A commonly heard expression in the part of Texas where I live is, “If you don’t like the weather, just stick around for a few minutes. It’ll change.”
Maybe that’s a true sentiment where you live, too.
Changes in the weather rarely catch us off guard. We have television channels and apps on our phones that give us down-to-the-minute updates on exactly what to expect as it relates to the weather. It’s quite handy. It helps us prepare for the different things that we might encounter when we commute, travel, or sit on the sideline at our kid’s soccer game. There’s nothing fun about getting caught in the rain without an umbrella.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the same kind of forecast for the culture as we do for the weather? Let’s face it, the culture around us is changing at a whiplash-pace. Let’s also admit that the changes in the culture have made Christian ministry more and more complicated. Not only are we swimming upstream in relation to issues of morality and justice, we’re also competing against a thousand different things for the time and attention of those we are called to reach and those we intend to disciple.
It probably won’t come as a shock to hear that many churches around the country have struggled to keep up with the rapid changes in the culture. Some of our favorite “tried and true” methods of ministry are simply not making the impact they once did. Many churches have found themselves stagnant or in decline as a result of maintaining the status quo while the community around them has radically changed. In other words, they’ve been caught in the rain without an umbrella.
Depending on which reports you read, somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 churches in the U.S. permanently close their doors each year. There may be as many as five times that number that are in a stage of “life support,” at risk of closing within the next three to five years. Pastors, church leaders, and entire denominations find themselves looking for ways to stop the skid. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline of many churches and has revealed even further a lack of health and sustainability for many local churches.
Most church health experts agree that all churches have natural seasons of growth and decline. A key to ensuring the long and fruitful future for any church lies in its ability to assess where it is in its lifecycle and adjust course accordingly. Churches that have reached a point of sustained health or maintenance should take proactive steps to evaluate ministry strategies and impact. They should do so before they begin to experience downward momentum.
Churches at the peak of the bell curve may find that they need to refresh or renew their vision and ministry strategies to keep up with the changing culture. Whereas in past generations a church may have been able to sustain a specific model of ministry for two decades without needing to make much change, it might be helpful these days for a church to walk through a revisioning process every five to seven years, just to keep up with the world changing around us.
Churches that find themselves in stages of preservation or life support may need to consider an intentional process of revitalization. Defined as “the action of imbuing new life,” a revitalization is just that – giving new life to something that already exists. Perhaps a church already has a building but no clear direction, or a pastor retired and there is need for someone at the helm to guide the congregation, or ministry impact is dwindling. Whatever the reason, revitalization is a vital part of equipping churches for effective ministry in our rapidly changing culture.
The work and process of church revitalization is quite challenging and usually takes longer than most would hope. But when a congregation unifies around its desire to honor the past by whole heartedly pursuing a new way forward, God is glorified and hope is restored. The goal of church revitalization is not just to see churches survive, but to see them thrive.
Written by Bart Blair. Bart serves Assist Church Expansion as the director of church revitalization. He has been a pastor in the Charis Fellowship since 2002, having served in two church plants in Canada. He currently resides in Texas where he and his wife, Elizabeth, are praying about the future of the Charis Fellowship in the Lone Star State. This article was originally published in the 2021–2022 Year in Review.