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.
But what is ‘faithful’? To answer that question we need to see how God describes faithfulness in his Word and continually place ourselves alongside it.
For believers, being faithful is multifaceted. It affects our lifestyle, our witness, our prayer life, our quiet times and our study of God’s Word, in fact our whole beings! (Colossians 3.12-14)
For churches seeking to be faithful it is equally multi-faceted; not just being faithful in the sound preaching of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1.22-25), but also in the very things that individuals must be faithful in. So perhaps the better question to ask is simply ‘how healthy is our church?’ Is it exercising? Is it eating properly? Is it (in a spiritual sense) socially aware?
The early church in the book of Acts must surely be the mirror we use to assess a church’s health and therefore its faithfulness. They were devoted to the Word, to fellowship, to prayer and to the breaking of bread, affecting their community with the gospel, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people (Acts 2.42-47). That’s true faithfulness.
But the reality is that many of our churches are small and struggling. So what can we do? Is the battle lost? Are we facing years of seeing smaller churches close and their buildings being lost; the gospel witness snuffed out in communities that need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ?
Simply put, revitalisation is restoring ‘healthy church’ and it’s a challenge under God that is worth exploring.
There are many reasons why churches decline and even face the prospect of closure. Generally it has been a slow process. Members can remember when the church was a vibrant witness in their community, when folk were saved and the baptistery was opened regularly. But those days are a fading memory for many churches as the reality of the here and now presses in.
What’s going on?
Why are so many churches reaching such a low ebb? What do we blame? The times we live in? Our culture being so different from 50 years back? The fact that our communities are not as straightforward as they used to be? Of course all these things are relevant as we seek to reach our communities with the gospel, but we should not see such things as insurmountable under God.
It’s interesting to see the amazing spread of the gospel in the book of Acts, but also to see from Paul’s letters that the churches he wrote to were not always healthy and faithful (e.g. Galatians 3.1-5, 1 Corinthians 1.10-17, Philippians 4.2-3).
In fact Jesus himself in the book of Revelation urges those who have ‘lost their first love’ (Revelation 2.4); are ‘lukewarm’ (Revelation 3.15); have allowed ‘false teaching’ (Revelation 2.15); or have a ‘reputation of being alive but are dead’ (Revelation 3.1), to repent and return to him and strengthen what remains (Revelation 3.2). Church revitalisation, then, is nothing new.
A wider view
I’m also reminded that Paul always thanked God for the churches, as well as encouraging them to press on (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2.13-17, Philippians 1.3-6, Colossians 1.3-8). So we should follow his example and pray for those in struggling churches. I am struck forcibly in my travels that God blesses some churches with a bigger gospel vision that thinks about more than just ‘our church’ and has a wider view of growing gospel-driven churches.
What’s a struggling church to do?
There are a number of things that can be done, but it starts with a recognition that there is a problem. Counselling is only helpful if someone is willing to be helped. In the same way, until a church sees before God its fallen state it cannot become healthy. Some years ago my mother-in-law died of breast cancer because she wouldn’t seek help until it was too late. And for many churches it may be too late.
But for others, God can work wonderfully through revitalisation. Here are some ideas:
• Recognise that the church needs help to restore health, just as an illness will prompt you to seek medical advice.
• Call the church to pray regularly. Having recognised the need to do something that has perhaps been neglected, make sure that prayer has its focus on the church and the community. This is part of being faithful.
• Ask for help! This is more than just a plea for speakers, or for an injection of people from a style="margin-bottom: 0cm; line-height: 150%;"><span lang="en-US" larger church, it is initially for someone to help you see what the problems are.
• Be prepared to change and take the tough decisions. Often this starts with the leadership who are not able to lead the church into health.
• Explore larger healthy churches to consider a graft that includes a new leadership structure. A church in Birmingham who were brave enough to change in this way now have a thriving congregation, reaching out to their community with the gospel.
• Be prepared to die well if that’s the best option. In other words don’t wait to die but be proactive in using what you have to help gospel work either locally or further afield.
The large supporting the small
If you are reading this from a larger, healthy church, shouldn’t there be a culture of gospel-heartedness?
The reality is often that the smaller, struggling church sees the larger church as having no interest in them apart from the sending of speakers. While not decrying this level of help, the smaller church’s idea of what help looks like can be very different to the larger church.
Often the larger church has itself battled with the changing culture, has learned a great deal in the process and wants to assist revitalisation through a ‘hands-on’ approach. But the reverse of the coin is that the larger church may just see the smaller church as insignificant and pass it by with little thought. In fact, revitalisation projects work best with a larger church’s involvement.
Think about the role of leaders in the struggling church. They will have to make tough decisions that may include stepping down themselves. This course of action should not be underestimated, as it may save the church, allowing other leaders with a big vision to step in. However, for the leader who has led faithfully for many years, this requires grace, courage and humility.
We need to remember that Jesus loves his church whatever its size and state of health (John 17.20-26, Ephesians 5.25). His desire is that his church should be reaching out into the communities around them with the good news of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28.16-20). Many struggling churches have buildings, manses or assets that can be used to accomplish the Great Commission, if only his people will have the grace to work together for the sake of the gospel.
Is being ‘faithful’ enough? The answer is simply yes, but only when Scripture’s view of being faithful is understood. Sometimes we need the courage to ask a tough question: what do we really mean when we say we’re being faithful?
Phil Walter is Church Revitalisation Coordinator for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), helping churches to think through their gospel vision.