By John James
“It is easier to give birth than raise the dead,” my friend replied, as I began to talk about the church revitalisation project we were prayerfully considering. Perhaps he was right. Isn’t the most strategic thing to turn off the life support machine and give birth elsewhere?
It is easy to look at church revitalisation as a massive headache to be avoided at all costs. There have been times at Crossway when I have wondered whether revitalisation is basically ‘church planting without the benefits!’ The inevitable question is, “why bother?”
Here are six reasons why we should bother.
1. Revitalisation Grows Us in Our Love for Jesus
Jesus says to the church in Ephesus, ‘You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first.’ (Rev. 2:3–4)
It is not hard for members of dying churches to end up in that place. They have fought and are battle worn and weary. In the process they may become cynical, disillusioned and lose their first love. This is serious because eternity is at stake. Being led through revitalisation can be an incredible opportunity for repentance and ‘doing again the things that were done at first.’ (Rev. 2:5)
Something is wrong if our church planting methodology intentionally or unintentionally marginalises the discipleship of older Christians. The renewal of dying churches can be a tool by which God renews his people. If we believe in the perseverance of the saints, we should believe in church revitalisation.
And revitalisation doesn’t only renew older Christians. It drives us all to greater reliance on God. It is one thing to look at a blank sheet and pray for God to work. It is another thing to look at a sheet with detailed, messy, archaic prose written all over it, and ask for the same outcome. It is truly thrilling to embark upon something that requires the miraculous re-creational power of Jesus Christ from day one.
2. Revitalisation Builds On the Past
Church revitalisation can be accused of being a disguised form of asset stripping. However, it is not about removing kingdom assets, but retaining them. For us, if Helier Chapel had not welcomed revitalisation, then the wider church would have lost a building in a strategic location, 75 years of history in a community, and a decent sum of money in the bank. And Crossway Church (our new name), if it had been viable at all, would have been very different. It is only because of the conviction of a few gospel-hearted people to see those assets remain in the kingdom that we are where we are today.
I meet people most weeks who remember attending the old Sunday school. Even the sixty-year-old bloke who cuts my hair used to go as a boy. Our evangelism strategy today can build on the ministry of faithful men and women of the past. We are not the only generation that has ever sought to minister faithfully. No community in the UK is a gospel vacuum. And revitalisation builds on the past.
3. Revitalisation Establishes Intergenerational Church from Day One
Every church wants to be ‘intergenerational.’ Church plants I know, some nearly ten years old, are still actively praying for older believers to be a part of their congregation. The desire for more mature believers who can be mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas, is a healthy one. If you speak with a church requesting revitalisation, the word ‘intergenerational’ will be used for exactly the opposite reason. Anyone under sixty would be nice!
If you plant a group of young people into an already existing, older congregation, and together you begin to grow again in your love for Jesus, a new intergenerational church has begun. At Crossway we are honoured to have a significant number of older members who are in turn delighted to now see younger folk belonging to the family. Now, an intergenerational community has significant pressures, but these are welcome because we have had from day one, what other church plants are praying for years after planting.
The impact of this is undeniable. We have three and four generations of the same families in regular attendance. Some are believers, some on the fringe, some young children. They all feel able to engage with the church community regardless of their age differences. As people have joined the church we have not just reached younger people. We have baptised a retired couple, and had a number of older folk join the church, and there are lines of pastoral support in place that draw upon the wisdom that comes only with time. This, even though in many ways we show all the signs of a young chaotic church plant.
4. Revitalisation Empowers Forgotten Believers
Decades ago one of our members had a dramatic conversion while peeling potatoes in the back of the fish and chip shop where he worked. He gave his life to Jesus, stopped drinking, stopped smoking, and stopped swearing. He walked into the church a few doors up from him, and was welcomed, loved and discipled. He is straightforward. He is loyal to Jesus, and to the church family he loves. Unfortunately, his church was closing.
When we arrived, he was one of the first people I met. He was the doorman, shaking everyone by the hand, making sure we all had Bibles, and calling everyone ‘Bab’ (a Birmingham term of endearment). Within a few weeks I realised that every time I preached the gospel, he was leaning forward, with his Bible open, and with tears running down his face. I thought it was just my poor exegesis, but at the end of the service he was the first to come up, shake my hand and tell me how good God is.
Within a matter of weeks he became one of our best evangelists. He still is. He knows everyone on the estate (a housing complex that has many similarities with a housing project in the US), and tells everyone about Jesus. He is the first at church on a Sunday morning. He is still the doorman and loves the number of people he now gets to call ‘Bab.’
Three months into the revitalisation process, resistance against a reformed understanding of the gospel was strongly felt. It took everything I had — more than I had — just to stand up and preach each week. But, God had opened my eyes to this man and I felt Him saying, “He is why you are here trying to do this thing… because he, and others just like him need feeding. They are my sheep and have just as much right to be fed as anyone else. It is worth the hassle for them.”’
5. Revitalisation Values Marginalised Communities
Every year Birmingham City Mission distributes Christmas presents. In recent years, out of the whole of Birmingham, our zip code has received the most presents. Our church delivers the majority of those presents, and we get to talk with lots of people, and get to tell them about Jesus and about the church. However, in the UK, very few churches are reaching this kind of community.
Buildings are important in communities like ours. Being a known presence and an open door is a significant step towards a meaningful relationship. The people in our community are less likely to travel and firmly rooted in their local context.
There are many in our community who are used to being left behind. They may have had a number of people walk out of their lives over the years. Short-term and pop-up style ministries are distrusted. As a result, church in a home, or a school, or a pub, or anywhere else other than a church, is obviously not sticking around and not worth the effort of connecting with in a meaningful way. Bricks and mortar speak of a commitment to still be here in the good times and the bad, the rough and the smooth.
But of course, on estates the church buildings are in disrepair, being turned into garages, carpet warehouses, mosques, or (like the old Salvation Army hall at the bottom of our road) mixed martial arts gyms. What our estates need are gospel-preaching, servant-hearted, people-filled, bricks-and-mortar churches.
If we believe in faithful, Spirit-filled, expository ministry, we need to work out how to do it amongst our poorest people. A church planting model that takes seriously church revitalisation has the ability to value marginalised communities in a unique and powerful way.
6. Revitalisation Uncovers a Hidden Gospel Frontier
In preparing to move to Northfield, I assumed I had two jobs: 1) the internal work of revitalising the church, and 2) the external work of breaking new ground as we reintroduced the community to the gospel. What really surprised me was the hidden fringe of people who were somehow already connected to the church, and who renewed their interest in Jesus as life returned to the church.
There were people attending the church who didn’t know Jesus. There were family members who had stopped coming who began to reconnect again. There were people in the community who had a history with the church. There was a ready-made mission field of people that the church family already loved but were struggling to reach. It wasn’t difficult to motivate the church to pray for growth; growth was simply brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours being reached with the good news of Jesus.
Hear me rightly. Church revitalisation is not better than other forms of church planting. There are a number of models of planting that have tremendous strengths that are unique to them. But revitalisation is no different. Our problem is that so often we have overlooked revitalisation because we have only ever seen its weaknesses and difficulties.
But wouldn’t it be short-sighted to overlook a route towards establishing a vibrant gospel witness, in a gospel priority area, that builds positively on the past and straddles the generations? One that brings spiritual renewal to dormant disciples, may be uniquely placed to reach some of our hardest communities, uncovers ripe gospel frontiers, and through it all necessarily drives us to deny ourselves and follow Jesus along the way of the cross? This is the untapped opportunity of revitalisation. Why bother? Why not!
John James is pastor of Crossway Church, a revitalisation project in Birmingham, UK. He is the author of Renewal: Church Revitalisation Along The Way of the Cross (10ofThose), and this article is based on one of the chapters from that book.