The 2nd Hardest Question in Church Revitalization

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By Scott Catoe, Guest Author

What is the second most common question I hear as I talk to folks about church revitalization? (We’ll save the most common question for a later post.  How's that for a teaser?) 

The question: What is the hardest part of church revitalization?

In truth, my first response is often to paint with a broad brush and say “everything.” To some degree, that really is true. If God calls a man to revitalization, He is calling him to go into an environment where nearly everything is at best confused and at worst falling apart. For most of us, the building is in disrepair, the people are tired and discouraged, and the leadership is overwhelmed. And it takes years, in many cases, to turn things around. So, my temptation is to say “everything.”

But, I realize that’s probably not helpful, and it certainly won’t do much to actively recruit people to consider pouring their lives out for the sake of a dying church. So, here is my answer now, I think:

It depends.

I know, that seems even more noncommittal than the previous answer. But bear with me a minute and let me explain. Over time, the hardest thing changes. So the hardest thing depends on where you are in the journey of revitalization. Different leaders are equipped and gifted with different strengths, so what may be a real struggle to me may not show up on another pastor’s radar.  So it depends. 

For me, it's, 'Where in the world do I start?'

With so many different things that seem to be in need of leadership, guidance and repair, where do you even begin in revitalization? 

You must start with prayer.

In the context of Southern culture, prayer is a catch phrase for many, but in this case I really think this is truth. In order to effectively lead by the power of the Gospel, you simply have to be a person committed to deep, long, wide seasons of prayer on behalf of the community, on behalf of the people of the church, and on behalf of your family. As God grows a church in revitalization, opposition is imminent. The constant reminder of this truth, along with the constant petition the pastor lays before God for strength and wisdom as he faces that opposition are critical keys to long term tenure in church revitalization. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a pastor who is not deeply committed to the discipline of prayer has little chance of staying long term in a revitalization situation.

The hard truth that I must constantly remind myself is this: I don’t revitalize a church. I can’t. I am not clever enough, strong enough, smart enough. Only God revitalizes churches. If that is true, then my first and greatest priority in the work is not even to work. It’s to beg God to do the work. So, it simply has to start with the personal prayer life of the leader. And it should begin long before your boots hit the ground, if you can. Before you ever preach your first sermon, saturate your community in prayer. Pray for the people God has entrusted to you. Don’t be distracted by simply praying for the people you wish you had. Pray for the people God has entrusted to your care now! Thank God for those faithful people, who have given you the opportunity to lead them. Pray for God’s strength to lead them well. Don’t simply pray for God to “grow” the church; pray for Him to grow you! Pray for wisdom in leadership, for insight and guidance into the people you have, for clear vision about what applying the Gospel to your community looks like.

In short, cultivate a prayer life that will model for the people of your church body what a joy the discipline of prayer is in the life of a church. To do so lays a foundation that will help provide you, and your people, with a measure of spiritual stability that will help you establish a foundation for long-term work.

When I had been at Slater (the church I am serving) about six months or so, I was beginning the process of making some changes that, though they seemed small to me, were nonetheless tectonic for many of our senior members who hadn’t seen change in years. Some were none too happy with it. One of the most substantial moments of my first year came when one of the members approached me to share their uneasiness with the changes. I’ll never forget what they said. “Preacher (which is what almost everyone called me the first year), I don’t understand what you are doing. I don’t even know why you are doing it. But here is what I know: I know you love Christ because we hear you pray, and we see you pray, and we know you are praying for each one of us. And I know that you are listening to Jesus, so I am going to try to listen to you.”

Listen to Jesus, pastor. And then wait patiently for others to listen to you.