Three Types of Church Revitalization: Introducing Church Answers Monthly

The year was 520 BC. The temple in Jerusalem remained in ruins. God had provided the resources for the people to rebuild the temple, but they used them for their own selfish desires (Haggai 1:4).

God addressed the issue in two primary ways. First, He spoke to three key leaders for them to be His catalysts for rebuilding (Haggai 1:1-2). Second, God commanded the people of Judah to change their behaviors, to move from selfish behavior to selfless behavior. They obeyed (Haggai 1:12). They rebuilt the house of God (Haggai 1:14).

Two Foundational Issues

Like the rebuilding of the temple, there are two foundational issues that must be addressed in church revitalization. First, the church must have the right leaders on board. Second, the behavioral patterns of the church members must change.

No infusion of methodologies or innovations can take place until these two issues are addressed. Such is the reason most revitalizations fail, and only a few succeed. Let’s look at that reality in light of three approaches.

Three Types of Church Revitalization

Most church revitalization attempts use the least effective approach. There, of course, are good reasons for that reality. That will be apparent in the descriptions below.

  1. Acquisitional revitalization. This approach is both radical and largely successful. Another church acquires the existing church in need of revitalization. Sometimes the doors of the existing church are closed for a season. The church then reopens, possibly with a new name, but definitely with new leaders. The success rate is high because both foundational issues are addressed: leaders and behaviors. Estimated success rate: 90%.
  2. Covenantal revitalization. The second approach is relatively new, but one for which I am becoming a strong advocate. The existing church, led by an objective person (often an outsider), agrees to make some significant changes. The leadership actually signs a covenant, and the congregation affirms the covenant. In other words, the existing members and leaders agree to behavioral changes. Success is somewhat high because one of the two foundational issues is addressed: behaviors. Estimated success rate: 40%.
  3. Organic revitalization. This approach is the most common taken today. The church may try new methodologies and approaches. But resistance is common because most of the members really don’t want change. The church addresses symptoms rather than causes. Some members would rather see the church die than change. Failure rates are high because neither of the two foundational issues is addressed. Estimated success rate: 2%.

Looking for Church Answers

Over 300,000 churches in America need significant revitalization. We cannot afford to do nothing. The most successful approach, revitalization by acquisition, will go forward, but the numbers will continue to be relatively small. Many churches will continue to attempt organic revitalization, but addressing symptoms alone is really a formula for failure.

This issue and hundreds more will be addressed in our new subscription ministry called Church Answers Monthly. I am so excited to introduce it to you today. If you are looking to take your church to the next level, I invite you to become a part of our inaugural Church Answers group.

Let me hear from you.

Posted on May 18, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • An “estimate” of 2% does not mean it is the wrong path, and should not discourage one from taking it. While it may take more time, require more patience and personal sacrifice on the part of leadership, I am convinced the “so called” organic approach, as I would understand and have applied it, is the healthier and least destructive of the three described. However, the first, which I do not believe requires a “hostile takeover” as one response implied.

    My wife and I were charter members of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield California, where two churches merged, along with both pastors (bringing in a third to form a unique tri-pastorate leadership modal). One of the two churches was transitioned to be a targeted people group mission which soon constituted into a new autonomous church.

    I believe the three models provided are greatly over simplified. Each community of believers, the individual history of the church and past leadership and, and each cultural context in which they exist must be prayerfully and carefully considered before determining a path of revitalization. One of the greatest tasks of leadership is balancing the pace taken in light of the above considerations. I am in my fourth church. The first was a great succeed, for which I give God all the glory. In the second, revitalization was more about healing, and then moving on to allow another to lead them on. In the third, I was fired as they refused to abide by their own doctrinal statement. The church in which I now serve, approaching three years, is experiencing growth and revitalization, but we are only now beginning. To use construction terminology, it has taken three years of surveying the landscape, setting existing elevation points, determining potential elevation modifications and explaining the need for complete remodeling of the landscape in some places. We are only now beginning to make real change.

    The most important thing I have discovered is… the Body must be united in the belief that it is God’s will and it must be His will. Getting to that place usually takes time. Urgency is important, but you only truly move forward when that movement is in united in the will of God.

    My encouragement would be prayerfully considering your current context and direction prior to choosing a process.

  • Tom Peers says on

    One potential problem with #2 – Covenantal Revitalization (the church agrees to make some significant changes) is that the attenders SAY they agree with the changes (and probably do at that moment) but when it comes time to pull the trigger on the changes, they resist. They may not resist actively, but passively by non-involvement. “A single rower can easily alter or impede the group’s progress simply by resting the oars. It’s the same in organizations. A few people, with no particular malice in their hearts, can prevent good changes from taking place. It is called resistance, or foot-dragging, and it is the veto privilege even the humblest worker can use.” – Harvey Robbins & Michael Finley in “Why Change Doesn’t Work”.

  • Leadership all on the same page is absolutely imperative. Whether people want change or not- if the leadership is running together, the changes will happen. If one leader is undermining the pastor – it’s a recipe for failure.

  • Ray Dymun says on

    Thom, would you elaborate a bit more on addressing the symptom rather than the cause? Perhaps an example or illustration, please

  • Kerry Hird says on

    I took pastorate of a church already in decline but hadn’t faced it. I was able to lead them to an evaluation and leadership input. It would have been great to know that this had a 60% failure rate. The congregation voted 90% to covenant. However, no leadership changes were made. We were only assigned a coach. It started to become clear that the congregation and especially the leadership didn’t want to change. As you wrote, the possibility of failure was much larger. I closed the church feeling that the consultation and members blamed me for the failing. It took a major emotional and spiritual toll on my wife and I. God was good and our faith and marriage is stronger now. I pray some can learn, if the congregation is resistant, no amount of positive leadership can change. Letting the congregation go is likely the most positive thing to do.

  • A 2% chance! Yikes. Well, I’m glad you identified two key areas for us church revitalizers in group 3: (1) Get the leaders on the same page and (2) teach and pray for the transformation of the church members’ behavioral patterns. By God’s grace we’re aiming at those two things among others to revitalize the First Southern Baptist Church of Bellflower (in Los Angeles County, CA). Thanks for this post brother!

  • Appreciate your clarity right from the top: having the right leaders and the behavior patterns of the people must change. Worth the price of admission right there!

    I have been in my setting for a little over 2.5 years. I’ve read your material and I know this is the “difficult season.” My wife and I both wonder if we can make it to five years. It has been tough. I inherited a good man as the full-time CE Director, but he just reinforced past behaviors. He was viewed as a hero by the people and, having more political clout with them, I could not direct him. I received passive aggressive resistance from him in every strategic initiative I gave. I asked the personnel team to suggest he move on. They refused. Ugh! What a difficult, difficult season! He has finally taken a position and will be leaving the staff in the next couple of weeks. With his salary, I can now hire 1.5 positions and hopefully get the “right leaders.”

    That leaves the question of people’s behavior. Some are willing, but others are resistant. My predecessor of multiple decades still goes to the church and operates a very large broadcast ministry outside of the church. For many of my people, my ministry in the church remains in his shadow and the shadow of his ministry. This makes my leadership role even more challenging. There are some, however, who get it. Most, if not all of my governance board is coming along.

    This has been the most challenging season of my 30+ years and yet both my wife and I are learning and growing. I’ve been encouraged and challenged by Andrew Purves’ “Crucifixion of Ministry.” Jesus called me here and it is Jesus doing the ministry through me. My challenge and call is to stay connected to him. I am finding that when I own it as “my ministry” I become deeply discouraged and wounded. Viewing this challenge as Jesus’ work through me is much more helpful.

    Thanks again for the clarity. I will point the two principles of leaders and behavior out to my leaders. And I will be signing up for the new subscription series on church revitalization that you are offering.

  • I would have to take issue with the Covenantal revitalization method.

    Jesus in Matthew 5: 33-37 says that Christians are not to be a part of any kind of oaths / covenants at all. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.

    Just the mere formality of signing an oath or covenant is a reminder to all involved of the reality of the oath or covenant being broken and begins a relationship on a negative note, an air of distrust, like a worldly mortgage contract.
    Christian agreements should be solely based on Christian truth, character and integrity of those involved, not on the formality of a signed piece of paper.


    • I’m not sure I agree with your application of that scripture. If the church agrees to the “arbitration” or then wouldn’t what Jesus said in Matthew 18:18 apply? “…whatsover you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you losse on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Whatever we “agree to do” as a congregation is also agreed upon in heaven, within Biblical boundaries of course.

    • Are you married?

    • jonathon says on

      >Just the mere formality of signing an oath or covenant is a reminder to all involved of the reality of the oath or covenant being broken and begins a relationship on a negative note, an air of distrust, like a worldly mortgage contract.

      As one Daoist Abbott expressed things. «The marriage came when one learned of the existence of the monastery. The divorce came, when one discovered what being a part of the monastery entailed.»

      It is much simpler, for both the potential member, and the congregation, to make everything clear upfront, which is what a covenant purports to do. Whether or not a covenant fulfills that objective, is a different issue.

      Personally, a covenant won’t affect my decision to become a member of a church. What will affect my decision, is how the pastor, elders, deacons, and current members answer my theological questions.
      (Note: I didn’t say what their answer was, but how they answer the questions. To me, how they answer is much more important, than what they provide as an answer.
      Questions such as, asking a Lutheran how _The Book of Concord_ refutes both _The Institutes of the Christian Religion_, and _The Five Articles of Remonstrance_, or an Anglican to explain how the First Nicene Creed is Modalist but not Trinitarian. Or for Baptists, to explain the contradiction between James Grave’s _A Landmark our Fathers Set_, and Ivan Casteel’s _Baptist Distinctives_.)

  • Although I can understand the reality of the probability numbers, an acquisitional revitalization seems almost hostile. It seems more like a corporate takeover. If the leadership of a church has a desire and a plan to revitalize but the congregation resists, then submitting to an acquisition is leadership’s way of saying “I give up.” Here is my two cents:

    The churches of the Bible were planted in areas to serve in those areas. The majority of today’s churches have lost that drive. They fail to find that motivation. Today, people will pass 20 churches in their commute to get to one. Churches have become, in large part, self-serving and self-seeking. I once read that an estimated 82% of church finances are dedicated to the church itself rather than community in which the church resides. I can see accuracy in that statement. It’s difficult for people to become invested when they don’t see a return on the investment. The wise in congregations look for faithfulness in the use of the tithe and offering. They want to know that the pockets of the leadership aren’t being padded but rather that abundant good works are flowing from the church and God is being glorified. “He that is faithful in little will also be faithful in much.” I hope we can agree that there is no greater blessing than being a blessing to another. I’ve found that the idealistic portions of congregations won’t hesitate to jump ship when things aren’t going how they believe they should be going. Today, it is strife, contention and sedition that plants churches. The simplest of disagreements causes a division in the church. The result isn’t a branch, but rather an entirely separate vine. Here where I live, there is a road that I travel occasionally. On this road, I pass between two Missionary Baptist churches that are sitting across the street from one another. The churches are both visually appealing with their beautiful landscaping and scrolling marquees. Yet, they bear two different names. They have two different pastors. I do not know the history of these churches, but I can’t help but wonder…why? Is one so bad that they cannot join forces? Is there some sort of power struggle? A church’s revitalization, no matter the approach, is only successful when God is put (and kept) above all things.

    • “Today, people will pass 20 churches in their commute to get to one”.

      Jason, regarding your comment about passing 20 churches: Your comment is absolutely true. However the reality of our times is that one might possibly need to pass twenty churches in order to get to the one that is teaching accurate doctrine.

      We have to continually remind ourselves that just because a building may look like a church it may be the farthest thing from it.


      • Hal, I totally agree. Paul told us that divisions were because of heresies so that those who are approved could be made known. It’s the fallacy in the doctrines of these churches that have been the major underlying cause of the falling away. People have no idea what to believe anymore because so many of these churches claim to follow the same Jesus, but don’t agree on much of anything after that. They allow their tradition to be the transgressor.

        One very recent topic comes to mind and from the SBC itself, and the recent policy changes concerning IMB missionaries. Dr. David Platt said that an urgency for the Gospel led to policy changes. This insinuates that the urgency for the Gospel varies. It most certainly does not! The urgency has not wavered since the great commission. So, either believe that your doctrine is sound as is, or you admit to its error all along. How many opportunities to share the Gospel have been missed because someone wanted to say that another is not qualified to share it? Why? Because they claim to have spoken in other tongues? When the house of Cornelius spoke in other tongues (Acts 10), I wonder if Peter told them that they could not be missionaries because they had done so. In my opinion, that’s being more concerned with the reputation of your organization than the commandments of Jesus Christ.

        We need to get ourselves back in line with what the Head is wanting the body to go instead of the body trying to go in a thousand different directions.

  • Thank you for the insightful thoughts about revitalization this morning. I had been on a healthy church staff for 18 years and two years ago my family and I were led to replant (revitalize) a church in partnership with our Church Planting Network. The last two years have been the most challenging (difficult) years of ministry, and some the most rewarding in that we have been living a life of adventure/faith. I would assume that the new church would be considered an acquisition since we have certainly had a change of leadership and behavior and CPN has provided exceptional financial and people resources to make this replant possible. Praying that we are in the 90%!

  • You hit the nail on the head there. I came to my current church in October of 2014. Even before taking the bi vocational position as youth minister it was explained to me that our church is a loving church and the ministry is hard. The people do not like change and it was considered the empty nesters church. We are loosing people on the top end faster than growing on the bottom. Things have gotten some what better but we still have a long way to go. Three years ago there was no children or youth ministry in the church. To now having both but that’s because we have a bus ministry. Thank you for all the great insight you give us in each of these reads.

  • Louise says on

    We have 2 different Christian schools in our county, run by two different churches, that have merged, even though both schools were–and continue to be–on opposite sides of the county. But now the school(s) are administrated by the one church. To date, it has worked out well, even though the churches remain independent of each other. (But obviously friendly.) Who woulda thunk it? But better to merge than to shut down one, or both, and these two churches have made it happen.

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