By Dr. Randy Millwood
Decades ago, Dr. Bob Dale imaged the life cycle of a local church with a bell curve. Many have done so since. And, while the specific stages vary, the paths all look similar.
In the very best of circumstances, local churches are born with dreams, mission mandates, and hope. The dreams/missions take the form of structures, systems, and strategies toward implementation. God’s people populate those structures, systems, and strategies. Then comes a season when those dreams which gave birth become increasing reality and — in His own way and time — the Lord gives the increase.
However, the community and the church changes over the years. The former tools are no longer as effective. Decline sets in — in the soul, in systems, and in fruit.
I am not bothered that local churches are born, live, and die. Churches are organic and exist for mission. It is The Church that lives on. But there are ways to extend the missional life of a local church — and replanting or revitalizing are two of those options. “Or” may not be the best word because — in the end — both have common goals.
Mission: Both replanting and revitalizing hope for an on-mission community of faith, deepening their relationships with Christ and each other while engaging a local mission field with the good news.
Outcome: Both aim for a radically changed congregation. Have you ever seen someone across a crowded room for the first time in a decade or more and wondered, “Who is that?” You know you know them. But over the years, they’ve lost half their weight, changed their clothing style, replaced coke-bottle glasses with contacts, and their hair has turned color (or turned loose). So, you ask someone nearby, “Who is that?” They tell you and your jaw drops. You rush to see your old friend and say, “Wow! I didn’t even recognize you.” This is the kind of radically changed congregation we want to see — one that is vaguely familiar but radically different.
I see the difference between replanting and revitalization in the path or process to get there.
Replanting starts on the outside and moves inward
Although over-simplified, replanting starts on the outside and moves inward.
Those structures, systems, and strategies that have outlived their purpose dismantle in favor of more effective options.
Although it sounds crass, an existing church sometimes receives the call to leave a missional legacy by surrendering cash, keys, and constitution to an entirely restructured new church.
The church secures new pastoral leadership — a person with planting passions, gifts, and equipping.
A replant often means closing the doors for a season, renaming, and revamping guiding documents (like a constitution), resulting in a whole other church.
Very often, a new core group from outside of the previous congregation takes the leadership reins.
And — in the end — the new people, systems, structures — result in spiritual renewal and greater mission.
Revitalization starts on the inside and moves outward
Revitalization gives attention to personal transformation first — that of the pastor, staff, strategic leaders and, ultimately, the people of God.
This is not a transformation that is merely prayed for, but it is one where the people take actionable steps of hearing from God, agreeing with God, and turning to God. It is as radical as Abraham’s story — leaving all he knew to go to a place that God would only show him as he abandoned those other things and chose God only.
Turning from the past, engaging an honest assessment of the present, and seeing with fresh eyes the mission field before them, this revitalizing congregation ultimately tackles those structures, systems, and strategies, embraces a new mission, and lives and looks different.
Back to that life-cycle bell curve: revitalization is best engaged when the church is most fruitful — at the top of the bell graph — or at the earliest signs of failing systems from the past. The further down that bell curve you travel — fixated nostalgia, divisive questioning, angry polarization — the less revitalization is a viable option, and the more replanting becomes the kingdom thing to do.
Revitalizing or replanting. In time, every local church will choose to embrace one of these healthy options or accept the inevitable result of a trajectory declining in spiritual fervency, ministry effectiveness, and missional fruit.
When it is time, choose wisely.
Dr. Randy Millwood serves as a church services consultant for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.