Following Christ is the solution for church revitalization
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about church revitalization lately. I’ve heard from many of you, my listeners of The Bible Speaks to You Podcast all over the world, about some of the struggles your churches are facing. After the recent Episode 206: How to Stop Legalism from Killing Your Church, I was surprised at how many people wrote me telling how their churches are struggling with this. And they don’t feel like they can say anything to the people who are being legalistic.
And this is just one of the challenges the church as a whole is facing right now.
Churches are struggling
Lots of churches, of many different denominations, are trying to navigate a changing world. Some churches are struggling just to keep the doors open because they don’t have as many members as they used to, they’re not getting many new members, they don’t have enough people to fill leadership positions, or they don’t have enough money to pay the bills.
And sometimes churches have just lost their vision for why they exist. They’re just going through the motions. They get bogged down in the mechanics of church activities, procedures, and building maintenance instead of focusing on letting the light of Christ shine in their own lives and then out into the community.
And some churches are closing.
I’ve got to be really honest here. This saddens me. My own church is dealing with some of these issues. It’s a time for prayer and listening to see where God will lead you and your church.
Jairus’s daughter and church revitalization
A couple of weeks ago, when these church challenges were heavy on my heart, I read the story of Jairus asking Jesus to heal his dying daughter.
You can read the whole story in Luke, Chapter 8, starting with verse 41.
You’re probably very familiar with the story but I’ll recap it just a bit. And as you listen to this abbreviated telling of the story, think about this 12 year old girl and what happened to her as a metaphor for your church and how what Jesus says and does applies to the well-being of your church.
Jairus, a leader in a local synagogue, comes to Jesus and asks him to come heal his 12 year old daughter who is dying. Jesus agrees, but right at that moment, a lady sneaks up behind Jesus and touches the edge of his cloak. She was instantly healed of a 12 year bleeding problem. Jesus stopped to talk to her and assure her that her faith had been what healed her, not just touching his clothes.
Jairus is waiting quietly on the sidelines for Jesus to finish with the woman. You don’t really want to interrupt Jesus while he’s healing someone. But I can just imagine how anxious he is for Jesus to come more quickly.
Just as Jesus is ready to proceed to Jairus’s house, a messenger comes with the bad news that the little girl is dead, so there’s no need to bother Jesus anymore. There was no expectation on anyone’s part that Jesus could help the situation after she died.
Everyone else knew she was dead
But that’s not the way Jesus saw things. He told Jairus to have faith and everything would be okay.
Imagine how Jairus might have felt as he walked back to his house with Jesus at his side. He probably felt all kinds of emotions ranging from total despair to hope. But think of how Jesus must have been walking with authority and assurance. That must have been a huge glimmer of hope for Jairus.
When they get to Jairus’s house, Jesus tells the mourners that the little girl isn’t dead. He saw and understood something they did not. He goes to the little girl’s bed and calls her back to life.
And don’t forget his attention to the little detail of him telling someone to get her something to eat. Jesus was not just a great spiritual teacher, preacher, and healer. He was also practical and never ignored someone’s everyday needs.
Jairus’s daughter and your church
So, in hearing this story again, in light of the challenges your church is facing, do you see some parallels?
I see more and more as I think about it.
Have you ever had one of those “come to Jesus” moments when you felt like your church was dying? You’ve tried everything you can to prevent it, but the situation just keeps getting worse? And you finally realize you need help?
We usually try all kinds of things to solve the problem with a temporary band aid. Maybe if we just get new carpet, better music, or have more programs everything will be okay. But none of those things are solutions. They can actually be decoys. In desperation, after we finally realize nothing we’ve tried has helped, it time to come humbly to Christ on our knees, asking for help.
A holy moment
When you get to this point of realization that you can’t do anything else, that you personally or collectively as a church, don’t have the answer, this is actually a holy moment. It’s when the human heart begins to yield to Christ. And we need to do this together as a church body.
Here’s the question we need to ask: Do your members trust Christ, as much as Jairus did, to heal your church, to show you the way out of the problem, and bring life to your church?
And then sometimes, right when we finally get to this point of complete surrender, and we feel a little hope peeking through the darkness, some emergency pops up, like the lady touching Jesus’s cloak, which prevented Jesus from getting to Jairus’s house sooner. It may seem like a distraction or even a postponement of what we thought was an answered prayer. And once again our hopes are dashed.
And then, right at that point someone says, “Our church is dead. There’s nothing else we can do. There’s no point of even praying about it anymore.”
When the messenger came from Jairus’s house with the news his daughter had died, Jairus could have listened to the messenger and given up. Do we ever do that when the world is telling us our church has died?
At a spiritual crossroads
But at this moment you have a choice. We are at a very important spiritual crossroads. We can accept what the outward appearance of things is or we can listen to what Christ is telling us, just like Jairus did.
We usually don’t get things right when we judge by the outward appearance of things. Even Samuel the prophet made this mistake at times. God told him to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king of Israel. When Samuel saw Eliab the eldest son, he was sure this would be the new king. God said no. In fact God rebuked Samuel and reminded him
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance [referring to Eliab] or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 NIV
Everyone close to Jairus was looking at the outward appearance of things and all they saw was a little girl who had just died.
When the world tells you, or fellow church members say to you, “The church is dead or is about to die,” will you believe this outward appearance of things or will you listen to what Christ is telling you?
Listening to Christ
Now, it’s easy just listening to this podcast to think, “Oh, I’ll listen to what Christ is telling me,” but when there are so many voices affirming your church is dying or already dead, like all those mourners at Jairus’s house, it’s harder to hear Christ’s voice. And if you do, it’s not necessarily easy to stand up and openly agree with Christ, because you might be laughed to scorn as Jesus was.
But, as I said, we do have a choice to make. Which voice will we listen to and follow?
The healing presence of Christ is always available, willing, and ready to bring healing and resurrection to your church. Will you, and I mean your church as a whole, quit trying and relying on material remedies and go directly to Christ for the solution?
If Jairus had not gone to Jesus, his daughter would not have been restored to life. If you choose not to turn to Christ, you’re probably not going to see any resurrection of your church until you do.
Following Christ brings church revitalization
I’ve heard some very inspiring testimonies of churches who were struggling but when they returned to focusing on following Christ in all they did, things turned around. I’ve also heard of churches that, even with all their prayers and best efforts, weren’t able to hold on and closed.
Every situation is different and I have learned not to be judgmental of these kinds of situations because you never know the whole story of what’s going on behind the scenes at a church.
And I’m going to say something that is hard for me to say. In one way, I don’t really want to say it, but there is some hard truth in it at times and it needs to be said.
There are times when a church has such a misconstrued idea of what church is, that this negative concept or approach to church actually does need to die. They have lost sight of following Christ and it’s more about human opinions on what to do or not do.
What needs to die in church
Think of what Paul is saying to the church in Ephesus about putting off the old self as putting off a negative concept of church.
…put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24 NIV
Let’s paraphrase this: put off your material approach to church which is being corrupted by human will and opinions or outside worldly influences. Be renewed in the mental and spiritual attitudes about what your vision for church is, and adopt a new, spiritual approach to church, which reflects God’s righteousness and holiness and following Christ.
Who is running your church?
If your church is governed by strong egos and personalities instead of humble listening and obedience to God, that approach to church does need to die, needs to be put off. And it may actually mean that a church with that mindset will close.
I believe with all my heart that Christ can always bring resurrection to a situation, no matter how bad things may seem to be, but if those in charge of a church, as well as the whole membership, refuse to actually humble themselves to Christ – and I’m not just talking about saying those words – that church is going to fail sooner or later.
There are some churches that have been dead for a long time, even though they have an appearance of lots of members, plenty of programs and activities. But they don’t really put obeying God and following Christ first.
The book of Revelation rebukes this attitude in the letter to the church in Laodicea.
Is your church lukewarm?
This is Jesus telling John what to write to this church. Think about your church getting a letter like this, knowing it was dictated by Jesus. This is Jesus talking.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
I counsel you to buy from me / gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Revelation 3:15-19 NIV
These are pretty strong but needed words. This is what Jesus says the Holy Spirit was saying to this particular church.
What does the Holy Spirit say to your church?
If you want to get an idea of what the Spirit is saying to your church, read Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of Revelation. It’s a pretty good summary of the things churches were struggling with in the first century. And it’s a pretty good picture of what churches are struggling with today.
Not everything in those seven letters to the seven churches will apply to your church, but you might get some insights into what you’re doing right and what needs to healed.
Now let’s come back to the story of Jairus’s daughter. Right after Jesus restores her to life, he tells someone to bring her something to eat.
When Christ brings resurrection to your church, don’t be so spiritually up in the clouds that you don’t do what meets the practical needs of the situation. Use your common sense.
Questions for church revitalization
If your church is struggling in one way or another – it could be not enough members, poor leadership, financial problems, divisiveness among your members, or who knows what else – I have a few questions for you to ponder as you’re praying about what to do.
First, have you, and I mean your church collectively, surrendered your own opinions and perspectives and opened your hearts to the presence of the Holy Spirit? Have you heard the voice of God telling what to do? Or are you trying to get your voice to be heard?
Do you have enough moral courage to declare out loud to those affirming the demise of your church, “Our church is not dying. Our church is not dead.”?
Are you absorbed in the problems your church is struggling with to the degree you’re not reaching out to your community? What if your whole church prayed collectively to bring healing and resolution to the biggest challenge in your neighborhood?
Are you caught up in the mechanics of church activities?
Are you putting first things first?
Another one of those seven letters in the book of Revelation, this time to the church in Ephesus is pretty clear on this point. Jesus expressed gratitude and approval of what this church is doing, but then adds,
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. Revelation 2:4, 5 NKJV
Repentance and church revitalization
Whether it’s mentioned directly or indirectly, this idea of repentance is one of the main themes in these seven letters to the churches.
What does your church need to repent of? Have you made some mistakes that need to be corrected? Are there decisions you’ve made as a church or attitudes your church has had over the years that need to be corrected in order to follow Christ more fully?
Are you holding onto the way you used to do things, 50, 20, or even 5 years ago? Or are you asking Christ to show you the way for what the needs are today?
Is there Christly love among all your members for everyone who comes to church? How do you feel about each other and how do you receive a visitor who may be different from you?
And here’s a question we all need to give serious attention to:
Where did Jesus build his church?
I love the dialogue Jesus has with his disciple in Matthew, Chapter 16 beginning in verse 13.
He asks them who people think he is. The answers are all over the lot. Then he asks his disciples the same question and Peter steps up to the plate.
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. Matthew 16:16-18 NLT
This doesn’t mean Jesus build his church on Peter as a person, although the name Peter does mean rock. It was Peter’s recognition that Jesus was the Messiah, which empowered him to teach, preach, and heal with such spiritual authority.
What is the rock?
But there’s something else my friend Jason Elam pointed out when I interviewed him on the podcast almost two years ago: Episode 120 – You Are Loved and Accepted by God.
Revelation from God and church revitalization
Jesus says to Peter that he didn’t learn who Jesus was as the Messiah from any human being, but that God revealed it to him.
Jason points out that the rock Jesus is building his church on includes the fact that we all have a direct relationship with God. It’s not just a pastor or church leaders who can hear God’s voice and receive His revelations. We all can. That’s part of the foundation of Jesus’s church.
Do you and your church value the ability of each member to hear God’s voice directly?
Are you just trying to keep things going the way they are? Do you really want your church to grow and prosper to help spread the good news of Christ? Let’s look at how the early Christian Church grew.
What if you had been at the Day of Pentecost?
On the day of Pentecost, just 10 days after Jesus had ascended, what if you had been one of those approximately 120 people (see Acts 1:15) who were gathered on the day of Pentecost because of their love for Jesus? How would you be thinking and feeling?
They were all together in a room, united in the wonder, the glory, and the awe of Jesus’s very recent resurrection and ascension. They had seen him hanging on the cross and thought everything was over. Not just Jesus was dead, all hopes of what he started were dead as well. But three days later they saw him alive. Then for 40 days he walked among them.
If you had been there and seen Jesus alive, how would that affect your attitude and sense of purpose?
On the day of Pentecost, there was a sense of unity in their awareness of who Jesus was as the Messiah and his victory over death. And they wanted to share Jesus’s message with the world.
They weren’t arguing over what color to paint the church building, or who would serve on what committee. They were focused on Christ.
Spiritual unity and church revitalization
And what was the result of this profound spiritual unity? The Holy Spirit descended on them and they all started talking in other languages, to the extent that people from other countries heard their own language. Peter took advantage of the opportunity to tell these devout Jews about Jesus and how he fulfilled just a few of the Messianic prophecies.
When he was done preaching, about 3,000 people were baptized and accepted Jesus as the Son of God.
To the degree your church becomes conscious of the presence of the risen Christ, as these early Christians did, you will no longer be tempted to say or believe that your church is dead or about to die and nothing can be done to save it. You will hear and obey the voice of Christ to “Get up!” just as Jairus’s daughter did.
When your church is united in and obedient to Christ, you’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit. God will put words in your mouth and actions in your hands and feet. God will send you to the receptive heart and those in need. You’ll meet people where they are, as Jesus did, and speak a language their hearts can hear and understand, like Peter did. And God will bless your church abundantly.
Photo credit: Josh Applegate
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
1 Samuel 16:7 NIV
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance [referring to Eliab] or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
Ephesians 4:22-24 NIV
22 to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;
23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;
24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Revelation 3:15-19 NIV
15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!
16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
18 I counsel you to buy from me / gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.
Revelation 2:4, 5 NKJV
4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.
Matthew 16:16-18 NLT
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being.
18 Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.