Church Leadership

Revitalizing Churches: How to Prepare for the Turnaround

May 31, 2015

Let’s say you find yourself in a situation where you are the pastor of one of the 80% of churches in North America that is plateaued or declining. How are you supposed to make changes toward revitalization? The simple rule here is that you’re going to need time to prepare by gathering facts and figures, interviewing people, analyzing systems, etc. The two major areas of preparation are the following:

  1. You have to prepare yourself.

A large part of the success of a church revitalization effort lies with the pastor. You can either be the catalyst that God uses to turn the church around or become a maintainer of the status quo. A sad reality is that many pastors are no longer fishers of men; they’ve become satisfied with being relegated to the keepers of aquariums. This doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit. However, understand that:

It’s not going to be a quick fix: I used to look for the latest model or method that I thought would be the “silver bullet” to change my church around. I realized that I was really pulling the cart before the horse. In reality, this is something that can’t be done by sprinkling a few seminars here and there or by adding a discipleship class during the week. You are going to have to address dysfunctional patterns of behavior that have gone unchecked for years, cultural values that have taken the place of kingdom values, and a lethargic spirit that may have unintentionally become a part of the culture of the congregation.

Many church revitalization authors say that you will need to plan for a timeframe of 2-5 years before you start seeing any tangible change. I don’t place any limits on what the Holy Spirit can do, yet the point is, don’t look for shortcuts. There are none.

It’s going to get you criticism: Most pastors, myself included, have an intrinsic desire to keep people happy.  We’re people-pleasers.  We don’t want people to be upset because we can sometimes see it as a barometer of our effectiveness in ministry. In some conferences, the unspoken policy could be that as long as no one complains about you, you won’t be moved. However, this doesn’t mean that the church is getting any healthier because they don’t complain.

Tom Rainer, in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, says, “Members of dying churches really don’t want growth unless that growth meets their preferences and allows them to remain comfortable.” (44) This means that if you are seriously moving in a direction of growth, you will probably upset the apple cart.

Once you realize and accept the fact that some decisions are going to come at a price, you can move forward. In some cases, it will mean that the price will be people sending emails and making phone calls about you behind your back. In some cases, it’s going to mean that some people will leave your church and call you a bad pastor. If you’re willing to take the hits in order to move the church from a mentality of maintenance to a mentality of mission, you’re ready to go. If you are not willing to take the hits, you are the keeper of the aquarium and your church will eventually die. Just make sure to be the last one to turn the lights off.

It’s going to require a support system: When I was in Seminary at Andrews, I learned from George Barna’s book Turnaround Churches that the average pastor will only be able to turn around one or two churches in the course of his or her entire ministerial career. However, Aubrey Malphurs challenges this assumption in his book Re:Vision – The Key to Transforming Your Church and says that a pastor can turn around multiple churches during his or her career, but a big factor depends on your support system.

When talking about a support system, they primarily refer to colleagues you can debrief with and mentors that can guide or coach you. Their study found that an overwhelming amount of pastors who were leading turnaround churches currently had a coach or a mentor who was helping them get better at their craft by a rate of 62% to 14%. More than just good family support, you need friends, peers, and mentors that can walk alongside you in this process and help you smile when things get tough.

  1. You have to prepare your church.

The preparation isn’t relegated to you as the pastor. Another big component of turning a church around depends on the willingness of the congregation. Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the discomfort involved in changing, people will rarely willingly act. This is true when it comes to beginning an exercise program, breaking a bad habit, or revitalizing a church. How can you actually do this?

Create a white-hot urgency of mission: Do this through conversations both public and private. Facts are good to highlight here and an analysis of the church could be useful. Look at various factors like worship attendance; is worship attendance growing, plateaued, or declining? You can also ask your treasurer about stewardship patterns in the church; is giving growing, plateaued, or declining? When was the last time your church had baptisms? Get as many numbers as possible to paint a picture of where you’re at.

Use this information to vividly highlight the disparity between the reality of what is and what the church should (and could) be living up to. Again, the purpose of creating urgency is to make the status quo unacceptable.  Communicate this fact consistently.

Gain support: Every church will have a locus of power. In many churches it is the pastor; in many others, it is the board, a patriarch or matriarch, or even a prominent family. Regardless of who it is, if they are not supportive of the process, it will not happen.

A very important detail in this area of support is building the trust of the people you are trying to lead. Think about this point using the analogy of a bank. You open up an account at Your Church First Bank the moment you begin to work there as their pastor. In this relationship, you are constantly depositing goodwill and trust by your interactions with the church and its members. When you are asking the church to do something different, you are withdrawing funds from that account based on the trust that they have in you to follow through on your promises.

If that account isn’t doing well, the check you’re writing will bounce out the door (and maybe take you along with it). This is why I believe that no young pastor should begin making any major change in the church until preferably one year. If you really are pressed, another option could be to prepare for 6 months and then start the process that I’ll look at in the next post, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t really know your church and its patterns.

You can’t lead people if they don’t trust you. So use every means possible to connect with the congregation. This would include announcements, bulletin boards, and progress reports posted on the church’s website, Facebook page, as well as Twitter (assuming your church has these things).

Draft a strategic leadership team: This group should be comprised of both idealists and pragmatists, but they must be passionate and vocal. If they are the type of people who stay quiet and go along with what everyone else does, this is not an area where they will be helpful. In some cases this group could be your church board along with a few key people that the pastor believes that could aid the conversation. I have no set number for how many people to include, but I wouldn’t put the whole world in this group. A good number to aim for could be around 12 people.

Prepare spiritually: You and your church need to be aware that what is going to have to happen to turn your church around is nothing short of a miracle.

You must tune your church into the larger spiritual reality that without the Spirit’s leading, this effort will be fruitless. Spiritual preparation can include practices like the confession of sin, righting wrongs, addressing gossip, seeking and offering forgiveness, dealing with anger, addressing grievances, and other similar practices.

Have a communion service, agape feast, special seasons of prayer, etc. The point is that you need to tap into the source of wisdom if you hope to lead any sort of lasting change.  The importance of spiritual preparation cannot be underscored enough.  Unless key leaders seek to undergo this spiritual preparation, everything else will be fruitless.

Once the groundwork is set, you can begin the process of revitalization that we will discuss in the next post. Have any thoughts so far? Leave them below!