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.
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.
The term “planting pregnant” may sound a little weird, but the premise is solid. It’s starting a new church while, at the same time, training potential church planters within your starting church team to plant.
Hence, the beginning church expects to birth another church—soon.
If the main goal of church planting is to gather and develop reproducible disciple-makers for the mission of God, then a key factor is the aspect of reproducibility.
Many times, I hear church planters with grandiose visions and mission statements. Yet, rarely do I hear of planters that desire to infuse a reproducible DNA from the beginning.
When I read the descriptions in the book of Acts of Paul’s church planting journeys, I tend to see him working with teams (Acts 13:1, 13; 14:21–28; 20:4). Seldomly do I read of Paul working as a Lone Ranger or “parachuting” (Acts 17:16–21). I also understand that the book of Acts is descriptive and not prescriptive—however—I can glean some good applicational insight.
One of the ways that Story Church will be planting pregnant is to start with the intentional ethos of reproducibility. This means that I will plant with guys that are apprenticing to plant and will eventually start a new church within the next few years—not a campus church—but an autonomous body of reproducible disciple-makers. These men will be able to watch, learn, and live out what it looks like and what it takes to plant a church.
While I am chronologically recording every move I make, I realize that every plant is unique and must be adaptable to culture. However, the principles and procedures for initial start-up, systems placement, and community exegesis will be eerily similar.
There is no cookie cutter approach to church planting, but by beginning to plant with the “pregnant” mindset and groundwork, the DNA of the mother church plant takes on an identity of reproducibility. And what that means is Story Church is not about building an empire but launching a multiplicative gospel movement.
For me, church planting pregnant is vital. However, I can plant pregnant because this is not my first time around and because I have put the time in to watch, learn, train, and be a part of other plant/planters. So, as I am planting Story Church, I will be apprenticing other potential planting candidates.
I realize that planting pregnant may not be the norm and I praise God for any and every church planter, but it is a means to birthing a gospel movement.