Was Sisyphus the first pastor to attempt church revitalization?

The Greek gods punished Sisyphus, king of Corinth, for his arrogant, deceitful ways. His eternal punishment was to push an immense boulder up a hill. Just as he was about to crest the hill, the boulder rolled back to the bottom. Thus, arduous and futile tasks are described as Sisyphean.

That’s what it feels like to revitalize a plateaued or declining church.

You chip away at congregational indifference to the plight of the non-believer. You push against complacency and the willingness to settle for less than God’s best. You groan against the inertia of calcified programs and priorities that no longer serve the mission. Eventually, you exhaust yourself trying to roll the church off the status quo into vigorous, life-giving ministry.

When that happens, you’re probably pushing on the wrong boulder. You’re trying to change the church culture by pushing against behaviors.

You’ll probably have better luck pushing elsewhere. It’ll still take maximum effort, but if you focus that energy on the other components of church culture, you’re more likely to get over the top of the hill and start rolling toward successful revitalization.

We find that when leaders understand the three components of church culture and push in the right places their success rate improves—dramatically. Those components are core beliefs, core values, and core behaviors. Let’s unpack each briefly.

1. Core beliefs

Core beliefs are those convictions you hold to be true. They are the framework for your worldview and the biblical foundation of your value system. They are crucial to your identity and the lens through which you perceive and understand yourself in the world.

  • Core beliefs are truth claims you are convinced are accurate.
  • Core beliefs define who you are.
  • If one of your core beliefs were not true, were changed, or were removed, your worldview and identity would be profoundly affected.

For example, a core belief shared by Christians is that God loves all people, regardless of who they are and whether they believe or not.

2. Core values

Core values are the guide that helps us decide how we will act and react to life’s daily challenges. They emanate from the center of who we are and what is most important to us. When we don’t live out our core values, we feel a nagging within about something we should not have allowed to happen or an injustice that we participated.

  • Values are the things we cherish, respect, and honor in word and deed.
  • Values are the basic principles by which we live.
  • Values are those things on which we spend our lives.
  • Values are those things for which we are prepared to die.

The value that corresponds with the aforementioned core belief might be, “All people are worthy of our love and respect because God loves them.”

3. Core behaviors

Core behaviors express our core values in daily living. A value that does not show up in our daily choices and actions is not an actual value; it is an aspirational value. Pushing against behaviors is misguided because the underlying values are left untouched.

For example, if a person says that soul winning is an important value, we can see whether that is the case for them or not. If they rarely (if ever) engage in personal evangelism, never pray for non-believers, and don’t engage in the church’s outreach activities, we’re left with a legitimate question: Is soul winning really a value to that person?

Push values, not behaviors

Churches can’t be revitalized if the people don’t start doing things differently. Their behaviors must change lest they remain stuck on that plateau or trapped in that death spiral.

But the pastor can’t apply pressure directly to the behaviors. Setting new expectations, ginning up programs, preaching and teaching about how people should behave is, at best, a “quick fix” in most cases. This approach leads to externally motivated behaviors, which are transitory. Once the pressure is relieved, people revert to their previous behaviors. I’ve seen this time and again in my work as an intentional interim pastor of troubled churches.

Let go of your desire for the quick fix. Instead, do the harder work of nurturing change in the underlying value system which the behaviors merely express.

Since behaviors flow from values and values from beliefs, your primary task is to speak to the church’s belief system and the values those beliefs produce.

In preaching, this is the homiletic move from the “then and there” (what the Bible teaches) to the “here and now” (what those truths imply about who we are and who we should become). It is the application of biblical truth to the lives of people trying to get through the 21st century unscathed.