Why revitalize a dying church?
This is a great question, especially since it is much easier to start a church than it is to revitalize one. Church plants tend to get a lot of early momentum and carry that through their first three to five years. In contrast, most revitalizations and replants take five years to truly see any sustained growth. If that is the case, then why not just plant new churches and let dying churches die?
When confronted with this question, I think about the story of Josiah, king of Judah in 2 Chronicles 34. After beginning his reign, he returned the kingdom to the ways of David. Several years later, workers found the book of the Law in the temple. Josiah’s reign can be seen as a return to faithfulness to God.
Where we are in New England, there are so many churches that have abandoned the Gospel and faithfulness to the Scripture. Many of these churches have become nothing more than buildings that are a tribute to a past that was once so influenced by the Truth. Like King Josiah, can we see godly pastors lead them back to faithfulness?
Revitalization also makes sense for several practical reasons.
1) Location and facilities - Many of these old buildings are strategically placed in the towns and cities where they are located and can provide significant opportunities to reach the community. Our church has been able to utilize our space to do community outreach events and host 12-step recovery programs that could not find a home elsewhere. When I was a church planter, these were not possible because we were renting space part-time. In fact, even finding space to meet for worship is a common problem for church plants.
2) Accessibility – I have been both a church planter and now a replanting pastor. It is much easier to gain the trust and access in the community when you have a reason to be there. In areas where Christianity does not have a significant influence on the culture, non-Christians don’t usually understand what a church plant is - or see a reason to start one when there are already established churches in the community. As the pastor of an established church, I have a reason to be in the community and do not have to explain my presence or hope that people aren’t skeptical of meeting in a school, rented space or living room.
3) God’s Glory – I know this one seems simple, and the obvious seminarian answer, but it is the truth. Only God can bring life where there was once death. When a church that many in the community believe is dying (or in some cases has already closed) is made alive again, the only answer we can see is that God brought it back. We have personally begun to see these conversations happening in our community among people who have no connection to our church.
How can you help? Many replanters have the same struggles as regular church planters - especially when it comes to resources such as finances and people. We often have the added burden of a building which needs significant maintenance and upkeep. However, dying churches don’t tend to draw Christians looking to join a team, like new church plants do.
Replanting pastors could use much of the same type of support as church planters: prayer, mission teams and financial assistance. If revitalization / replant pastors are ready to “play the long game,” and other churches walk with them and support them, we can see God do amazing things again through churches once considered dead.