TURNAROUND CHURCH & 7 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Revitalizing a Church by @BobWhitesel published by @RenovateConf #BestOfYear

By Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., Church Revitalizer Magazine, 6/12/18.

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Though the church began to grow again on my first turnaround effort, knowing the following would have made the journey more pleasurable for both myself and the congregation.

I wish I had known #1. Church revitalization will take 2 to 3 times longer than you expect. 

As my first church revitalization effort, I asked and received a one year contract. The church and I felt this would be sufficient time to turn the church into a new direction. But, at the end of one year I had only gained enough social capital for the congregation to start trusting me. It took another year, which the church graciously offered to finance, before the first signs of change emerged. However, when small fruit emerged at the end of the second year it provided a foundation for revitalization to actually emerge in the third year.

Here is a timeline that works in many congregations, yet it’s slower than the church or the shepherd usually desires.

Year 1: Fact gathering and building up the social capital needed for the congregants to trust you.

Year 2: Implementing small change in the organization. Small victories can begin to convince reticent members of the church the validity of the new direction. More on this in “ Things I wish I had known # 2.”

Year 3: Church systems begin to change. Often times church leaders think if they change the system, then the congregants will change. But because the church is an organic institution (1 Cor. 12:12-27) changes in the system must bubble up from changes in people, not from top-down changes dictated from the top. A three year process gave this time to happen.

I wish I had known # 2: the power of small victories.

In year two, initial but small goals were attained. One of our small goals was to see in both the spring and fall a “Newcomers Sunday School class” emerge. We publicized the date for the beginning of the class even when we didn’t yet have any visitors. But once we published the date, suddenly members in the congregation started inviting their friends to church. The newcomers’ class provided a tangible target. Thus, small victories in the second year convinced the congregants we were headed in the right direction.

I wish I had known #3: Don’t speed up too fast just because you have some small victories.

The small victories got the church excited and soon they were ready to launch a worship service oriented towards younger people. At this time I came under a lot of pressure to begin the service immediately before it was thoroughly mapped out, staffed and prepared. Many of the leaders had read books that discussed how a church can grow up to 15% by adding a new service. And because the church had limped along not meeting it’s monthly budget for about 18 months, the pressure of an added revenue stream push the leaders to decide a new service was necessary sooner rather than later. 

I advised and eventually convinced the leaders a slowed down approach was warranted, so that the new service could be better planned and developed. I fact, this new service did not begin until almost 11 months after we began planning it. The slower paced allowed new and younger leaders to be recruited and prepared. The extra planning time seemed excessive to me at first, but in hindsight it was just about right. It allowed the turnaround church to develop indigenous leaders who reached out in a well prepared worship expression.

I wish I had known #4. Don’t expect new people to support the church financially or physically for some time.

The newcomers kept our church at arms length for almost a year or more before they decided to become part of our membership. They seem to thoroughly enjoy the newcomers class, but when membership was mentioned they often stiffened.

In response I used the metaphor of dating. 

The first date: I said when new people visit a church, it’s like being on a date: you aren’t ready to commit to a long relationship but rather want to get to know the other.

The second date: Going to the newcomers class was like a second date: it was a time to get to know about the hopes, aspirations and purposes of one another.

Engagement: After completing the newcomers class I said they may want to pray and consider becoming a member. I encouraged them to consider more carefully their level of involvement, their spiritual gifts and how they would fit in. I also stressed that the engagement could be as long as they needed.

Marriage: Finally I explained that when they agreed to be part of a membership class, this was like marriage. They were not marrying to just a local congregation church but also to the body of Christ as present in His people.

I wish I had known #5. You must spend more time in leadership development than you think.

As the church began to turnaround, there was an influx of people excited about the church’s direction. But this sometimes draws people who did not fit well in their previous church, because they were not mature enough to take on leadership responsibilities. I learned the hard way that sometimes people who come to a revitalized church are often people who need revitalization themselves – because their involvement in another church has not been a healthy one. Therefore I developed leadership courses and a mentor/mentee system so that new leaders could be vetted and trained before they were put into volunteer roles.

I wish I had known #6. There’s more power in spiritual transformation than most people realize.

People began to share testimonies about how their lives were being changed by the Holy Spirit. An emphasis upon salvation began to refocus the church. Older members recalled how in the early days the church, they had also emphasized conversion accompanied by powerful testimonies of change. Older members began to see that a turnaround in spiritual climate mirrored those times in the past when the church had been happy and healthy.

As a result I train turnaround pastors in the importance of understanding a church’s history and to pinpoint when they had been alive in the past. Usually a church had been alive in the past when the church was involved in evangelism and conversion. Reminding a church about this part of their history, made it more palatable for their present… the salvation of individuals. 

7. Last, but not least, is the power of a praying congregation. I set a goal for the prayer ministries to grow at the same rate as the church. If the church grew 10% in six months, we then expected 10% more people involved in prayer ministries. It has always seemed to me a spiritual principle that vibrant prayer life in a church would lead to a vibrant church.

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