, poverty, homelessness, and orphans—these are all biblical calls to serve.
The call of the gospel compels us to go into our community and serve with love. As Charles Spurgeon asserted, “I will not believe that thou hast tasted of the honey of the gospel if thou can eat it all to thyself.”
Community impact is expressive. In other words, a church’s impact on its community reveals an outward focus of an inward heart. The way that a church shows love to its neighbors shows the way it loves Christ. Jesus said that if you serve the “least of these,” you have served Me (Matt. 25:40).
Here’s the big question: if your church were to close its doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community care, notice, or react?
For more information on revitalization, contact me.
Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.
Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.
Demographics & Exegeting Culture
Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.
If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.
So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.
Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.
Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.
Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.
Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?
Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.
Demographics & Spiritual Pulse
Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.
I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.
Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.
If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.
Demographics & Sermon Delivery
Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.
Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.
As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.
There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.