Most Church Revitalization Approaches Will Not Work

Most church revitalization (CR) efforts will not work because most of what is being offered in the church revitalization space is simply regurgitated church growth (CG) models.  Church revitalization (CR)  and church growth (CG) are two completely different realities and require completely different responses. 

The bell curve is a helpful model to assist in understanding the difference between CG and CR. Les McKeoen in Predictable Success labels the 7 segments of the bell curve with different labels, but he speaks to the distinctions of these 7 regions on the bell curve definitively. At Refocus we refer to the bell curve’s 7 segments as:  1. Birth, 2. Growth, 3. Maturity, 4. Peak, 5. Decline, 6. Decay, and 7. Death. The Church Growth (CG) model operates in regions 1-4. The Church Revitalization (CR) model operates in regions 5-7. Region 5 (Decline) requires a classic revitalization approach. Region 6 (Decay) requires a crisis revitalization approach. And region 7 (Death Rattle) requires a replant approach to revitalization.

Church Growth models live on the front side of the bell curve. Church Revitalization models live on the back side of the bell curve. There is a different look, feel, sound and tone on the front side of the bell curve than there are on the back side of the bell curve. Let’s look at each.

Church Growth Realities

On the CG side of the bell curve there is a lot of energy and excitement. New things are being born. The euphoria of acting in faith and birthing new ministries creates life and vitality. Living on the front side of the curve is marked by a culture of faith, joy and hope. Risk taking stimulates all kinds of activity. Every small victory makes it feel like progress is being made and movement and momentum are building.

There are challenges to living on the front side or at the top of the bell curve but these challenges also create a culture of excitement and anticipation. The challenges include launching the church, resourcing the church and building the necessary systems for the church to grow. During these struggles there are many things to fight for including: securing enough funding to succeed, gathering enough people to be viable, and dealing with the complexities of a growing organization. Yet, these “activities” bring stimulus to the church regarding its mission, vision and strategy. The result is the culture that the church mission and strategy lives within is predisposed to reaching, impacting and moving people. Without going into too many details this results in leaders being able to leverage programs, have a what’s next mentality, follow their “builder” intuition, respond in real time to human needs and take risks anticipating future rewards.

Church Revitalization Realities 

On the church revitalization side of the bell curve life looks and feels very different. On the backside of the curve the survivability of the institution becomes the primary concern of its participants. Maintaining the institution becomes more important than fulfilling the institution’s mission. There is little or no desire to see improvement. Creativity is lost. Risk aversion takes root. Data and analysis paralyzes the organization. There is little meaningful action. Organizational awareness is lost. Hard work may occur but the hard work leads no where.

My guess is you can see, feel and hear the tone of these paragraphs and recognize just how different growth and revitalization feel. So what does the revitalization leader have to know and what must they stand ready to do to lead on the backside of the curve?  What is different for a revitalization pastor that makes them effective at leading a church out of its decline and onto a new growth curve? Here are the seven essentials to leading effectively on the back side of the curve.

  1. You must know why the church is where it is.  It is not enough to know what is happening currently within the church. You must know why.  You must know why things are the way they are.  We call this taking dominion over the church.  Like Adam was given dominion over the earth and the symbolic act of naming the animals indicated his authority over creation, so church leader must be able to name the challenges the church faces and understand why these challenges are creating decline.  It is not enough to simple know that decline is occurring.  You must know the “WHY behind the WHAT.”
  2.  You must be willing to make hard decisions that make things worse. The very fact that revitalization is necessary means things are not as they should or need to be.  This will require significant adjustments to be made.  These significant adjustments will inevitably affect people.  When people are adversely affected, they will become frustrated and greater losses will occur.  However, unless significant changes are made the continued decline is inevitable.
  3. You must reposition the ministry to a place where it can succeed. Jesus did this with the 7 churches of Revelation. He spoke to and redirected its leaders. He looked at the church’s past purpose. And He considered the uniqueness’s of the community where the church was located. At the intersection of these three realities is found the “natural” right position for the ministry. For most churches the right position for effective ministry will require a significant repositioning which means significant change in its ministry.
  4.  You must be willing to decrease complexity and simplify ministry. Ministries that need to be revitalized usually have accumulated a lot of unnecessary, non-essential programs, events and people. These aspects of a declining ministry distract from fulfilling or perhaps from even from seeing the mission. All non-essential ministry resources and activities must be redeployed around mission critical activities.
  5. You must develop a clear and simple strategy to fulfill the mission. The most beautiful and most powerful things in the universe are simple. Clarity and simplicity in what you do and how you do it are the hallmarks of renewal. You must develop a new and clear God given mission and develop a plan to fulfill the mission. Apart from knowing what and how you will do ministry, revitalization will NEVER take place.
  6. You must kill the existing culture. There is a reason why things are in decline.  The existing culture of the church is preventing the mission of the church from being fulfilled. This means things are worse than you think they are and things will be harder to change than you think they will be. The reasons for the decline run deeper into the church culture than you can even imagine. You must relentlessly call out misplaced values, and ruthlessly work to resurrect a good culture in the midst of the decay.
  7. You must burn the ships and refuse to go back. As you begin leading on the backside of the curve towards revitalization, if there is any opportunity to go back there will be incredible pressure to return to the old culture and old ministry. The pain of change will become so intense that there will be a mutiny against those who are leading forward.  There must be resolve and commitment that is ironclad if there is any hope of restoring vibrancy to the church. Going back will ensure the death of the church.

This may all sound dramatic, but if anything this description understates the reality of the difficulty and the pain of leading a revitalization. When you do take specific and dramatic approaches to leading a revitalization the likelihood of your success goes up dramatically. There are six steps you must take to bring about the revitalization of a church. You can learn more about how to lead your ministry through the revitalization process by watching our Refocus videos at https://corpusvitae.org/about-refocus/

 

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MOST Pastors MOST Underdeveloped Skill

As a young pastor in my first church, I remember making a difficult phone call. I called the Dean of Theology at the seminary I recently graduated from and admitted, “I don’t know what I am doing!” 

I had been called to be the pastor of a core group that had recently failed in their efforts at church planting. We were going to make a go at RE:planting this failed church. The church was beginning to grow. We grew from a handful of people past the 100 barrier pretty quickly and ministry got chaotic fast.

I quickly realized I did not know how to give the church the direction it needed. My admission was an honest confession, but it was met with a stunning response. “We really don’t offer leadership skills training for pastors. You will have to find that somewhere else.” Later the president of that same seminary confessed to me, “I don’t believe in leadership training, you are either anointed by God to lead or you are not.” For 25 years I have listened to pastors struggle to find the leadership help we all needed but we did not learn in seminary. Most pastors will admit the single most frustrating struggle they faced in ministry was, “I was ask to do a job I was never trained to do.” Many pastors have even left the ministry as they faced this frustration.

Before we are too hard on our beloved seminaries we have to realize that the seminary is not equipped to deal with the real-life leadership challenges churches face. One of the reasons is most seminary professors are biblical scholars who can prepare pastors for the elder role they are ask to fulfill in their teaching and preaching. Most seminary professors are also caring people who can train pastors for the shepherding role they play. But most seminary professors are not natural leaders or gifted spiritual leaders nor are they skilled adequately in the realities of vision casting, culture development, strategy and the other necessary leadership skills to lead a church. Most seminaries are just not the crucible of the real world where pastors serve as spiritual leaders for a complex organism like the body of Christ.

Since the day of my confession, I have made many mistakes in turning to the wrong places to find help for my leadership struggles. I have turned to denominational leaders who blogged or gave podcasts about leadership “philosophy.” I have turned to charismatic leaders who seem to be a leader and I tried to emulate them. I have borrowed from the business world principles that helped me in my times of crisis. But honestly, I was always left wanting in all three of these efforts usually because their solutions were more charisma based and not competency based.

Yet, what I have discovered is that the Bible is filled with rich insights regarding the MOST UNDERDEVELOPED aspect of pastoral ministry in the church today – THE OVERSEER.

The key that unlocked church leadership mystery for me was one of the biblical labels given to pastors by both Peter and Paul in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5.  It is the importance of the role of the Overseer (επιτηρητής), and I was surprised when I learned Jesus was labeled an “Overseer” (1 Peter 2.25). What I discovered was a typology that caused me to look into the OT to discover who else the Bible labeled an overseer. I also wanted to understand what the role of the overseer entailed.  Here is what I found.

The word Overseer is used in the stories of three OT characters: Joseph, Josiah, and Nehemiah. Joseph is the overseer in Potiphar’s home and the overseer of Egypt. Josiah recognized the strategic need for overseers to revitalize the work of the temple. And Nehemiah when he is preparing to leave Jerusalem realizes he needs to appoint overseers over Jerusalem to establish a culture that could sustain Jerusalem into the future. Each of these overseer types teach important “skills” related to leading in the spiritual arena. Here are three specific skills unpacked regarding an effective overseer. These are skills every local church pastor must have in their tool kits just like they need to tools of preaching and pastoring.

Joseph’s story reveals he was a God gifted vision caster. The problem was he kept abusing the vision casting process early in his life, just ask his brothers and even his mother! However, after God emptied Joseph of himself, God was able to use Joseph to cast two visions that saved Israel and Egypt. His vision casting skills should be emulated by pastors today.

Josiah’s story reveals the importance of strategy. Josiah was young but he envisioned a revitalized Israel, so he set in place a four part strategy to lead Israel back to a holy relationship with God. When pastors are developing their church’s strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission, Josiah is a perfect and biblical example.

Nehemiah’s story reveals the importance of being a culture curator. Nehemiah had been the overseer of Israel during the rebuilding of Israel, but as he prepared to return to Susa, he was concerned about what would happen to Israel after he left. So, he appointed overseers to help establish and maintain the culture he had worked so hard to achieve. This way Jerusalem could be sustained beyond his lifetime.

This is a brief and surface level look at the typology of the overseer. It is the foundation in the OT for what we are taught about the overseer in the NT. These skills are essential skills every pastor needs to faithfully execute the ministry of the church. Three skills: vision caster, strategist, and culture developer. Three things every pastor has wrestled with in the context of the local church. Three things that today are preventing most churches from participating in the Great Commission. Three things keeping pastors from stewarding their church’s ministry and resources well. Three things most of you were never taught in seminary, but wish you were.

Don’t let anyone tell you like they told me that “You are either a leader or you are not.” This places an artificial lid on your ministry that is NOT biblical. When the Bible describes leadership Charisma is not at the top of the list. As a matter of fact is most often shunned. Character and competence are most often pointed to when it comes to good biblical leadership (i.e. David lead Israel with skillfulness of hand and integrity of heart).  Leadership is essential, and you don’t have to borrow it from the world.  It is all right there in the Bible. You don’t have to doubt it and your people won’t resist it, when they see it clearly in God’s Word.  Let us help you learn the skill sets of biblical leadership that can help your church fulfill its God-given mission. Visit our team at www.corpusvitae.org 

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The Law of 10,000 Hours in Vision Adoption

The law of 10,000 hours in contemporary culture is either known through Malcom Gladwell’s writings or through country music. For churches and pastors there is a more significant meaning.  The law of 10,000 hours in church revitalization has to do with how much time it takes a Revitalization Pastor (RP) to cast and communicate a vision for leading the church from a place of decline and decay to a place of renewal and revitalization.

A friend in ministry who led his church through the 6 step Refocus vision casting process declared after working for months with his team to develop a clear and compelling vision, “We have just given birth!” He was so excited and relieved and thought he could breath deep and rest. The next day he called me exhausted and overwhelmed saying, “I woke up today and realized, yesterday I gave birth to the vision and today I realized I have a marathon to run to see it implemented.”

Vision casting can strain the imagination and creative energies of a pastor, but vision adoption will strain a pastor’s perseverance and endurance. Most pastors think when the vision is cast that the hard work is over. The exact opposite is true, the hard work has just begun. Vision adoption in a church is usually a journey that takes 10,000 hours. You can do the math but at 60 hours a week of ministry and church activity this is a little over 3 years. No matter how you try to compress it, 10,000 is a long time and a lot of work.

Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm discusses how new ideas are adopted. His study reveals 2.5% of people are Innovators. Innovators are people who create new ideas. 13.5% of people are early adopters. These people are not afraid of what is new. 35% of people are middle adopters. They like to see something work before they embrace it. 35% are late adopters. They have to argue about the strengths and weaknesses of an idea before they embrace it. 15% are laggards. These people are the dreaded never adopters and will resist to the very end.

Most of the people working on a vision with a pastor will be innovators. They access and accept new things readily. Most pastors love working with innovators. They are exciting to talk to, see things quickly and adopt new ideas regularly. However, most people in declining churches are not innovators.

Most people in churches are not even early adopters. Early adopters will hear a new vision for revitalization and over the first year will learn the vision and begin to live out the vision. This first year is an exciting time in the vision casting process especially for the pastor. What most pastors are not ready for are years 2 and 3 in the vision adoption process.

In year two the pastor will seek to win the middle adopters, but this usually comes with a high price tag. The pastor has to have a lot of conversations trying to convince people of the benefits of moving forward onto God vision in faith and obedience. Most pastors will spend more time than they ever imagined in conversation communicating the benefits and assuaging the fears of the church adopting the vision.

Yet, there is another group waiting for the pastor in the vision adoption process – the late adopters. The late adopters have another price tag on their approval – conflict.  The late adopter usually has to have a significant emotional or spiritual experience with the vision in order to lend their approval.  This requires the pastor to “gird up the loins” for the battle the late adopter needs to have in order for them to become convinced the vision is worthy of being adopted.  I do not mean to position the pastor against the late adopter.  The late adopter will adopt the vision, they just need intensity and opportunity to “get them there” related to the vision.

So RP (Revitalization Pastor) work hard and creatively to craft a clear and compelling vision for revitalization and then, prepare for the 3 year implementation and execution phase where culture shifts and church members learn, lead, and live the new vision over 10,000 hours together!

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The Ideal Staff Member

Patrick Lencioni is a leadership guru who knows and understands organizational leadership. He also understands the nature of the talent war that every organization is facing, due to the need to secure great employees and build a cohesive team. In his book The Ideal Team Member, Lencioni describes three virtues that are most valuable to cultivate in order to thrive in the work world. He says that finding people who are humble, hungry and smart is the secret to building great people who work on a great team.

I think I have read everything Lencioni has ever written, but this one articulate book caught my attention. Having led a number of church teams, I began to reflect on Lencioni’s three virtues in light of the spiritual parallels. After doodling on my list for a few days and testing the list against my experience leading teams, the spiritual parallels became very evident. I identified four virtues of the ideal team player on the church ministry team. If your staff can demonstrate these characteristics in an ever-increasing way, you can build great team members who work together on a great team.

The ideal church staff member should be: 1. a Servant Leader, 2. Spiritually Ambitious, 3. Self-Aware, and 4. Spiritually Mature. Twenty-five years into ministry, with many successes and failures, I can tell you that great staff members, great teams, and great spiritual accomplishments are dependent upon the existence of these four qualities in the members of the team you lead. Dive in a little deeper with me.

1. SERVANT LEADER

Jesus taught that leaders in His kingdom were not to be like leaders in the Roman system of leadership. They did not and would not lord their leadership over others. Instead, they would be servants of others. Struggling with the nature of Christian leadership is nothing new. Even James and John needed a lesson in this kind of servant leadership. Most teams today still wrestle with this common problem.

The launching pad for all levels of Christian leadership is to remember that the leader is a servant. Whether you are just leading yourself, or you are leading other people, teams, a division or even the overall ministry, you must remember that you are never more than a servant. Once a leader in the spiritual world no longer sees themselves as a servant, the paradigm has completely shifted. Leadership will no longer be about influence, love and the benefit of others. It will become about control, ambition and desire.

One of the most difficult challenges that spiritual leaders face is that the higher they go up the ladder of leadership, the more they must remember that they are nothing more than a servant. The DNA of a servant must be so deeply embedded in each one of us that no matter how high one may ascend, we never forget we are nothing more than a servant of others.

2. SPIRITUAL AMBITION

The next trait may first appear to be a direct contradiction to the first principle, but it is not. To understand the difference, you must first understand the distinction between personal ambition and spiritual ambition. Personal ambition is always prohibited in the Bible. Nowhere does God encourage or Jesus model personal ambition. In contrast, Kingdom ambition is always encouraged. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you.” Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”

The spiritually ambitious person will have the same ambitions that Jesus had while He was leading His disciples. Jesus wanted to see people follow after Him. He kept inviting people to come follow Him. And He wanted these followers to hunger and thirst for His Word. He taught them and instructed them. He modeled for them the things He wanted them to know and the way He wanted them to live. Jesus was also ambitious for the success of His whole church. Jesus said His church would be founded upon the common profession of faith in Him as the Son of God, and He promised to build it come hell or high water. Jesus was ambitious for His people to look like, act like, talk like, and live like Him, because He was grace and truth personified, revealing what it looks like to love God and love others. In contrast to selfish ambition, the heart of Jesus’ ambition was His desire to bring glory to God and flourishing to people.

In the same way, as church staff, pastors, and lay leaders, we should be ambitious for Jesus to be reproduced in the lives of others, and we should be ambitious to please Christ. As Paul said in Colossians 1.28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Paul’s ambition was to labor and strive in order to present people to Jesus who looked like Jesus.

3. SELF-AWARE

Perhaps the best outcome of being self-aware is that you can recognize the positive or negative effect you are having upon others. When working on a high capacity team that is striving for big achievements, it is very important to know how your attitude, behaviors and activity impacts others. Annoying habits and abrasive personality traits always detract from the team. But when a team member is aware of these potentially destructive patterns and is willing to let God redirect them for the benefit of other team members, the overall outcome of the team’s work can be greatly improved.

The Bible consistently contrasts the ways of a person controlled by God to the ways of a person who is controlled by the flesh and the world. The spiritually self-aware person knows they are living every moment in the presence of God, while the worldly person only sees themselves as living in the presence of other people. The spiritually self-aware person lives by wisdom that comes from above, not the wisdom of pop culture and the world. The spiritually self-aware person lives in humility, while the flesh and the world cry out for us to live by pride. The fruits of the Spirit direct us to embrace the things God values, while the fruits of the flesh are in direct contrast, as Paul describes in Galatians 5. Ultimately, the spiritually self-aware person lives to please God and not themselves or others.

4. SPIRITUALLY MATURE

Ultimately, there is a difference between the ideal team member out in the world and the ideal team member in the church. In a phrase, it can be boiled down to spiritual maturity. Through His giving of the Great Commission, Jesus taught that His followers were not to be just converts, but that they were to learn everything He taught them, and that they were to not just know it but to live it. This life orientation that is directed toward God ultimately affects the way we live, work, believe, think and even die.

Many have said that a person will never lead someone beyond where they are personally. I believe that to be true spiritually as well. You can never lead others beyond where you are in your personal walk with God. Your spiritual maturity will become the ceiling or lid for everything else you seek to do in your life and ministry.

To be spiritually mature, there are seven things you must always have fixed in your mind: (1) You must always have a faith orientation towards God and your following after Jesus Christ. (2) You must never forget that you are a sinner in need of daily grace and forgiveness. (3) You must seek truth from God’s Word and not rely upon the wisdom of the world or your own personal edge or insight. (4) You must become and remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit as God guides you through life. (5) You must steward the life and gifts God has given you and use them for His pleasure and gory. (6) You must live your life to be on mission for God. (7) You must ultimately seek to please God and live to glorify Him.

 

So there you have it – four virtues of the ideal church staff member:

  1. Be a servant leader
  2. Be spiritually ambitious
  3. Be self-aware, and
  4. Be spiritually mature
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A ReFocus Testimony

Written by David Neff, Senior Pastor of New Covenant Fellowship Church (Graham, NC)

AWAKENING

A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting where Pastor Rob Peters presented what I call “The State of the Union Address for the church in America.” The more he spoke, the more intrigued and concerned I became. I was thinking, “I am glad I am not one of those churches.” On paper, we were doing well; every year we were adding salvations, baptisms and church memberships. Yet our church attendance was the same. While we were adding every year, we were also losing every year with people going out the back door.

By the end of the presentation, I realized I was one of “those” churches. We were saying the right things and wanting to glorify God, and we wanted to fulfill the great commission. We could show that families were joining and our offerings were sufficient, but at the end of the day, to be honest, we had plateaued. At the end of the presentation, we were given a short assessment of ten questions. The result: we were lacking in several areas. After going through a brief explanation of the assessment, Rob then offered every pastor the opportunity to be part of a cohort to find a path that would change the direction of their church.

BURDENED

After the meeting, I met with our staff and told them my findings in the assessment and my concerns. Even though we had done well in a few areas, we could not answer directional questions for our church. I knew there was more and I wanted more for our church. At about this same time, I read this quote: “Organization is a shadow of its leadership” (Harvard Business Review) and realized this had to be pastor-led. We had plateaued and we needed help. I met with the Elders and the staff, and the decision was made: we were all in!

OUR UNIQUENESS

We soon came to realize we were weak in several areas. We had been a good at cut-and-paste church, going to conferences and hearing how something worked well for others and thinking it would work for us as well. I would go back to our church and plug it in. Then I would wonder why it did not work. Some are pastoring large churches in large cities; I am pastoring a smaller church in a city of 12,000 people. I realized that, much of the time, I was trying to be like the church down the road instead of the church God had called us to be, in the place where we are. God’s mission for the church never changes, but how we fulfill that mission differs from church to church.

I like that ReFocus is not pushing a program, but sharing a plan to help the local church by providing tools for us to find our path that will enable us to fulfill our God-given purpose. It provided steps that helped us find who we were and find our fit in God’s kingdom that is unique to us. We were going to be the church that God wanted us to be, not a cut-and-paste church, but a church that was discovering our uniqueness and our potential, and finding the freedom that gives us to reach our community for Jesus Christ.

The journey requires prayer, honestly, transparency, courage and work. I am reminded of a phrase I have heard for many years, “Plan your work and work your plan.” Our staff and I met monthly with Pastor Rob as he took us through the process of ReFocus. We would go back and work through the process, then I would meet with our Elders and share with them what we had learned and what we were working on to get their input. Three months in, I also began to share with a small group in the church to get their feedback. Meeting with the different groups was great, because they shared ideas and gave insight where we may have not considered. It also allowed them to buy into the process and be a part.

LAUNCH

In February 2018, we shared with the church the Mission, Vision and Strategy we believed God had given us. It has now been ten months since we launched ReFocus in our church, and we have made plans to begin the second phase in February 2019. God has been gracious and blessed us. This year, our plan was to focus on discipleship. We set markers along the way so we could see how we were doing. The year in review: increase in baptisms, increase in families that have joined our church, average worship has increased 15 percent, two new Life Groups started, Life Group attendance increased, we incorporated Prayer and Care within the Life Groups, started a Next Step class for potential members and new members, and overall giving increased.

Going through the ReFocus process helped us develop a plan for the future of our church. We can now say that we know where we are going and we know how we are going to get there. We are grateful for God’s blessings and we look forward to what God has in store for us next year, believing “There is MORE.”

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