The journey to church revitalization is a roadmap. It is not a recipe. When you follow a good recipe, you put together the correct amounts of flour, sugar, milk, butter, oil, baking powder and eggs, put it in the oven and “presto!” out comes a cake. Every time, guaranteed. Not so with church revitalization.
When you follow a roadmap, there is considerable variation and change. You change speeds. You may stop and let some people off, and take others on. You break for pedestrians, get gas, perhaps change a tire. You may take one route versus another. Unlike the predictability of recipe-following, there is variety.
On a roadmap, we watch for road signs. We will look at seven signs on the roadmap to revitalization. In each instance, we will illustrate with scripture.
Sign #1 — The Ministry of the Word and Prayer
Revitalization and growth is a spiritual process requiring the ministry of God’s word and prayer. “3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:3-4
What was the result? Growth!
“7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly….”
We need to be a church where the word of God is taught and studied, and where the people of God pray. This needs to include prayer for the unbelieving. Prayer for the unbelieving should take place by name in your leader’s meetings. And the church should have a variety of prayer gatherings and emphases throughout the year.
Sign #2 — Identifying Receptive People
There are receptive people all around us. As Jesus said, 37 …“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38
George Hunter III claims that if you do good demographics, you will find more reachable people groups than your church could ever reach. Evidently, our challenge is to mobilize enough laborers!
Journey Church in Arizona has a Lead pastor with a special needs child. This opened his heart to families with similar needs. The church has prioritized this ministry to great effect. On a recent Sunday when they were baptizing many special needs children, their worship attendance increased by one hundred people. For a church of three hundred, this was huge!
Sign #3 — Reaching Across Your Social Network
Everyone has a social network. We have relatives, co-workers and friends with whom we are in regular contact. In thinking about relational evangelism, it is important to know that members of growing and non-growing churches have the same number of contacts with non-Christians: 8.5. The issue is what we do with the contacts we already have. Are you equipping believers to reach out across their relational network?
We see this relational pattern in the New Testament.
“They broke bread together from house to house and ate together with glad and sincere hearts praising god and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:46
I suggest that sharing meals in this pattern put people in touch with a relational network. It references all people, including those in the process of being saved.
We now have taken a Greek word – “oikos,” household – and made it part of our English lexicon of relational evangelism. This is a good linguistic development in the church. It references the primary way evangelism has always taken place. Michael Green, “Evangelism in the Early Church,” confirms that the (oikos) family understood in this broad way, as consisting of blood relations, slaves, clients and friends, was one of the bastions of Graeco-Roman society. Christian missionaries made a deliberate point of gaining whatever households they could as lighthouses, so to speak, from which the Gospel could illuminate the surrounding darkness. We are, then, quite right in stressing the centrality of the oikos household to Christian advance.
Sign #4 — Starting New Groups as Entry Points
“They broke bread together from house to house and ate together …” – Acts 2:46
New groups create new relational opportunities. The beginning of something puts everyone on a similar footing. While some may not be new to the church, they are new to the group. The opportunity to build relationships in these settings is fundamental to evangelism.
People who are new to the church are the first to join a new class or group. They are looking to meet people and build relationships. Those new groups become important places for the assimilation of these newcomers.
Sign #5 — Serving the Needs of People in the Community
“35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ “ Matt. 25:35-36
Serving the needs of people in the community helps us earn the right to be heard. This would include such well known ministries as Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, and Grief Share. These are small group, relationally-oriented ministries that touch people where they hurt.
More broadly and less personally, mercy ministries like giving free water bottles at a large festival can touch scores of people. If you do this, make sure to attach a business card with your church address and worship times. If they don’t know who you are, its not outreach.
Sign #6 — Indigenizing Ministries to Fit the Culture
“17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.’” Acts 17:17-18, 22
Tim Keller is known to have indigenized ministry in New York City. In the early days of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, he did a Q and A each week following the service. The themes he learned led to his best-selling book, “The Reason for God.” Let us consider one theme, how we present the doctrine of sin.
Keller discovered that speaking of sin as transgression led to barriers and rejection. People would reason, “I am no worse than you. You do bad things too,” and dismiss it. He discovered that speaking of sin as idolatry (also biblical) broke through people’s defenses. Taking a cue from St. Augustine, he spoke of sin as “disordered loves.” He pointed out that we put other things in a place in our lives where only God should be. This was more likely to be disarming and open people’s minds to listen to the gospel.
What are you learning about your local culture?
Sign #7 — Envisioning a Preferable Future
Proverbs 29:18a (KJV): “18 Where there is no vision, the people perish….”
Proverbs 29:18a (ESV): “18 Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint….”
Mission answers the question, “WHAT do all bible-believing churches do in ministry?” Vision answers “HOW does your church do that ministry in your local context?” It is a picture of a preferable future for your church in your context. Here is an example of a vision statement. “Church ABC will touch 100 families with the gospel with special needs and/or single parents in ABC county by the year 2022.”
Vision helps to restrain people, to maintain boundaries for the vision. A comparative look at translations of Proverbs 29:18 shows clearly this is the primary meaning of the text, as we see with the English Standard Version quoted above. Stated differently, having a clear vision helps us to say “no.” The average church can never be all things to all people. They have to say “yes” to a receptive people group in their context. And “no” to others. The vision statement above says yes single parent and special needs families, assuming they are abundant in this community.
Church revitalization is not a simple recipe that is guaranteed. It is a roadmap, however, with signs to be observed. How can your church improve in following these seven signs?