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Guest Post ~ Why Most Churches Need Revitalization

 

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Sam Rainer

November 25, 2018

 

A need for revitalization does not necessarily mean an entire church is unhealthy. Even the healthiest of established churches have at least one area requiring work, if not several. Sometimes the entire church needs revitalization. In other cases, a particular area of the church needs revitalization.

In fact, the majority of established churches could use some degree of revitalization. Around 65% of churches are in plateau or decline. This one statistic reveals close to 7 out of 10 churches are in need of revitalization. Granted, a lack of growth does not mean the entire church is failing, but it does indicate something is missing—somewhere the church is deficient.

What happens to cause this problem? The reasons are numerous, and each church’s story is different. However, one key theme is simply the patterns a church develops over time. Established churches have established patterns. These congregations have a consistent (or established) schedule. They keep doing the same established programs year after year. Annual events become embedded into the culture. Such is the nature of an established church. But these patterns can create either a healthy movement or an unhealthy movement in the church.

Healthy established patterns create healthy churches. Unhealthy established patterns create unhealthy churches. Clearly, more churches have unhealthy patterns as compared with healthy patterns. The stats are undeniable. But I’ll dig deeper. There is more beneath the surface. Numerical declines are merely a symptom, not the root problem.

Pastors become comfortable. Status quo pastors have status quo churches. Once a church has accepted a pastor, it’s easy for that pastor to cruise. Change always comes with a level of risk. Shepherding is impossible detached from risk-taking. When pastors stop taking risks, churches become complacent.

Budgets get messy. Churches can go years without a budget strategy, creating a jumbled mess of operating line items and an endless list of designated accounts. I recently saw a church budget with a designated account for a cassette tape ministry. Church budgets are often the most common area in need of revitalization.

Ministries linger without purpose. Established patterns of programs are wonderful, until they stop working. Unfortunately, churches are guilty of hanging on to programs instead of desiring the fruit they produce. When the program itself is more important than the results, a church loses the purpose of ministry.

Facilities become cluttered and dated. Deferred maintenance has killed numerous ministers with good intentions. Neglected facilities become an albatross around the neck of many pastors. Even the best established churches often have closets full of junk—old trophies, dusty puppets, and binders of music from the 1970s. In severe cases, the entire campus has not been touched in decades.

Technology outpaces staff. When a church has established patterns and rhythms, the temptation is to neglect technology. In a lot of churches, a decade can pass before it becomes necessary to adopt new technology. Unfortunately, by then it’s often too late and staff are too far behind.

A church needing revitalization in one of these areas is not necessarily unhealthy. However, most established churches need help with at least one. When multiple areas of the church fall behind, the effects are compounded.

 

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Guest Post ~ Our Paralyzing Fear of Openness

The longer I have grown into my vision of missional-ecumenism the more I become aware of the paralyzing fear most of us have to real openness. Be honest, most of us prefer the status quo. This fear thwarts innovation and spontaneity. Most Christians, and maybe even most pastors, discourage exploring new roads into “the mind of Christ Jesus.” Keeping things the way they are is their goal. New roads automatically introduce insecurity. But “love casts out fear.”

The problem is that we have failed to experience the love of Jesus crucified in our inner being. We know all about the cross historically. We even debate theories of atonement vigorously. But too few know “Christ and him as crucified.” St. Paul knew him in his innermost being and lived out his trust in discipleship. 

The ecumenical movement has experienced the ebb and flow of the consequence of our primal fears. In the mid-twentieth century the tides of ecumenism were flowing in, especially after Vatican II. In the late 1960s there was a rising tide of global movements. But these movements failed to move a significant number of pastors and non-pastors alike. Today we have withdrawn on the local front and remain satisfied with our previous gains.

Something fresh is clearly needed. Citywide movements of unity are emerging but the high tides of the mid-century have receded into a flood of insecurity. My experience among Protestants reveals several concerns. We are trying so hard to repair our broken systems (denominations/para-church structures), or to advance our partisan political views, that we play down our unity. Or we seek to protect our churches from secularism and wave false flags rooted in fear. As a result we try harder and harder to “get along” without serious united prayer and the dialogue that we need to face our greatest challenges. 

My experience among Catholics is slightly different. While there are bishops who deeply work for ecumenism, many of whom I have had the privilege of knowing first-person, these are only a few among the 260 bishops in America. Some priests are involved in their area but most are overwhelmed by the work of their parish. Those who do love this work for unity received little training for the work and very few get personally involved. Most parishes have someone designated for this work but few do much more than hold a title. Everything needed on on the institutional side is prepared but few are compelled to spend time in this harvest field. On the local level there is little practical cooperation and scant personal dialogue going on between pastors, churches and laypeople.

The famous Yale theologian George Lindbeck addressed this several decades ago when he wrote: “The official facade can even be dangerous as a psychological device permitting a denomination to consider itself ecumenical, while it continues, undisturbed, in its self-centered and self-satisfied groove.”When I am asked what is the first thing we should do to restore the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 to our lives and churches I answer, “We need to surrender our security seeking instincts and embrace the ecumenical principle of reciprocity.”

This movement is really a call to deep relationships, the kind of relationships that will always disturb the status quo. Dear Lord, please disturb us! Set us free from our fear of the other which profoundly hinders true unity.

Pax Christi,

JohnMy new book, Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus Into Deeper Unity (Wipf & Stock, 2021) will be out on August 1. You can pre-order it for 40% off retail price ($23.00). This offer will not be the same after the book is released. You can order as many copies as you'd like at this great price bef. 

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