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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/