By Dr. Glenn C. Daman
Before we arrived, the church had dwindled down to a handful of people. Although the church had been in existence over 100 years, they were faced with the possibility of closure. They no longer had the people or the funds to run any programs and it was doubtful if they could obtain any pastor who would be willing to come. Through a series of events we were asked to become their pastor along with the church we already served. After we arrived in the church, a new excitement captured the people. The fact that we were willing to come brought renewed hope to a downcast congregation. They began inviting their neighbors to attend. People who had previously left the church came back to see what was new. It wasn't long until the attendance moved from twenty to thirty and then passed forty. The budget that was once a struggle to maintain became healthy. People were enthused about what the church was doing and new people were attracted to the church.
Congregational Renewal: A Matter of the Heart
Ministry renewal involves more than getting an increasing number of people to attend a declining congregation. It involves spiritual renewal. Renewal comes when people become passionate about God's word, when they are burdened for those who are spiritual lost, when they manifests mutual love and care, when they wholeheartedly commit themselves to be obedient to Christ and his commands. When the leadership merely takes an organizational approach to renewal it may gain short-term success but lasting results that bring long-term health to the congregation require inward transformation as well as outward organization. While organizational restructuring is important and beneficial, the final determination of the church's future is the sovereign plan of God. Neither the congregation nor leadership resurrects the dying church. That remains the responsibility of God. The task of the leadership is to carefully seek the direction and will of God, making sure they are fulfilling God's purpose for the church. Congregational renewal is not a matter of numbers and rolls; it is a matter of the heart. It is not an event, but an inward process conducted by the Holy Spirit within the life of each individual involved in the ministry of the church. The task of leadership is to develop an environment where the heart may be transformed.
Congregational Renewal: Developing a Transforming Environment
While the renewing process ultimately stems from the work of the Holy Spirit within the community, he does use the leadership and congregation to develop right setting. In accomplishing this task, there are ten steps the church can follow to help create the atmosphere for congregational renewal.
Step One: Refocus upon the nature and activity of God. Revitalization begins when people understand the nature and activity of God. When Nehemiah set about the task of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, his confidence came from the promise and activity of God. It was because God was at work that he could face the insurmountable odds. He was not only convinced of this, but whenever he addressed the people, he carefully reminded them that God was the one working through them, giving success to their task (2:20; 4:9, 14, 20, etc.). As people set about the process of renewal, they need to be reminded of God's inexhaustible empowerment. They need to be able to view the ministry as God's work through them rather than their work for God. God does not need us to accomplish his ministry, but he does desire to use us. When this becomes their perspective, people will have lasting enthusiasm for ministry.
Step Two: Focus upon prayer. Since the foundation of revitalizing a church is spiritual rather than organizational, prayer becomes the cornerstone for action. The desire of God for every church is that it will become a house of prayer (Isaiah 56:7), for prayer remains the means through which God accomplishes his purpose. The prayer of the church encompasses the need for inward righteousness and holiness within the congregation, the desire to clearly understand God's will and purpose, and willingness to minister to the needs of people within the community. Building the prayer base of the church can involve twenty-four hours of prayer, prayer walks where people go through the community praying for each house, special prayer services, and spending more time in prayer each time the church gathers together. The importance of prayer to the revitalization process can never be overstated.
Step Three: Strengthen the fellowship of the church. The strength of the small church is the fellowship and mutual care evident within the congregation. When a church declines, tensions and frustrations arise which can fracture relationships within the church. Consequently, it is often necessary first to build unity within the congregation before attempting to reach the community. People are attracted to the small church because of the fellowship that exists within the body of Christ. If the fellowship become strained then it will become difficult to attract new people. A second reason the fellowship of the congregation must be strong before attempting to renew the ministry has to do with change. A declining church must change for the simple reason that what it has been doing in the past has not been effective. If the church is to be revitalized it must do things differently. Previously ineffective ministry must either be altered or dropped altogether. All this requires change. Critical before change can be effectively made is for trust to be built up within the congregation and between the people affected by the change and those seeking to implement the change. Trust hinges upon the strength of the relationships existing between people. If there is conflict and tension, suspicion replaces trust. Consequently before the leadership can suggest and implement change it must first focus upon the cohesion within the group.
Step Four: Identify and correct any cause of decline. When a specific reason is identified for the decline and if that reason is within the control of the congregation, then steps should be taken to correct the problems. Some of the causes of the decline reside outside the control of the church (i.e. declining population within the community). The church needs to develop creative strategies to work within these limitations. Others the church can address (i.e. loss of evangelistic vision, conflicts within the church). If a church attempts to bring renewal without addressing these issues, then the future success will be thwarted by the past mistakes of the congregation. Perhaps the most critical is sinful behavior that hinders the effectiveness and growth of the congregation. The story of Achan in Joshua 7 illustrates that the actions of one can have an adverse affect upon the whole community. When this happens, the whole community must address the issue (see Matthew 18:15-17).
Step Five: Involve the laity in the process to gain ownership. The small church is a lay run ministry where the people retain the power and authority for operating the church. In constrast to the larger church where the decision making process is top down, in the smaller church the congregation demands the right to be involved in the decisions that are made. Consequently, it is crucial for renewal for the congregation to be involved in the whole process. Without their involvement they will not gain ownership to the renewal, and without ownership there will not be any commitment or willingness to sacrifice their time and resources to bring about renewal. Central to involvement remains clear communication. Communication is more than sharing what is being done and what needs to be done. It involves constant listening. To gain the trust and commitment of the people, the leadership needs to carefully listen to what the people are thinking. It involves gaining their ideas and input from the very beginning of the renewal process, not only on what they would like to see happen, but what would be the best method to achieve it. When people feel that they have been heard and their contribution valued, they will develop trust for the leadership and a strong sense of identity with the ministry. When that happens then they will devote their time and energy to the task.
Step Six: Develop a clear vision for the church. Long before the church actually dies, the vision for what God can do through the church dies. Churches do not close their doors because of a lack of finances or people, but because they no longer see what God desires to accomplish through them. Vision is the awareness of the distinct and divinely ordained present and future ministry of the church based upon its sociological, theological and cultural setting that enables the congregation to accomplish their Biblical purpose and mission. The vision that the church develops must be based upon the needs and ministry opportunities within the community. Dying churches can easily become inward focused. In order to maintain the core ministries of the church (Sunday School, Worship service, etc), as resources decline, often the first ministries dropped are those directed towards the community. Instead of preventing further decline it contributes to the erosion of the ministry. When renewing the ministry of a dying church the congregation must develop a church-planting mentality rather than a survivalist mentality. Church planters are willing to risk the present to build the future while survivalists risk the future to maintain the present. Survivalists try to resurrect the past; church planters try to build toward the future by ministering to the needs of the people within the community. Survivalists appropriate all their finances to maintaining the present structure (paying the preacher, buying the Sunday School program, etc.). Church planters budget for ministries that reach into the community.
Step Seven: Reorganize to adapt a simplified organizational structure. When a church has declined from a larger church to a smaller congregation it can mistakenly maintain the past organizational structure. This hinders the ministry as people spend their time keeping the structure running, rather than spending time reaching their neighbors and ministering to people in the community. One of the ways to assist people is to simplify the organizational structure so that they spend less time running the church and more time being with people. This may require restructuring committees and ministry teams. It may involve dropping programs that no longer attract new people. It might entail combining programs (such as combining the High School and Junior High groups together).
Step Eight: Establish short-term and medium range goals. Achieving goal gives people a sense of accomplishment and purpose. When establishing goals it is important to plan and celebrate small victories (such as painting the church sanctuary). When tangible goals are achieved people have a greater sense of God's blessing upon their life and ministry. The congregation gains a sense of the future. People without hope are people who stop making goals. Because of the decline within the church, people sense only the frustration of failure. Setting and accomplishing easily attained short-term goals gives people a feeling of success, that there is a future for the congregation. As these goals are attained, the congregation develops greater confidence to set more challenging and long-term goals. Goals are necessary for the implementation of the vision set by the church. They define what the church needs to do and how it will go about accomplishing it. Goals enable people to measure their efforts and organize their efforts into a coherent plan.
Step Nine: Develop a strategy for becoming visible within the community. People in the community need to be aware of what the church is doing differently and the new ministries being planned. When we set about revitalizing our church, we sent letters into the whole community to let people know that we were beginning a whole new work. Because of the 100-year history of the church in the community, most people know of our existence, what they did not know was the new programs we were starting. Consequently we sent letters to everyone inviting them to come and see our new beginning. We planned special services in the local community events, we invited people to special events, and we allowed other groups such as the garden club to use our building. In this way the people in the community were able to gain a fresh look at our church and see what was going on.
Step Ten: Celebrate the past. For many people who have labored in a church for a number of years, having ties to the church that span generations, the idea of change can be frightening. For them, change is not just a departure from the previous methodology; it is a break from the past generations that built the church. Change alters the symbols that define the church. Many of these symbols are representatives of past family members. To alter the symbols is to break a relational tie to the previous members. To overcome this fear, the leadership needs to carefully build upon the past and celebrate the past contributions that people have made. Recognizing the past contributions of people can give assurance that the church is not breaking from the past but building upon it, that they are not rejecting what others have done, but continuing the long history of the church. Recognizing what others have done in the past enables new people to learn the story of the church and identify with that story so that new people are united with the older members in a common history. It enables the new people to value the contributions of others.