I have long been intrigued and captivated by the early church. What I mean by early church is the New Testament era and the first two centuries succeeding. I love the narrative of Acts and its apostolic association with “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2). I crave for their sacrifice, and for their disciple-making devotion. While I understand that the early was far from perfect and had vast dysfunction—they also possessed dedication, piety, and desire.
Because of my captivation, I find myself diving deeper into the depths of ecclesiastical disciple-making (See Church Planting by Making Disciple-Makers). My journey has currently positioned me within an early document known as the Didache. If you’re not familiar with the Didache (pronounced, Did-ah-key or Did-ah-kay), it is not without its controversies, as it seems to have been lost for fifteen hundred years.
As history notes, in 1873 a Greek Orthodox bishop named Philotheos Bryennios was in the library archives of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem sifting through the early manuscripts. Bryennios wasn’t exactly sure what he had discovered, as the Didache was “sandwiched between other early church documents;” namely TheEpistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, 12 letters of Ignatius, and several others. While Bryennios’ contemporaries had common knowledge that Origin and Athanasius had referenced the Didache, many scholars believed that no extant manuscript existed—until Bryennios.
A Little More Background
By the early nineteenth century, the universal church was not monolithic regarding the dating of the Didache. While a small debate ensued regarding the text, some even considered it to be fraudulent. However, with ongoing German and French research, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1945, and the critical work of Willy Rordorf, the dating of the Didache was credibly proposed as preceding the Gospel of Matthew.
Nancy Pardee believed that the Didache’s early dating demonstrated an “important witness to the composition and development of the New Testament.” She stated, “Such an early date and stature by themselves would make the Didache an important witness alongside the New Testament of the development of the early Church, but the additional fact that the text is of more utilitarian nature means that it does not merely supplement the biblical texts, but compliments them.” Indeed, the Didache does compliment the synoptic Gospels.
Breaking It Down
The Didache itself is only sixteen short and concise chapters (a quick 20 minute read), instructing in the ordinances of the church, prophets, apostles, bishops, and deacons within the church, and some brief eschatological views. I found the section on the Eucharist, “breaking the loaf,” to be incredibly illuminating and missional. With the disciple reciting back the words during the Lord’s Supper (I paraphrase):
“As the seed that produce the loaf is scattered over the mountains,
And then gathered in and became one,
So may your church be gathered together into your kingdom,
The Didache is truly an amazing document, but it was never intended to be equated with Scripture, as it was a practical learning tool (orally taught) for new converts. Perhaps this is the reason for its disappearance? Yet, as someone that thrives to reach the world’s lostness, the Didache’s practical guidance regarding reproducible disciple-making is what I find the most intriguing.
If the dating of scholars is true, as one reads the Didache, the Gospels are immediately apparent. As well, the writer of the Didache notably assumes the reader understands the Sabbath days, rejecting the Roman days of the week with “second” and “fifth days of the Sabbath” being set aside as fast days. Most noteworthy is how the two ways of life are taught to a new convert; once learned, the “disciple-maker” baptizes the new convert, after a day or two of fasting. The reason I find this so noteworthy is its implication for rapid multiplication.
The Way of Life
The first several sections of the Didache are the two main aspects of the “teaching.” In perspective, we shouldn’t be surprised with the Way of Life and the Way of Death as central tenets, as a latter title for the Didache was “The Lord’s Teaching to the Nations through the Twelve Apostles.” The Didache is missional, devotional, and multiplicative. Yet, within the two ways they provide a glimpse into an early devoted and dedicated community—devoted to holiness and dedicated to Christ and one another.
The Didache begins with the introduction consisting of the two ways (1:1) but immediately proceeds with the first four succinct chapters describing the Way of Life. As a believer, I instantly see the value of guiding of a new convert through these first thirty-seven “verses.” The Way of Life begins with the greatest commandment, “You shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself; all those things which you do not want done to you, you should not do to others” (1:2).
The abstention from “carnal desires” and how to practically treat others is resounding (1:4). Giving is not a motto for the Way of Life but emphasizes God’s generosity to the adherent (1:5). It is easy to see the Ten Commandments interwoven throughout the Way of Life (2:2–7), as well as humility, patience, justice, hard work, and respect for the image of God. The new convert is reminded not to neglect the “Lord’s commands, but to hold fast to what has been handed down to you” (4:13); the very nature of disciple-making!
The Way of Death
Contrasting with the Way of Life, the Didache does not possess any gray area for the believer. You either walk in the Way of Life, or you’re cursed by wickedness—most notably, the Didache does not sugarcoat lasciviousness. Those who follow the Way of Death “do not know their Maker” (5:2). The warnings for the new converts, not to be led astray from the Way of Life, are foundational.
One might assume that the Didache is merely a set of rules and regulations, a means of legalism, but to the contrary:
“If you are able to bear the whole of the Lord’s yoke,
you will be complete.
However, if you are not able to bear that yoke,
then do what you can” (6:2).
In reflection, the Way of Death denotes the “old self” and the ways of the world, but as a student of the Bible, the Didache reads as a mixture between Jesus’ words and Pauls’ epistles. The Way of Death ends in chapter six and is much shorter than its counterpart, the Way of Life. The Way of Death is utilized as a practical guide of admonition, encouragement, and sanctity.
Spending the last several months researching the Didache has been more than rewarding; it’s been enlightening and informative to view an early community of steadfast believers. Without Scriptures, Paul’s epistles, the Gospels, and Revelation, it is eye-opening that such a document could have existed and point to biblical values (i.e. Great Commission teaching). The Didache demonstrates that the early church was not merely concerned with “Jesus loves me this I know” and that’s enough, but with multiplication, perseverance, righteousness, and humility.
The remaining chapters of the Didache are no slouch, either. Understanding its views of baptism, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, church administrative structures, and end times may not be prescriptive or inspired, but they are revealing as to how the early ekklesia communities lived out the rhythms of life. Any time the modern church can utilize documents like the Didache, I believe it to be edifying. Again, while the Way of Life and Way of Death are not inerrant and inspired, they are definitely biblical—there’s no doubting their veritas.
 O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2010), 4–5.
 Milovec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (Newman Press: NY, 2003), 4.
 Even though there is ample evidence that Paul’s letters were circulated among the early churches, early dating of the Didache would predate the over a third of the New Testament, including the Gospels.
Revitalization is synonymous with church growth, church planting, and disciple-making—and rightfully so—with 80–85% of Western churches in decline or plateauing, the need is imminent.
But revitalization is not revival. Revitalization requires intentional change— not programs.
Revitalization is a systemic DNA change—a spiritual transformation. If revitalization is required, something is broken, failing, or worse—hemorrhaging.
DNA relates to molecules that transport genetic instructions used in the growth, development, and function in living organisms. Dying churches are lacking healthy DNA. Here are five crucial steps in cultivating church DNA change.
I’m not a fan of prayer—I’m dependent upon it. As A. W. Pink avowed, “Prayer is not so much an act as it is an attitude—an attitude of dependency, dependency upon God.”
The church can do nothing without prayer. Sadly, prayer is neglected, yet God’s power is expected. Yet, the kind of prayer that I’m speaking of is Holy Spirit empowered, guided, and lead. Holy Spirit directed prayer brings humility, conivction, and unity.
The leaders of a dying church must be unified—prayerfully seeking the power of God to change their hearts, minds, and souls. Billy Sunday declared, “If you are strangers to prayer you are strangers to power.”
There is not a move of God that has occurred without prayer and repentance. For a DNA change to occur, a church must bend its knee in repentant soulful prayer—willing and able to listen to the voice of God.
That means cultivating-DNA-changing-prayer is a dialogue with the One Triune God, anticipating and expecting to hear from the Spirit of God—yielding everything to His will.
Gads of books and articles have been written about vision. I’m not for jumping on bandwagons. Yet, vision is imperative for DNA change.
Vision informs the people where they are going. Like Moses leading Israel toward the Promised Land—the people had a vision.
DNA changing vision is God-lead instruction for growth, development, and function. Vision should also be collective among Spirit-filled leaders—agreeing that God is clearly articlulating His new plan, new purpose, and new design to glorify Himself within a community.
DNA changing vision begins with prayer and results in hearing from God. Sometimes this can be accomplished by leaders closing themselves off for time together, brainstorming, whiteboarding, fasting, or going through a process of vision “framing.”
DNA changing vision should not be over-complicated—on the contrary—it should be simple and understood. God wants His vision revealed to His church.
Church leaders should be visionaries. Visionaries by definition are innovator-creator type people. Visionaries relay and expound the vision to other people that we will label, “early adopters.”
Not everyone will understand vision—even at its simplest form. Based upon the innovation adoption curve, less than 20% of the church will initially understand the vision—but early adopters will.
The leaders seeking DNA-change shouldn’t expect everyone to “get it,” but they should seek respectable and godly people who will—the early adopters.
Systemically changing a church’s DNA takes time. I would confess anywhere from 18–20 months (some say that’s fast—so it’s better to think of revitalization of a church as turning an aircraft carrier).
The adopters’ role is essential—they will help skeptics and fear-based “traditionalists” (those clinging to the past or afraid of change) to be at ease and see God’s power at work.
Basically, early adopters “sell” the vision. Biblically speaking, Nehemiah is a great example of how he received God’s vision and implemented it through other leaders (early adopters)—to propel God’s mission.
Proclamation is where I differ from most revitalizers.
I’m not a seeker sensitive guy. I’m sold out for the gospel. While many revitalizers will push the concept of the essential need of vision repetition (and I agree), the focal point is not the vision, but the implementation of the vision, via proclamation of the gospel.
If the gospel is not central to the vision—you have the wrong vision. The church is here to proclaim the good news of Christ and make disciples (Matt 29:18–20; Jn. 20:19–21).
The church doesn’t share the gospel—the gospel is a proclamation about the King—it’s about God’s story.
Before a body of Christ can engage the mission, it must intrinsically understand the gospel.
The succinct DNA breath of the church must be the gospel—a transformative and comprehensive reconciliation of rebellious people turning back and submitting to God—for His glory.
This means that if conversion growth (reaching new converts to make disciples) then there will not be DNA-changing revitalization, only people in seats to sustain a social movement—it’s not a revitalization of Christ’s church.
Jesus asserted, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
DNA change will be evident when the fruit of Christ is demonstrated in community, corporate worship, and the home. The DNA-changing church must seek a goal to be about making disciple-making disciples to engage the culture.
The church was never designed for isolation, but public exhortation and exhibition. The mission of God fulfills God’s will.
All earthly treasures are mere tools to glorify God. Tools would include the building, transportation, and income. This means that church savings accounts are to be spent on God’s mission—not idolized.
The church is here to engage culture, to proclaim the love of God, through Christ.
Lastly, revitalization is about people—not buildings. Community engagement manifests an inner heart transformation of an intentional outward passion. Basically, if you’re sold out for Christ—everyone will know it and that passion will be infectious.
Systemic DNA change can transform an isolated dying church into a missional-attractional church, devoted, dedicated, and determined to obey Christ.
When I was a little guy, one of the biggest hits was released; The Devil Went Down to Georgia, by The Charlie Daniels Band. It was a showdown of epic proportions, man versus evil, donned with the same instruments, dueling it out to see who is the best!
While I grinded the grooves off of that record, the truth is—there is something more to music—something powerful and something spiritual.
Within the Christian culture, the one common denominator that brought more strife to modern evangelical congregations is music: variations in styles, organs or pianos, hymns or songs, stringed instruments, and drums, is it godly, does it degrade the liturgy, and/or is it secular? We could list myriads of reasons; suffice it to say, people have strong views about music.
Not too long ago, an article was posted by Christianity Today entitled, “Is Your Church Worship More Pagan than Christian?” The article provided an argument about the validity of whether or not it is theologically correct to “feel the presence of God,” through music.
The article’s great thesis came with this statement, “There is simply no evidence whatsoever in Scripture that music mediates direct encounters or experiences with God.”
I completely disagree with the writer’s summation, but also understand what the article is presuming.
While I understand what the writer is attempting to say, theologically speaking, I think he has missed the spiritual power of music and the Scripture provision that proves this theses wrong.
I’d like to provide a passage of Scripture that is missed everytime I hear or read about this argument. And, for the purpose of building up the body of Christ and your spiritual strength, I will confess that I believe music has the ability to bring us closer to God and feel His presence.
Let’s read this passage:
“And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have I to do with you? Go to the prophets of your father and to the prophets of your mother.” But the king of Israel said to him, “No; it is the LORD who has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.” And Elisha said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, were it not that I have regard for Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would neither look at you nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” And when the musician played, the hand of the LORD came upon him.” — (2 Kings 3:13-15)
The surrounding context from the above-mentioned Scripture (2 Kings 3) is an amazing testimony of events. They illustrate a direct encounter with the Spirit of God and the connection to music.
The prophet Elisha is summoned prior to the battle—to inquire of God as to whether the three kings (Judah, Israel, Edom) should fight a battle against Moab. Elisha’s response is unique, he orders a musician to be brought forward to play, so that “the hand of the LORD” would come upon him. Why a musician?
For a prophet who parted water, made an axe head float, and raised the dead—why—when asked about a battle against Moab—would he request a musician? Seriously? Stick with me…
For those familiar with the Bible, you may have linked Saul’s demonic oppression and David being ordered to play the lyre (guitar); several times this occurs, and the demonic spirits flee (1 Sam. 16:23).
In both cases (Elisha and David), music “plays” a significant role in spiritual warfare and the presence of holiness. To validate, when David set up his administration, he instituted the service of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, to “prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:2); thereby, attaching prophetic gifting, presence, and music. As well, the OT book of Habakkuk is written by the musical prophet, who supplies a song.
Music has a functionality to ease the soul, a divine, “coming into the presence of God,” and receiving divine illumination—the biblical precedent is evident.
So, why would a prophet of God, like Elisha, need to have music playing? As the Scriptures state, “to feel the hand of God.” I believe in this case, the prophet knew that he was in need of “divine revelation” from God and was seeking the proper environment.
In my opinion, godly music can hold back demonic forces, as well as bring us into a holy and worshipful atmosphere of praise to our Creator. I know that worship music can change my heart, attitude, and emotions—almost instantaneously.
I have not only witnessed the power of music firsthand, but believe it’s a truthful saying. I inserted the importance of music within the attack of Moab because it was part of the context and, it seems, a viable weapon in spiritual warfare, giving presence and illumination.
Therefore, music is more than mere words and should be utilized as a form of “entering” into the greater worshipful presence of God’s Holy Spirit. Scripture is clear that God does indeed employ music for intercession.
One of my favorite verses, which I pronounce every time after the Lord’s Supper, is from Matthew 26:30. The setting is the night in which Christ will be betrayed; He knows that His soul will be in anguish as He bears the sin of the world upon Himself. I have to think their singinig brought Him some peace. The verse states, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt 26:30). Andreas Kostenberger believes that the hymn was Psalm 118:22-23, a Jewish traditional usage from the Passover celebration:
I can imagine Christ singing with the disciples and what God’s voice must have sounded like—I bet it sounds like the church in glorious praise? When Jesus sang, did the angelic host join in, as they did when He was birthed?
Only the disciples and Christ know, but my point is this…those that believe music is not powerful, spiritual, or can bring the presence of God, have it very wrong. While the presence of God is always with believers—we do submit to the presence of holiness and God’s Spirit when we worship Him with humble and grateful hearts.
So, sing with all of your might, as King David danced (2 Sam 6:14).
Kostenberger, Andreas, & Taylor, Justin. 2014. The Final Days of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.72.
“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.