Church revitalization from 30,000 feet

The vast majority of American churches are in some stage of decline, especially during COVID. That’s largely because those churches were founded and designed for ministry in a context that no longer exists.

The further south you go, the higher the chances that you can get away with doing ministry for a bygone age. Here in Chicagoland, as with other major metropolitan areas, it’s almost impossible to do so.

I serve a church in the outer ring of suburban Chicago. As we studied our demography we learned that we have more in common (demographically) with areas like Los Angeles and Dallas than other suburbs like Naperville or Lombard.

That’s because of the two major demographic group in a fifteen minute drive of our campus are first and second generation Latino/a immigrant families. The other two dominant demographics are affluent retirees (and soon-to-be retirees) and two-parent working families.

Approximately half of our congregation has moved outside of the city limits of our suburb and now lives in a cluster of small, semi-rural satellite municipalities near us.

The church was estalished in the 1950s to “serve” a newly developing part of our city that hosted the young families buying homes as part of the post-war boom. Most people lived within walking distance to easy driving distance.

That’s no longer the case.

So, what to do?

Most churches choose to do nothing. They continue to do ministry as they have always done it.

And they do it for understandable reasons:

  1. They are so close to the situation that it’s hard to see reality.
  2. They love and care about the people who are part of their congregation and don’t to want to start a fight.
  3. They don’t love the results, but they’re pretty happy with church as it is.
  4. They don’t know how to start the conversation about the future.
  5. They realize that change means that they’ll lose some things and some power that they enjoy having.
  6. They’re tired and discouraged from trying things in the past that didn’t work.
  7. They’re friendly, but because they’re so embedded in the congregation they don’t really have “room” for new friendships.

The work of revitalizing a congregation is ultimately done by the Spirit of God and it’s a long-term transformation. In general, however, God brings a pastor or elders to a situation who desire more for the church in order to more fully glorify God.

In order to kickstart a conversation about revitalization, it’s important to do three things:

  1. Focus on “why?”
  2. Acknowledge reality
  3. Describe your preferred future
  4. Make plan

The first is the most important. Most churches understand what they do and how they do it. Churches connect people to God and to one another. They do it through worship services, Bible studies, small groups, mission projects, service projects.

Ask church members “why?” and you’ll likely get an awkward silence.

At the end of the day, the why is really what drives everything in your church. Get it wrong and it produces the wrong results.

Declining churches act as though their “why” is “because our people are the most important people in the world and we ought to give them what they want or we’ll really be in trouble.”

Healthy churches recognize that their why is something like “because Jesus is the source of our hope and peace and we want to share the way he’s changed us with others who don’t know him yet.”

The paradox of congregational health is the less you think about yourself, the happier and fulfilled you will be.

There is nothing quite so depressing and miserable as a bunch of people whose perspective is limited to preserving their preferenes.

There is nothing quite so engaging as a bunch of people who want to follow Jesus together and introduce others to him.

In coming posts we’ll look at the other three parts of revitalization.