Those who strongly advocate church planting over and against church revitalisation sometimes quip, “it’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead”. There is some truth in that statement but those who have actually planted a church, or many churches, know that it is tough going. Not all church plants succeed, and many require huge amounts of effort to establish a healthy new church.
Over the last forty years, I have spent time as a denominational leader and as a consultant to churches that either wanted to church plant or needed to revitalise an existing congregation. It doesn’t take long to realise that whether you are dealing with a completely new church plant, or the replanting of a church that has either closed or will close soon, or significantly revitalising an existing church that has experienced significant decline, the issues are remarkably similar.
But before discussing the similarities, it is important to lay out the significant differences.
Churches that have experienced significant decline have generally waited too long before finally deciding that drastic action needs to be taken.
In other words, there was probably a time, some twenty years earlier when decline had begun and yet no-one realised that this was a time for action. At such moments a congregation generally has some resources of people and finance and there remains an opportunity to do something different. An intervention at this stage is usually effective. However, once decline has produced a crisis then an intervention almost certainly requires a change of leadership. The issue as to whether the existing leadership is prepared to relinquish control becomes the key question.
Churches that have experienced decline such that they have either recently closed or are about to close do not have an issue about surrendering control. In such a situation, leadership and indeed a core worshipping community must be introduced.
Often there is a need to clear up some significant inherited problems as well as bringing a clear eye to the opportunities that might exist in the situation.
Those who have a vision for a church plant, do not have the issues of the past but the hard work of creating a new worshipping community is still very daunting. So, having outlined a few of the obvious differences, what are the issue that face all three of these scenarios?
The first and most crucial issue is that of leadership.
Put very simply, churches with good leadership generally grow, churches with poor leadership generally do not grow. It is not just a question of locating a single gifted leader, a leadership team needs to be brought into being.
Second, there needs to be clarity around purpose and vision. In the case of revitalisation and re-planting, the issue is to rediscover the DNA that caused that congregation to be planted originally. Is that original DNA, or we could say, Divine Deposit, still valid or does it need to be radically recast? A new church plant needs to work on the same issue – what is the reason for the plant (the purpose) and what is it going to look like (the vision).
Third comes the practical issues of finance and other resources. Is it possible to rework the finances such that the existing building is viable? Does a new church plant have sufficient resource to pay those who need to be paid, to hire a meeting venue at an appropriate time in the development of the plant and to pay for whatever programmes are going to be initiated?
Fourth there is a need to begin the process of listening to what God is doing in the community. Whether a revitalisation, or a replant, or a completely new plant, all of these situations need to spend time attending to what God is already doing in the community. Where are the signs of God at work? Who are the people of peace? What are people in the neighbourhood like and how are genuine bridges going to be built with those who live nearby?
Martin Robinson October 2022