Church Leadership

Revitalizing Churches: Preparing For Your Church’s Funeral?

May 14, 2015

In the past few months, one topic has repeatedly come to my mind: the very real need to revitalize established churches.

Just last month, I was at a church planting even in Tampa (Exponential) and learned many great things regarding church planting and reasons to get excited about it. However, a Pew Research Article released this week factually brought out a feeling I had after leaving the conference. They found that the number of people dropping out of church, and churches that are closing their doors in general, far exceeds the number of church plants beginning each year. Churches as a whole in North America are slowly dying, while those who claim no religion are on the rise.


Thom Rainer, church researcher and consultant, describes the state of the church in North America the following way:

“Eight out of ten of the approximately 400,000 churches in the United States are declining or have plateaued.”.

While church planting is important, revitalizing established churches is the other side of the coin for addressing the crisis Christianity faces.

Aubrey Malphurs, a respected author on Christian leadership and ministry, says the following about the relationship between church planting and church revitalization:

“Re-envisioning or revitalization in so essential to our structure because successful church plants are nurtured by a strong, vital, supporting established church. The demise of established churches means there are fewer strong churches to nurture church plants, making planted churches less viable. We must place as much emphasis on re-envisioning our churches as we do on planting new ones if we are to have any hope for the future of the church in America.

So why are so many churches not growing, and even dying, in North America? Carey Nieuwhof, a blogger about change and leadership, had the following to say in a recent blog post:

5 Reasons Churches Stop Growing

1. You are more in love with the method than you are with the mission.

  • Your church’s passion for the past or present is more compelling than your vision for the future.
  • You’re afraid to risk what is for the sake of what could be.

2. Your structure is designed to keep you small.

  • The clergy-based model is designed to keep a church under 200 attenders.
  • If you want the impact of a supermarket, you can’t run things like a mom and pop store.
  • Church governance is often more of a hindrance than a help to growth.

3. You don’t understand the people you’re trying to reach.

  • 48% of millennials are classified as post-Christian.
  • The typical family has changed significantly.
  • Culture is undergoing a massive shift.

4. You’ve bet too much on being cool.

  • What you define as contemporary may not be contemporary.
  • Authentic is more powerful than cool.

5. You’re really not willing to change.

  • The gap between what you say and what you actually do is too large.
  • You are unwilling to plot trajectory.
  • You’re afraid (and the team hasn’t realized you can’t follow fear).

It’s similar to what Roger Hernandez shared the other day about his experience as an administrator within Adventism:

What I hear some churches saying is: We want innovation as long as its exactly the same way we have always done it.

As I think about it, I’ve really become convinced of the following truism:

The major reason so many churches have plateaued or are in decline is that they’ve either lost their original vision or adopted the wrong vision instead.

Malphurs also shared this sobering description of what happens in many churches today:

“A great number of churches are characterized by an inward, self- serving focus, territorialism, bullies, power brokers, passivity, disillusionment, lack of a clearly defined purpose and vision, all accompanied by division and conflict. The result of such attitudes and actions is a mass of churches that are plateaued or declining in membership, attendance, and vitality. Many have become havens for the disgruntled and fortresses against the Great Commission. these ‘country clubs; have become the antithesis of everything the gospel represents.” (emphasis added)

In the middle of all this is usually a local pastor who’s trying to do what he or she feels God has called them to do. This, in many cases, leads to pastoral burnout, short tenures in churches, and repeated cycles of dysfunctional behavior. What is a pastor to do in these cases?

Many times, the typical response for many struggling pastors who are leading plateaued or dying churches is to attend a conference sponsored by a large church or successful pastor (I’ve been guilty of this many times). These struggling, often discouraged pastors are searching for a model they can mimic and hope that its application to their current church in its current condition will turn their church around.

This rarely works because mimicking a model doesn’t produce churches that are authentic to who they are nor what God has called them to be or minister to.

Instead of trying to copy some successful super church, a struggling church needs to pursue a process that results in a contextualized model that’s not only authentic, but unique to the church and its culture. This process consists of three stages for church redevelopment:

1, The Preparation

2. The Process

3. The Practice

I am currently beginning this process with one of my churches. In the next three weeks, I’m going to share with you a plan of action that I’ve compiled from different sources using the above stages found in the book Re:Vision – The Key to Transforming Your Church by Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon E. Penfold.

I’m sharing this both as a tool to you and my church as I get ready to launch in the next several weeks. Hopefully, this resource will start a revolution in your context as well. Feel free to subscribe to get the three parts as they come out.

Have any thoughts? Leave them below!