When is a Church Revitalized?

An Attempt to Clarify Terms

Christians not only want to please God in their service to the church but to know that they are pleasing God. The same is true in "church revitalization." Leaders need to clearly know if they have reached the goal of revitalization. So, what is the difference between a church growing healthier and a church being revitalized? Isn't that the same thing?  

The term "church revitalization" was not used much 10 years ago. Thom Rainer, who has been blogging on this issue since May 2009, first used this term on June 2013. Today, many use this term while the definition remains unclear. If we're not sure what revitalization is, how will we know if we are still revitalizing? The fuzziness frustrates leaders who feel like their shooting arrows over a wall hoping to hit a moving target.

After almost 5 years at Bethany Baptist Church, I declared that our church revitalization was completed. How could I make such an audacious claim? Is there no more discipling work to do? While reflecting on and praying for revitalization I had a clear goal in mind that I trust faithfully expresses biblical teaching. To clarify when revitalization is completed we must answer these three questions: What is a church? What churches need revitalization? What is church revitalization?

What is a church?

A church is not a building. It's not a Sunday service. It's not a corporation. It's a people. But what distinguishes this group of people from other groups of Christians? It's not bible study or prayer or even a regular gathering. Campus ministries and denominations check those boxes. A church is not merely a group with the same leadership or the same name of the organization, or even a group sharing a singular budget.

So then, what is a church? A local church is an assembled group of public Christians exercising both collective and personal responsibility for one another's profession and practice of discipleship, in order to disciple their neighbors and the nations (Matthew 16:13-19, 18:15-20, 26:26-29, 28:18-20). The key distinctives are "public" Christians who are "collectively" responsible. Public means they have been baptized (Matt 28:19) and are publicly affirmed as Christians by the local church (Matt 16:15-19, 18:18). Secondly, "collective responsibility" includes church discipline to the degree of excommunication (Matt 18:15-19) and implicitly discerning whom "the body" is that receives the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 10:16-17, 11.29).

What churches need revitalization?

To define revitalization we need to know which churches actually need revitalization. Since no church is sinless, they will always need reform and sanctification. But what subset of all churches need revitalization? Brian Croft answers identifies them as “established and struggling churches in need of a change of direction.” Andy Davis defines it as "a church with a recent decline toward spiritual disease and death" (Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping your Church Come Alive Again, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2017], 30). Some use concrete statistical metrics, like Ed Stetzer or a recent Lifeway survey, defining a struggling, diseased, or dying church as declining numerically in the past few years. Thom Rainer uses a number of insightful sociological characteristics.

While these may be helpful descriptions or metrics for gaining insight into dying churches needing revitalization, I suggest we profile a dying church according to the definition of a local church and ways the Bible describes a church's dying. From the definition of the local church given above we may ask: Is the collective discipleship responsibility of the church dying? Is personal Christian discipleship dying? How is the spiritual health of those who make up the collective?

Both Paul and John help us profile a dying church. In using Revelation 2-3 we may characterize dying churches as abandoning their first love (2:4), tolerating theologically and morally compromising members or teachers (2:14-15, 20-23), resting on a good reputation while incomplete in their works (3:1-2), or being self-reliant and lukewarm (3:15-17).

The people, as a church, were spiritually dying. Paul tells Timothy that there are opponents in the church whom the devil "captivated" "to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:25-26). Those in the church captivated by the devil and opposing the Lord's servants are often unaware of their captivity. They damage the church unintentionally leading to devastating external and internal sin.

Let me attempt to define a dying church based on the local church's definition and some biblical description. A dying church is a church where the collective and personal discipleship (the church culture), often including the church structure, is functionally driven by people captivated by the devil to neutralize the church (2 Tim 2:26).

Church revitalization reverses the devil-designed church culture and structure. The reform is driven by members captivated by a culture and structure of faithful personal and collective Christian discipleship. A church is revitalized when the grace of God has used the people of God to speak Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God to the point of effectively restoring or establishing a healthy church culture, structure, and direction for collective discipleship.[1]

Whereas a dying church is a church where the collective and personal discipleship (the church culture and oftentimes the structure as well) is functionally driven by people captivated by the devil to neutralize the church (2 Tim 2:26), we must ask, “What marks a healthy church culture and structure that no longer needs revitalization?” To answer this I synthesize the Bible's teaching of a healthy church into two headings, a church that is both Christ-centered and Christ-shaped.

A dying church is a church where the collective and personal discipleship (the church culture), often including the church structure, is functionally driven by people captivated by the devil to neutralize the church (2 Tim 2:26).

A CHRIST-SHAPED CHURCH

The shape of the church is what you see, the structure and skin, like looking at another person and seeing their frame and skin. Christ Jesus sets the shape of the church as it is regulated by and connected to him according to Scripture. The shape of the local church is her membership, discipline, and leadership. Healthy churches know who is mutually responsible for each others' discipleship. So they have a clean membership roll of people actively following Jesus. This implies that the church faithfully practices discipline by excommunicating unrepentant professors of faith in Jesus (Matthew 18:15-19, 1 Corinthians 5). Another biblical structure is the leadership, a plurality of pastor-elder-overseers submitting to Jesus and shepherding under his headship.

A CHRIST-CENTERED CHURCH

The heart of the church pumping the blood is not what you can see externally, but what gives and sustains life to the body. Christ pumps life into his church. He pumps his Word into the church by the Spirit's power effectively strengthening life in the church. Christ-centeredness in the church's interior means a healthy culture and pattern of collective discipleship expressed in: expository preaching, corporate prayer, biblical truth and gospel clarity, true conversion and spiritual growth seen in initial and continual repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, regular speaking and applying of Christ to one another and others (Eph 4:15, Col 1:28-29), and discipling one another and others (Matt 28:19, 2 Tim 2:2), both locally and globally (evangelism and missions, Acts 1:8).

When a church is Christ-centered in the congregational patterns and Christ-shaped in their membership, discipline, and leadership, then the church currently has a healthy culture, structure, and direction for their discipling commission.[2] When (1) the culture of the church is most functionally influenced (discipled) by godly pastors in the church and (2) the structure enhances and perpetuates that faithful influence (discipleship) then the church has been "revitalized." The church will continue to need reform and ongoing discipleship and gospelizing, but it is neither "dying" nor "unhealthy," even if its growth is being outpaced by the community's population growth.

Revitalized: The story of Bethany Baptist Church

Bethany Baptist Church was on the verge of a split in the Fall of 2014 if they didn't confirm the next pastor who was to be put forward for a vote. And it was those members, less captivated by the devil, who would have left; This would have effectively killed the church (humanly speaking). I was affirmatively voted on to be the pastor September 14, 2014 and began ministering on November 2. We just "finished revitalization" in July 2019. How did it happen?

I'd like to briefly mention four ways God graciously used his people to speak his Word in the Spirit's power to move the church's discipleship from a toxic culture and dysfunctional structure to a biblically healthy culture and structure.

Kept by God

First, God kept me as the pastor from being overcome by the sins of impatience, destructive pride, hastiness, isolation, and discouragement. Personal bible meditation (Psalm 1:1-2), prayer (Acts 6:4, Col. 4:2), counting trials joy (James 1:2-8), and fellowshipping outside with other likeminded pastors were indispensable.

Used by God

Second, God graciously used the weekly expository (Neh 8:8, Acts 20:27), Christ-centered (Col 1:28-29, 1 Cor 2:2), congregationally-applied sermons to re-center Christ and Scripture in the church and to awaken members to who they are and what they are responsible to do.

Enabled by God

Third, God enabled the church to revise a church covenant. We used it to define who is a member responsible for the church as we slowly cleaned our membership rollfrom 1109 to 89.

Taught by God

Fourth, God graciously taught members to understand their need for collective responsibility for the church's structure and leadership. They passed a revised constitution instituting meaningful membership and a plurality of pastors to lead the church. Then God raised up one non-staff pastor (in July 2019) to give us a plurality of pastor-elder-overseers.

We need clear and biblical diagnoses and aims for our churches. Brother pastors, strive for clarity in the terms you use, because your words not only reveal your belief, the terms you use shape your belief.

All churches, namely groups of public Christians collectively and personally responsible for one another's discipleship, for the discipleship of the neighbors, and the nations, need reform and discipleship. Many of these churches are dying as evidenced by their members and leaders being captivated by the devil to neutralize the discipleship in their culture and oftentimes their structure. We need laborers, by God's grace, to speak the gospel and the Bible in the power of God's Spirit so that the culture of discipleship and the structure of the church is faithfully restored.

If you keep the definitions of church, dying churches, and revitalized churches fuzzy then you may perpetuate modern day terms without knowing where you're going or when you've reached your destination. But if you faithfully define these things biblically and theologically you can move with intentionality, clarity, and wisdom.

As God clarifies our aims with his word let us be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

[1] I am using "discpleship" and discipling in the Matthew 28:19-20 sense of the term "μαθητεύω" to include "discipling" both the unconverted toward conversion and the converted toward obeying all Christ commands.

[2] One may recognize my intentional placing of Mark Dever's 9 marks of a healthy church under the two headings of Christ-centered and Christ-shaped.

This article is a lightly edited edition of 3 posts (1, 2, 3) originally written for The Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.