by Barry Howard
There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe churches: Vibrant churches, mega churches, healthy churches, dying churches, transitioning churches, and emerging churches, just to name a few.
While some may propose that vitality and relevance only exist in new church starts, there are many churches typically considered to be traditional churches, flagship churches, or big steeple churches that are undergoing a healthy process of revitalization.
There are a multitude of reasons that contribute to the need for revitalization. Almost every church is faced with generational attrition, a more mobile constituency, cultural shifts, increased diversity, and adjudicatory or denominational restructuring. Additionally, many churches have been adversely affected by natural disasters, congregational conflict, unpleasant leadership transitions, and changing neighborhoods.
Churches should be careful not to fall prey to “quick fix” strategies of church growth, “canned programs” that often cause more harm than good. Most churches actually need to focus on church health, which leads to the right kind of growth. There are no shortcuts to revitalized church health. I have observed that healthy congregations grow in healthy ways, and unhealthy congregations tend to grow to be more and more unhealthy. Revitalizing is the process of restoring a healthy vision, good congregational morale, and a sustainable model for engaging in mission and ministry.
What is a revitalizing church? A revitalizing church is a congregation wisely and discerningly upgrading its mission and methodology to contextually engage and serve its culture and community. A revitalizing church recognizes that the matrix for assessing effectiveness is no longer based on “budget, buildings, baptisms, and butts in the pew,” so a revitalizing church is in the process of devising a “new scorecard” for evaluating mission and ministry. Although every church is unique, there are some common characteristics that seem to be prevalent in revitalizing churches.
Here are twelve healthy trends that I am noting in revitalizing churches across a diverse spectrum of denominations and geographic locales:
- A revitalizing church is cultivating a strong sense of spiritual community, while simultaneously experiencing declining interest in church as institution.
- A revitalizing church is notably trending toward serving rather than being served.
- A revitalizing church is nurturing a worship culture that promotes engagement more than entertainment.
- A revitalizing church is becoming more readily identified by its location than its denomination, often revising its name or brand to enrich its welcome.
- A revitalizing church embraces the full giftedness of men and women in service and leadership.
- A revitalizing church is developing ways to streamline decision-making by empowering committees, councils, ministry teams, and ministers with specific responsibilities on behalf of the larger body.
- A revitalizing church is developing a high tolerance for healthy change, maintaining its core message, but upgrading it methodology.
- A revitalizing church is strategically multigenerational, valuing the perspectives of multiple generations rather than being mono-focused on a single demographic.
- A revitalizing church respects diversity, and is becoming more comfortable with diverse ethnic, economic, political, and theological streams within the community.
- A revitalizing church is adapting to a culture of mobility, offering a variety of worship and study opportunities on campus, off campus, and online.
- A revitalizing church treasures the past but is invested in the present, and does not waste energy competing with images of its former glory or being haunted by its past mistakes.
- A revitalizing church develops strategic ways to cultivate and mentor future leaders.
While I am sure there are other factors that describe and shape churches that are on a journey of revitalization, these twelve healthy trends seem to be emerging in the churches I am observing and the church I am serving.
Churches that become satisfied with a mythical status quo and who remain highly resistant to new winds of the Spirit can easily become entrapped in a time warp, and they risk being vacuumed into a black hole of irrelevance. Churches that undiscerningly “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and sell their soul to popular culture lose their capacity to be salt and light, and their kingdom influence goes down the drain.
However, churches who are committed to living out the time tested values of scripture with a passionate sense of mission will find ways to share the good news with fresh relevance and to dialogue cross-culturally with transformative grace and radical hospitality.
Revitalization is a challenging and ongoing process. And most churches need an experienced and trustworthy networking partner to walk alongside them during the journey of revitalization. If your church needs to begin the process of revitalizing, I recommend contacting The Center for Healthy Churches to discover more about the resources they can provide to equip clergy and congregations for healthy revitalization.
We live and serve in an opportune season for missional innovation and cultural engagement. Rather than being anxious, this season calls for courage. “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:7).
If a church wants to thrive and not merely survive, a continuing revitalization process is essential.
(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)