Church revitalization will necessarily involve change. But according to research, in whatever branch of human activity (and the church is no exception), fear of change stems primarily from what is known as “loss aversion”.
This is explained in great detail in the international bestseller written by Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow in which he demonstrates that “losses loom larger than gains”. It is thought that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. People are more willing to fight to avoid a loss than to make a gain. Here is a typical example quoted in the book.
You are offered a gamble on the toss of a coin. If the coin shows tails, you lose $100. If the coin shows heads, you win $150. Would you accept it?
Experimental data shows that nearly everyone would refuse. The fear of losing is more intense than the hope of gaining.
In a church, people are used to doing things in a certain way
In a world where traditional outreach methods seem to be less effective than they used to be, hospitality in the widest sense has become the key to evangelism. A professional survey carried out in France for the CNEF (National Council of French Evangelicals) revealed that 23% of the population would like to talk with a believer over a cup of coffee! And I have noticed that several Christian books have recently been published on this topic. In the church I pastor in Paris, we have just reconfigured part of our church meeting room to create a cosy corner with easy chairs where people can sit and chat.
In the New Testament, there are specific commands to offer hospitality (Romans 12.13, 1 Tim 5.10, Hebrews 13.2, 1 Peter 4.9) and Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 3.12 “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else”. Every Christian can be involved in this. Ordinary Christians, who were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria after the stoning of Stephen, shared the Gospel wherever they went (Acts 8.1-4), and were among the first to bring the Gospel to non-Jews (Acts 11.19-21).
Hospitality may mean going out for a drink in a café or inviting them to your home for coffee or a simple meal, getting to know them, letting them see you (and your family) as you really are, answering their questions (Colossians 4.5, 1 Peter 3.15).
Church revitalisation means bringing about changes. And that means knowing how to conceive, plan, and implement a project. Of course the Biblical teaching on the church is valid for all churches at all times. But this project concerns your church, at a specific time, in a specific context, for a specific culture. It’s not an exact science. However here are some principles which might be helpful.
Sow constructive discontent
Start by getting the leaders on board (or form a steering committee approved by the leaders)
Enhance the project with people’s suggestions, even their criticisms. There’s a reason for the reaction of people who are unwilling to change. Listen to them and take their remarks seriously. They may improve your plan!
Invite someone from the outside to come and speak to the church, either a specialist or someone who has already lived through change.
Discuss with opponents in private.
Make the suggestion: “We’ll try it for 3 months and see how it goes”.
Many books have been written on the topic of change. I would like to recommend Our Iceberg is Melting : changing and succeeding under any conditions (by John Kotter). It’s a very simple parable of how a colony of penguins decide to move away from their iceberg to a safer home despite most of them being reluctant to change at the beginning of the story. Buy several copies (it’s not expensive on Amazon) and lend them out to church members! Even the least strategic thinkers will enjoy reading it, and come to understand the need for change and the several stages which are necessary to bring it about.
It must be a priority as a leader to maintain a healthy spiritual life, but this cannot be reduced to just a few areas in order to get a “quick fix”. Here is a list of areas to consider : why not look at each one and give yourself a rating on a scale of 1 to 10?
Church Revitalisation : one size doesn’t fit all !
A revitalised church is quite simply a healthy church. But churches can lose their health at various stages of their life. This diagram shows four critical moments in the life of a church.
The first one, surprisingly, is when the church is growing, because it is all too easy to get into a routine and not plan for the next stage of growth. This may be because the church is becoming inward looking, or because their ways of reaching out to non-Christians are no longer effective. Without change at that critical moment, the church will probably plateau within a few years.
Thom Rainer in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church suggests some responses for a plateauing church which has “symptoms of sickness”:
Evangelicals Now DECEMBER 2016
REVITALISE YOUR CHURCH
The challenge of falling congregations is a reality for many churches. Phil Walter asks ‘How should we respond?’
Does your church need more strength?
When churches face the situation of lower numbers, the consequences are widespread.
A sense of failure – even guilt – amongst the leadership can be crippling. A falling congregation often means less impact on a community, fewer visitors to Sunday services, fewer workers available and, of course, the fear of closure unless something can be done to reverse the trend.
What is faithfulness?
For churches that are small and struggling the effect is multiplied. Often what follows is a siege mentality: ‘Let’s guard what we have and survive for as long as we can’. Churches focus on being ‘faithful’, in the context of continuing to do what they have always done. Being ‘faithful’ may look different for each church.
The importance of leadership in revitalisation
Leadership in any organisation is important if forward movement and growth is to be achieved. In churches it is equally important to follow the example of Jesus who trained his disciples well and then equipped them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The area of church revitalization is no different. So what is needed in the European context today in our churches? Well it is easy to say – “good strong spiritual leaders” but in practice that is not as easy to accomplish. Let me suggest three things that you could consider.
Firstly, recognise there is a problem and agree amongst the leaders what must be done. Are the “values” shared amongst the leaders? Is one man holding back the rest of you?
by John James
What a gem of a book! John is the first pastor of what was Helier Church, Birmingham UK, that had fallen on hard times and was in danger of closing. It tried to serve a deprived housing estate but the members were elderly and lacked both energy and resources to turn it around.
Whilst church planting is considered ‘cool’, seeking to revitalise a declining congregation might seem a lost cause. But not to John. And not to John’s God. Here is a very warm, honest and humble account of the church’s journey.
John writes in a very readable style as he recounts the churches experience over the past five years. He does not shun exposing his own doubts and shortcomings but through it all his love for God and his people shine forth. His constant refrain is ‘people not programmes’, church revitalisation is God’s work and only in his strength will it succeed.
The work is long-term, low key and hard and he was without any real encouragements during the first year. He invested in relationships and helpfully describes evangelism as just talking to people about Jesus.
John reminds us that there is also an enemy at work. Taking a stand against Satan means solid, tenacious perseverance is the order of the day, a daily ‘plod for God’.
John includes five other encouraging examples of church revitalisation. The book is thoroughly recommended to all Christians but especially to those leaders of declining congregations. There’s hope in these pages! (Phil Walter)
In Acts 2 v 42-47 we catch a glimpse of what the health of the early church looked like. Too soon was such health under pressure as the church grew, prompting Paul to write to the churches, sometimes with harsh words as they allowed tradition to impact the church in a negative way. So what does a healthy church look like in the 21st C? Is it a matter of size, make-up of the church or location? Is it about age range?
Is it dependent on style of worship or the version of the Bible you use or even whether you have a full-time pastor? Whilst all of these may be significant they do not make a healthy church.