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.
It’s no secret that my desire is to reach, equip, and care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them by living out God’s story of life, freedom, and community. Actually, that’s the specific vision of Story Church—the beginning of a church planting movement near military installations.
As my family and I have prayed through and been called to our specific task, I think about a Navy SEAL’s saying: SEALs don’t overcome a situation by rising to it, but by falling back on their training.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to serve as a trainer, catalyst, and director of church planting. As well, I’ve been able to study the early church and the journeys of Paul within my doctoral work. So, as my family and I engage on our mission to reach and care for military communities by living out God’s story, I cannot help but to “fall back” on all of my training.
Much of that training is steeped in understanding biblical church planting strategies. Lately, I’ve been focusing on Paul’s church planting journeying—where he went, how he got there, and what he did when he was there.
To state that the Apostle Paul had connections and contact with the Roman military is an understatement. I believe Ephesians 6 and the armor of God is but one good example.
But, whether Paul, like many Roman citizens of the first century, used the Roman military roads for easier travel, safety, or convenience, or for the purposes of the spreading of the gospel within the military could be somewhat subjective.
However, we do know that Paul chose towns, villages, and cities that had a great Roman military presence. For instance, looking at Paul’s escape from Iconium to Lystra, the notable book of Acts scholar John Polhill observed that the small Roman colony of Lystra was connected to Pisidian Antioch by a Roman military road, “located in the hill country surrounded by mountains” employed and equipped “as a Roman military post.”
Reaching the military of any country is significant in the way that they are deployed throughout other countries—it resembles diapsora mission. The military as mission way of life takes on a two-fold meaning— (1) dutifully serving the mission of the country, and (2) living out God’s missional story of life, redemption, and restoration.
Eckhard Schnabel validates how Paul broadly reached the Roman military, “In Caesarea Paul had contact with Roman Soldiers, centurions and tribunes (Acts 21:32, 37)”We’ve also read the words of Paul, written to the Philippian church regarding how he witnessed and proclaimed the gospel to whole “Praetorian guard.” (Phil. 1:13). Regardless of arrest, imprisonment, or journey, Paul had much engagement with the Roman military.
Story Church’s vision is not only to care for service men and women, their families, and the communities that support them, but to see true gospel love, transformation power, enrichment, restoration, and reproducible disciple-making sending.
“Pastor, I need to speak with you a moment.” Of course—this is usually right before service.
“I’m just feeling like God is leading us to another church—something that offers much more.”
I’ve heard this “revelation” before, but I’ve come to an understanding. They’ll return at some point for pastoral care. That’s not an arrogant or boastful statement, but an observation made from time.
All the bells, but no whistles
I’ve seen church members go to larger congregations with thousands. They love the feel of vibrant worship, gads of opportunities for their children, and the overall mega-environment.
Who can disagree—the church I pastor doesn’t have a coffee shop?
Don’t get me wrong, I wish we did! And, I’m not a disgruntled small church pastor. I love Christ’s church—big or small. And some of my pastor friends of larger congregations get this—not everyone will want to “plug-in.”
I think, for the most part, small church people move to large churches in search of the bells and whistles. However, they don’t understand the small group concepts of missional living. The result is they’re left with some bells, but no whistles.
When major life tragedies occur—a death in the family, hospital visitation, prayer covering, spousal failure or infidelity, or a traumatic family addiction—there’s no pastoral care and support. There may be vibrant worship in the larger church they’re attending, but there’s no “perceived” fruitful care.
A bell and a pomegranate
The priest would come before the Lord on behalf of the people—and upon the hem of his robe were “a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate” (Exodus 28:34). I’ve always thought this was a fascinating verse.
I’ve often wondered, why a bell and a pomegranate? In my humble opinion, I believe there must be evidential worship and fruitful nourishment—both—not one, or the other.
The emblematic bell and pomegranate—like modern day emojis—expressed to Israel how the Lord’s “kingdom of priests” were to serve. It is imperative for God’s people to have outwardly expressed lives of worship and nourishing soul care.
When a believer leaves a small church for a much larger one—not understanding the missional DNA of small group—they may perceive that “pastoral care” will be like the small church. Hence, in due time, the believer will return to the small church for pastoral “pomegranate support.”
Can we be frank?
I don’t enjoy church bashing—that’s not me. Big church or small church—God should be glorified. But the reality and perceptions of pastoral care in the two entities are vastly different. The larger church pastor is more administrative than soul care. He may be available for tragedies, but rarely for visitation, counseling, or hospital care.
The larger the church, the more difficult it is to “tend the flock.”
Regardless, I have witnessed believers return to the small church after age, sickness, or tragedy occurs—they’re seeking pastoral care that they presumed would be available.
The only way for larger churches to provide the bells and pomegranates are communal groups. Yet, the majority of the transfer growth that “exoduses” the small church will not engage life groups. The statistic is true: Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in any form of discipleship activity.
However, I also fear that “transfer growth” Christians, pursuing larger churches, are more likely seeking to slip-in-and-out unnoticed and prefer it that way. Until calamity strikes.
I don’t know of a formidable solution—maybe you have one?
But, here’s what I do know. When a member leaves for a larger church, the small church pastor feels neglected, hurt, and deserted. While they may understand that the person will eventually return for pastoral care—they feel used.
Perhaps those feelings are wrong? Perhaps. But pastors are people, too. They’re not immune to emotions. While the small church pastor struggles to get by on a “pint-sized” income with no benefits, they know in their heart that the deserting member is supporting another pastor.
Serving God is not about money, but there should be family and love.
David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” Barna Group, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of- descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.
What would you say if I told you that about 50% of millennials would answer, “No”?
A recent Barna article validated that “Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.”
So, what’s the deal? How could a believer of the gospel, no matter the age, think sharing the story of God is “wrong”?
Well, I think I know why, and I’d like to help.
The Blame Game
There’s a lot of murmuring about the millennial generation—some say they’re lazy, self-centered, and they’re an entitlement generation (i.e. everyone receives a participation trophy).
Two of my children are millennials. They were part of the entitlement “project.” But I don’t place the blame on them. Honestly, I don’t think blame for anything is productive or problem-solving, unless used for solutions.
If the millennial generation is any of the aforementioned attributes, could it be because they were taught. What I mean is—who handed out those trophies?
Likewise, when I read articles like Barna’s—articles about the Millennials and their faith—their lack of commitment—I ask again—who’s to blame?
Was it the children that dragged themselves to baseball, soccer, and football on Sunday mornings? I think you see where I’m going with this?
I think millennials get blamed for a lot. But I know my own children—they don’t fit that description. They’re hardworking, driven, and committed to their faith.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s our fault because we’ve taught them the wrong story?
The Western Story
The problem with much of Christianity is its draw into the Western story. Christianity has taken on the values and declared allegiance to its foreign neighbors of Western culture.
Greek tradition and philosophy have played a tremendous role throughout Western history. The current Western culture derived from a humanist ideology birthed during the Enlightenment—that human reason and intellect (what we call “science and fact”) are far superior than the Bible, which can only be believed by faith.
Newton employed mathematics in defining physics.Eventually, the Western story developed into man as relatively good, implementing immense reason and intellect to overcome negativity, disease, and poverty. Man becomes capable of creating an eschatological (end times) utopia where everyone and every form of love is accepted (accept God’s story).
Which leads us to one reasonwhy 47% Millennials believe it is wrong to share the gospel.
The Western story stands in great contrast from God’s story. Nevertheless, the Church marriedWestern humanism—refashioning the biblical metanarrative into short stories consisting of reasonings of literary genre, hermeneutical criticism, and theology.
But God’s story cannot be reduced to theology—as the biblical story is a comprehensive story about what it means to be truly human. It’s about being human as God designed, as He places us in the midst of His story that finds “its center in Jesus Christ.”
The hinge of Western culture finds its identity in human reason—Cogito, ergo sum— “I think, therefore I am.”
God’s story is not Western, it is an account of all of cosmic history—of the entirety of creation, nations, peoples and the purposeful design of the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and Judge of the entire universe.
And the hinge of God’s story is the kingdom of God breaking through into God’s world. It is the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ.
If half of the Millennials think that sharing their Christian faith is wrong, it’s because they view Christianity as one ofmany religions—instead of the story.
The comprehensive story of God is not man’s escape from this world, but God’s victory within it. All humans are parts of God’s story, awaiting God’s triumphant return to renew and restore all things as they were designed.
As Newbigin elegantly writes, “Salvation means that man is released from bondage, and that the contradictions of which we have spoken are overcome…It means ‘wholeness.’ It means the healing of that which is wounded, the mending of that which is broken, the setting free of what is bound.”
God’s story—is about cosmic restoration centered in the work of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God broke into this world to renew creation—one person at a time, sharing God’s story, until the King returns.
God’s story is not about the deliverance of man to escape the troubles of this world to enter into a heavenly paradise. God’s story is about what it truly means to be a person.
“The Bible tells a story that isthestory, the story of which all of human nature is a part.”
This means the Bible is not a book about condemnation—but God’s story. The Word of God is not telling the story about anotherreligion or faith, but how God has demonstrated great love and compassion to man.
The Scriptures are not about evangelism, but “an appeal of personal love which seeks not to coerce submission but to evoke love.”
The call of God— “Follow me” (Mk. 1:17) is a personal invitation from the brokenness of this world, to enter into God’s inviting and communal story of freedom, restoration, and Kingship.
“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” Barna.com, Faith & Christianity, Feb. 5, 2019.
Don’t get me wrong, literary genre, hermeneutics, and theology are a good thing, but if we’re too focused on criticisms and not the metanarrative, we miss the point. Michael Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 23.