Although the term “church revitalization” has not commonly been in use for more than a few decades, the concept of churches needing to reverse their course and do a turnaround is as old as the New Testament scriptures. Jesus conducted a church health assessment of the churches in Asia in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. In five of the seven churches addressed, Jesus issues warnings that indicate they must take corrective action or risk the consequence of discipline or closure. Stanley M. Horton observes:
Each letter begins with a revelation of Jesus and a commendation, usually followed by a warning and a challenge. However, Jesus commends the churches’ virtues even more than He warns them of their faults. He knows exactly what is going on in each church. He knows their successes, their failures, their victories, their problems, their difficulties. More than that, He knows exactly what each one needs.
Another important observation in the letters to the seven churches is to whom they are directed. Each letter starts out with the same addressee: “To the angel of the church in…” The Greek word “angel” (angelos) is defined as a messenger, and is commonly interpreted to mean the pastor or leader of that church. Horton comments, “Like a watchman walking among them, He subjects them to rigid inspection. His purpose, however, is to encourage, preserve, and challenge them.”
Research indicates that approximately 80 percent of churches in America are either plateaued or in decline. Thom Rainer of the Rainer Research Group states, “Eight out of ten of the approximately 400,000 churches in the United States are declining or have plateaued. Of the churches for which we have data, 84 percent are declining or experiencing a growth rate below the population growth rate for their communities. The latter is defined as a plateaued church.” Although the Rainer Research Group gives a cross-denominational perspective, the same general trends are reported within the Assemblies of God. According to Alton Garrison, Assemblies of God General Assistant Superintendent and Director of the Acts 2 Journey revitalization initiative, 25.6 percent of Assemblies of God churches have plateaued, and 43.1 percent are in decline. Garrison notes that the rate of declining churches is at its highest in almost twenty years.
Despite the sobering statistics, here are four reasons for hope and optimism!
- First, the church belongs to Jesus Christ. We are His, and He takes special interest in His bride’s success and future. Jesus makes it clear: “I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus is determined to see His church move forward and has given us the necessary gifts and empowerment to enter into an effective partnership with Him in His mission.
- Secondly, there is a plethora of resources available to assist pastors and leadership teams to change their course from plateau or decline to growth and greater effectiveness. The Acts 2 Journey has seen measurable success in our Network and throughout the nation. Thom Rainer’s book on “Breakout Churches” and Ed Stetzer’s book entitled “Comeback Churches” are two must-reads for the pastor who is determined and committed to coming off a plateau or reversing the spiral of decline.
- A third reason for optimism is increased effectiveness that can be derived using a coach or mentor. Both Gene Woods and Thom Rainer identify that having outside input can be a significant benefit in leading a turnaround church. In his intensive study of thirteen “breakout” churches, Rainer states “at least eleven of the thirteen breakout churches had leaders who indicated the impact of ‘Positive Outside Influences’ in the turnaround in their churches.” Trained, certified coaches are now prepared, and a financial pathway is available to utilize this resource through a plan of underwriting and cost sharing through the PennDel Ministry Network for credentialed ministers (contact Tom Rees for more information at Tom@penndel.org).
- A final reason to be optimistic is optimism itself. Research identifies that when optimism was embraced, a willingness to change, consider future realities and prospects rather than idealizing the past, and openness to new methodology was also experienced in congregations. As Paul said, “Hope does not disappoint [us]” (Romans 5:5).
At some point, every church or ministry will face the prospect of plateau or decline. If this happens to be your context, please know that you are not alone, and you do not have to navigate these challenges by yourself. God most certainly cares, and we most certainly care. As a Network we are available and continue to explore, develop, and offer assistance to helping your church or ministry experience a turnaround.