This story begins in 1980 in Miami, Fla. when a young, inexperienced pastor fresh from seminary arrived at his first pastorate to encounter some startling realities. Excited to pastor his first church, he soon learned of the desperate situation. Church attendance had diminished from over 1,000 to an average of 55. There were no children’s Sunday school classes because there were no children. The average age in the congregation exceeded 70 and the past had become glorified nostalgia. On his first Sunday, when the service ended, he and his wife made their way to the lobby; amazingly, the congregation had exited and rapidly emptied the parking lot. There were no sounds of fellowship from lingering crowds, only an empty sanctuary and parking lot. Within five minutes of giving the benediction, he went outside to try to speak to the quickly departing congregation and found himself embarrassingly locked out of the church building by the equally rapid exit of the part-time janitor. Realizing they had to break into the church get their car keys and Bible, the sudden realization of the enormity of this pastoral challenge brought them to their knees. However, the discouraging news continued as he learned that they were on “cash only” due to past payment delays with local businesses. The church had not met its budget in years. So, what was he to do?
While grateful for his seminary education, he realized he was unprepared for this moment. Thankfully seminary preparation had been framed by a relentless commitment to the inerrancy of God’s Word. So, to the Scriptures he went to find the answers. This story may seem hard to believe, but in reality, it happens far too often, and I know it is true because I lived it. So how did God’s sufficient Word instruct me to respond?
This was a church in decline with the end in sight. It could be said one flu season would close the doors, yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The church was daily vandalized which revealed two interesting things to me: one, the neighborhood viewed the church as an unused building; two, there were people to be reached. Could this church be revitalized? In short, the answer is yes. As a matter of fact, the Holy Spirit has provided us with a roadmap in the Bible for pastors to lead churches back to spiritual vitality.
In the book of Acts there are thirteen words uttered in frustrated anger from an enemy of the Gospel. These words were proclaimed in Europe less than 25 years after the Ascension of Christ, “these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” We know in this instance who turned the “world upside down,” the people of God empowered by the Spirit of God. We know what turned the “world upside down,” the power of the Gospel. We even know how they turned the “world upside down,” evangelism and discipleship; church planting AND church revitalization; deeds of love and mercy; and leaders multiplied and mobilized. We are not in need of new strategies; we simply need to implement this apostolic strategy to “turn the world upside down.” Christ Himself reveals the three-step church revitalization roadmap.
God’s instructions to the church at Ephesus, found in Revelation, serve as a curriculum outline for church strengthening: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen and repent and do the deeds you did at first.” (Rev. 2:5) The Scripture presents a paradigm of moving from spiritual decline and functional malaise to Spirit-filled vitality. There is found our three-fold paradigm for renewing our churches: Remember…Repent…Recover…
Church vitality is nothing more than following God’s prescription for church health, which naturally leads to conversions and improved personal discipleship, for our good and God’s glory. For the past three decades, “church growth” has been the focus of many churches. All this emphasis on size, numbers and programs has been to no avail as evidenced by thousands of churches closing their doors every year. Church health must precede church growth. Only healthy churches manifest well-balanced, long-term growth.
So how does a church follow the three-step roadmap?
The answer is found in the Epistles of Paul, who strengthened churches and mentored both revitalization pastors Timothy and Titus. It is there that the ten strategies to implement the three-step roadmap of Remember, Repent and Recover are found. To learn the ten strategies leading to church health, attend the Embers to a Flame Conference, January 16-19, 2020 at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala. Embers to a Flame is an affordable conference for pastors and church leaders where timeless, proven, biblical strategies for church health are taught. Go to www.emberstoaflame.org and register today – don’t wait as seating is limited.
-Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III
Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.
Dr. Reeder completed his doctoral dissertation on “The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization” and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina where he serves as adjunct faculty member. He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church.