By Larry Davis
There has been a shift in the overall perspective of Christians in America that is now impacting the life and death cycle of the local church. When the church was in its infancy, death and sacrifice were understood to be a natural part of the process of following “the Way of Christ.” Birth, growth, death, and resurrection were intimately connected to our Savior. However, there has been a gradual shift of western thinking that has infiltrated both the church and our ideas of the church’s life cycle. The infiltration of business-minded success has led many to believe that growth should always be up and to the right. When it is not, we must then change something about our model or process to avoid the eventual death of a local church.
While “no one knows for certain how many churches close their doors in the United States each year, […] it’s probably safe to say the number is at least 7,000, and that number is growing. Twenty churches are closing their doors every single day.”  Most denominational leaders agree that we can’t solve the issue through church planting alone. The staggering reality is that between “70 and 80% of the churches in North America are plateaued or declining.” 
Come and die
For the past few years, I have had the privilege of leading three revitalizations and witnessed these realities up close, not from an academic ivory tower. In all three successful revitalizations, I have discovered that they first died to what they thought their church should be before they experienced the miracle of resurrection. In countless moments of consultation, with almost 100 churches to date, I have found that all declining and dying churches ignore the example of Christ’s call to come and die and how that applies to their potential resurrection. That is because we need a paradigm-shifting reality in our thinking with regard to the necessary process of death.
A BIG PROBLEM is that most of the consultants we read or seek out advise tweaks in process/systems, changes in leadership, purchasing their books (my personal favorite), or joining a coaching network. The majority of such counsel offers little scriptural support, with wisdom typically drawn from the aforementioned western business model. I’m not saying that we can’t learn from business models or secular theories on leadership. What I am saying is that before we try to apply that wisdom, we should look for a biblical basis to undergird that wisdom. More bluntly, we should look to Jesus as the greatest leader and the greatest example for revitalization.
“Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:23-26, NIV). 
As we follow Christ, we develop His mind and His heart. When that takes root, we should discover that we are willing to do whatever the Lord asks of us to reach our surrounding community and bring them into a life-changing, disciple-based relationship with our Savior. However, for most of the churches in the United States, this is not happening. This is because our prayer life is turned inward. I discovered that the first and greatest step to seeing a church experience revitalization is PRAYER. You may think this is a given, but when you examine most prayer processes within churches, the focus is on the church’s aches, pains, owes, and woes. In contrast, a church must begin praying in a way that brings brokenness and eventual repentance for their disobedience to Christ’s mission.
Prayer turned upward and outward
In one case, a local assembly read Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer as they began to pray for their community and the direction toward which the Lord Jesus was leading them. The combination of a prayer life that turned upward and outward with the reality of Rainer’s book led them to repentance. They admitted and agreed with God that they had led their church into death. As they prayed and humbled themselves before Him, they surrendered their local church to the Lord’s care and promised to do whatever was needed to see their community introduced to Jesus and then followed by growing in that relationship with Him. In other words, they died to self, placed their church in a tomb, and awaited resurrection!
Resurrection came in 2015, and because this church had been born again through resurrection, they were willing to change anything and everything about the practice of their faith toward reaching their community. This church still held to biblical values and the centrality of the Gospel in their public worship services, but they changed their worship style, their children’s ministry, and their polity. They did each of these through prayerful study of the Scriptures and the result was new life evidenced through baptisms, family ministry, and a general exuberance of God’s abiding presence! This church was formally known as Grace Baptist Church in Seaford, Delaware. I was honored to lead them through their death, burial, and resurrection. The resurrected church that emerged is now Grace Seaford Church.
I stand at the door and knock
It is my conviction that our Savior wants to do this with every church. Jesus pleaded with the local church “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me.”  Our Savior longs to see His bride come to Him willing to surrender all of who she is, so that He can resurrect her without stain or wrinkle through the washing of His Word. As that church dies to self and admits they have led their church to death, they can then prayerfully submit to Christ for a resurrection. This renewed prayer life enables the church to fully embrace a new direction that is anchored in the advancement of His Kingdom while no longer being stuck within their own.
One of the beautiful realities that emerges from this new paradigm and mindset is that the process of grieving your eventual death brings a schema that is easily understood by most local pastors. Many are familiar with the grieving process developed by Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This a process which pastors can lead their churches through as they work toward an acceptance of their eventual death. I plan to talk more about this process and its implications in a future article. Until then, may our God and Savior lead us all continually into Death, Burial, and Resurrection for His glory alone!
Larry Davis serves as the lead pastor of Grace Seaford Church in Seaford, Delaware.
Cover Photo – Larry Davis baptizes Brett Sellers. (photo submitted)
 Rainer, Thom S., Anatomy of a Revived Church: Seven Findings of How Congregations Avoided Death (p 14). Rainer Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Cover Photo – Larry Davis baptizes Brett Sellers. (photo submitted)