This article was published in Church Planter Magazine
I remember the first time I saw the movie The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The unique squint of Clint Eastwood’s eyes and the twists and turns of events to find a treasure of gold and then the final showdown. Sometimes a pastor can have that look in his eye when contemplating taking on the challenge of an established church that’s in the midst of steep decline. The visions of grandeur, overcoming the odds, and the quest for heavenly treasure can cloud godly wisdom. As someone who has been both a church planter and as the pastor of a 112-year-old revitalized church, I hope to help others make some good choices. As well, the call to revitalize dying established churches is a serious call and one that should be made, especially among church planters who are hard-wired with the gift of apostleship.
My Initial Thoughts
The rewards attached to taking on the challenge of a church revitalization are beyond anything of this world—it’s true. For me, I was a business owner, an entrepreneur, so, taking big risks and reaping rewards is in my DNA. But make no mistake it’s a challenge. As church planting, church revitalization is not for the weak of heart; thin skinned, or anyone seeking to build a resume. The first question, which must be asked, is why. Why would you want to take on such a significant challenge? Is it for notoriety, the thought of the risk, or for self? God doesn’t open doors for us to be famous, but to pour out our souls with others. Within any call to serve people, we must be humble, Christ-centered, focused, and passion to follow the Spirit of God to move, reveal, and the mend the hearts of the community. If you feel the call to plant churches, you may want to consider revitalizing established churches as a greater challenge? Let me give you the good, the bad, and the ugly.
While there is clearly a Biblical mandate to plant churches, what about the churches that begin strong and then years later falter and decline; do we have a mandate to maintain those? Do we restore Ephesus, Corinth, Smyrna, and Laodicea? Unfortunately, as much as I know, there is no Scriptural reference of a mandate, but I feel confident that God would want to keep His presence within every community that He once planted within. I would also admit that there could be times that God will close the doors of a church which has lost it’s first love (Rev 2:4). But with revitalization there must be times of refreshing.
In Isaiah, God declares, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing…” (Isa. 43:18-19a ESV). God does awesome new things! When I arrived at Oak Hall, I believed that God was going to do some crazy amazing things. One of my favorite quotes is from the missionary William Carey, he said, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” This is the good part, always attempting new and great things and knowing that God is involved. There has never been a time in ministry when I stepped out with huge risk that God did not blow me out of the water. These are the good days in your life—walking and talking with God because you cannot do it alone.
Unlike church planting, church revitalization is possible with a new preacher, social outreach, and some programs, but instead it should be an authentic move of God. If we’re seeking something sustainable and something real among community then being the revitalizer will require you to dive deeper into your own heart, deeper into humility, and deeper into God—that is good. You must hear from God and what He wants to accomplish within that community. As well, church revitalizing is some of the best experience out there. Many pastors fear it and stray away, and we’ll examine why in a minute, but with the challenges come rewards for those who are patient.
Most dying churches know that they need to change and are willing to make some bold moves—that is good. Opportunities that old established churches can bring to the table can far outweigh what even church plants can do. One of the reasons is because they already possess a hub (a building); a place of gathering for weekly sending into the community. Another reason is they already have a core group of people who should be seasoned in the faith. An established church also has roots within a community, which means it tends to receive more credibility for reaching out into local schools, businesses, and organizations, leading to a potential greater impact for the gospel. However, church revitalizing is almost identical in method, missional mindset, and gospel saturation, as is church planting.
Distinct from church planting, revitalization requires that you conform to a certain set of By-Laws and Constitution, which are already in place. For this reason, I think many church planters fear established churches; at least I know that I did. This is not a horror type of fear, but a leery type of fear—one in which they perceive may tie their hands from having the gospel make the greatest impact. Perhaps the bad includes seeing people set in their ways and very fearful of change.
One of the first things that I said to myself when I arrived at Oak Hall was, “How do you turn an aircraft carrier?” I knew the answer, “Very slowly.” I knew that I was investing my time, my drive, my prayer life, my passion, and especially, my love. I was exposing my heart and while it may have made me vulnerable, that is a part of the call. I also knew that the vision would not be immediately received; meaning, not everyone would be on board and some may not be willing to make even the slightest of turns. Some people see change and new direction as death, which is to be expected. This is bad. But I knew that God had called me to this specific area and people—so, no matter how bad things looked, I was convinced that I was going to love this journey with God and His church. You cannot love Jesus and hate His church; it just doesn’t work that way.
I was going to love these people for who they were in Christ, for the present, and their future in Him. God was not finished with them yet (Phil 1:6), nor should we perceive that is the case with dying established churches. There were many rumors about Oak Hall, some which I heard from other pastors. I had decided from the start not to listen to them, to ignore them, and press onward with the call—turn the ship’s course (Phil 3:14).
For the most part, some churches would rather just die than change—let’s face the reality. For this reason, many pastors who feel called will not touch a dying church, for fear of over powering deacons, controlling elders, stubborn parishioners, or people who just refuse to go along with any new vision, mission, or change. And the ones that say they desire change, well, they may hold onto their traditions and perhaps only go along with change until you remove their favorite hymn, piano, curtains, or old plaque on the wall of the person that no one knows. You’ll certainly hear, “This is not the way we used to do it” and this is just the way “we are,”—this can turn into the ugly.
Risks are known challenges, but before you get into church revitalization, you should know that you’re dealing with really broken people. This does not mean that the people are hard headed or ignorant; no, you can handle that under the bad category, that’s just dealing with the flesh, but always, people who have stuck it out and stayed to pick up the pieces are tired, worn out, and very broken—they’re in need of some serious Jesus love. This part can be ugly, but it’s frontlines ministry, where Jesus is applied to life, and actually one of my favorite aspects. This part of the ugly has the greatest reward—love those who need love the most. Some of the people, who will stay through to the end of a dying church, are teetering on burnout—you need to know this. Sometimes unknowingly, like me when I turn into Betty White and get hangry, things are said and done without evil intention or malice. But the ugly side of humanity is that people are broken. For me, I always pray that God allows me to see people through the eyes of Christ.
The ugly part of ministry is the reality that God calls His people sheep, throughout the entirety of Scripture. One of my professors in seminary made this clear: sheep are smelly, dirty, stubborn, and obstinate creatures, they will wander to dark places and expect to be rescued. This is the life of a shepherd—to love the ugly aspects of broken people. People who have once attended robust and healthy gatherings of the church body, watched as it was torn apart by dissension, bad pastors, selfish people and whatnot, and now they have become weary—sometimes sitting back and not participating because they’re awaiting certain doom and failure.
Thankfully I didn’t see this at Oak Hall, I was blessed with a core group of people who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the gospel, but they were getting burned out. And the truth is not everyone will go along with a great new vision and move of God that you’re expecting—there will definitely be dissenters and agitators. But if you know this going into the call, and that God is with you in all things, you will be more than blessed when things come to fruition. Church revitalization is hard work, but it’s an obedient call that rebuilds upon the work of others—a selfless call to give your heart, your gifting, your faith, and your life.
Matt Fretwell is married, has three daughters, is an author (Denied Desires; Identity Theft, Sanctificagious, 30:1 Manhood, 30:1 Marriage), pastor of a 112 year old revitalized church planting church (Oak Hall Baptist) in Sandston, Virginia), is the founder of Job 31 Ministries, an advocate board member of Living Bread Ministries, a global comprehensive Church Planting organization, the East Coast Coordinator for New Breed Church Planting, and co-founder of a church planting and revitalization initiative called Planting RVA, in Richmond, Va. Matt also writes for Church Planter Magazine and is pursuing his doctorate in Great Commission Leadership at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twitter: @w84harpazo or Facebook