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The Lazarus Church: Resurrecting a Dying Ministry

Hope International Bible Fellowship had a rich history. Founded in 1920s Hollywood and a church home for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, there was much to be proud of. The problem? The historic church didn’t seem to have much of a future. Over the years the neighborhood had deteriorated. Attendance dropped to 25 people, debt soared to $280,000 and negative cash flow reached $3,000 per month. The church leadership knew they had to change or die. And as a last ditch effort for new life, they called Ed Carey to be their pastor.

To the surprise of the leadership and dwindling congregation, on his first Sunday at the church, Carey preached his sermon with a sledgehammer in one hand and a message about idolatry in the other.

“In the Old Testament when people needed to repent of worshipping idols they were told to destroy those idols,” he told the church. “I’ve prayed long and hard over this issue, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the idols here is the choir.”

Then he took the sledgehammer and began pounding holes in the solid wood of the choir loft. After about 10 minutes of hammering, he turned to his new congregation and asked matter-of-factly, “Well? Are you going to help me clean up this mess?”

Today, 10 years later, Hope International is thriving. More than 200 people worship every Sunday, and they’ve helped plant several churches. The congregation serves two meals a day to any who will come, “on real plates, with real silverware,” says Carey. “We want to treat them with dignity.“ The congregation is debt free, multigenerational, multicultural and socio-economically diverse. Now the members envision raising leaders who can minister in ethnically diverse neighborhoods and establishing an urban church plant training center.

According to a Church Growth, Inc. study, an estimated 80% of churches in America are either plateauing or declining in attendance; either on the verge of closing their doors or in need of revitalization. Pastors of every background, in every denomination, wonder: How did this church go from being a growing, vital ministry to treading water? How did we lose sight of our mission? What is our purpose? And how can we turn the tide?

Breathing new life back into a dying congregation isn’t an easy task, but it is possible. We talked to pastors and experts around the country to compile nine proven principles for resurrecting a Lazarus church. And with any luck, no sledgehammer will be necessary.

Principle 1:
Build a strong spiritual core.

A lack of strong, spiritual commitment is the primary reason that churches fall into stagnation and decline, say church growth experts. Unanticipated events—internal divisions or natural disasters, for example—can foster sudden spiritual crises. But more often than not, congregations follow a long, slow slide into complacency.

Randy Frazee, senior pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Ft. Worth, Texas (pantego.org), saw a combination of crisis and ambivalence in his congregation when he arrived in 1989. Attendance ran around 400 after having reached 1,300 just five years previous.

“There was conflict among the church staff,” Frazee recalls, “and that had left a slow leak in our numbers. But the conflict exposed an underlying disunity in the church that had already been there. Things just came to a standstill spiritually.”

Frazee’s first step was to emphasize a return to genuine, personal, spiritual growth.

“Churches go through natural life cycles,” says Dr. Charles Arn, president of Church Growth, Inc. (churchgrowth.net). “The longer a church exists, the more a church becomes interested in self- perpetuation and loses sight of its original mission.”

Once filled with zeal for reaching the unchurched, churches begin to focus on paying the mortgage, hiring staff and maintaining existing programs.

Says Arn: “The first question church leadership should ask is, ‘Do I really believe that God wants lost people found?’ “

It’s exceptionally rare to see a church change without spiritual renewal, says Bill Easum, author and president of Easum, Bandy & Assoc., a church consulting organization (easumbandy.com). “I’ve never seen it. A church’s primary interest must be winning souls. And a healthy, growing church must have deeply committed spiritual leaders who trust each other, are free of major conflict, and who want to reach the unchurched.”

Principle 2: 
Identify your instrument of change.

Arn points out that churches which continue to do what they’ve been doing with no real attempt at change will, in turn, keep getting what they’ve been getting. “You need some new aspect in order to achieve new excitement, new energy and new mission opportunities,” he says.

A church’s method of change might take many forms: planting a new church, relocating the existing church to another area, revamping the church’s ministries, or changing the congregation’s worship style.

Easum believes church resurrection must begin with the pastor. “Every healthy church I know has a pastor of vision who says, ‘Canaan’s over there, and that’s where I’m headed. Would you like to come along?’ “

Hope International’s Carey says his sledgehammer sermon did more than just symbolize the necessity of eliminating preconceived notions of what a church should be. It also underscored his role as leader of the church.

“Our congregation had been without a pastor for a long time because they had no money,” Carey says. “They needed to know that I would be out in front.”

In an act of confidence- building, Carey sold his comfortable, suburban home to move into a cockroach-infested apartment in the neighborhood. “I needed to live the life they lived. They needed to know that I would be there beside them, and that I could be trusted.”

Principle 3: 
Eliminate the hurdles.

Getting rid of the obstacles that are preventing your church from changing requires determining whether a specific individual, an outdated tradition or an archaic approach is stalling your congregation’s efforts at growth. Are you worshipping with a choir and organ at 9 a.m. on Sundays because it’s conducive to worship? Or just because you always have? David Clark, senior pastor of Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wis. (beloitccc.com), believed that to reach its neighborhood, part of the church’s change would need to include non-traditional worship.

“We’ve gone through perhaps eight or ten different worship styles. And each change attracted different people so we knew we were doing the right thing,” he says. Central experimented with alternate styles at Saturday evening services and, once they were polished, added them to the Sunday schedule. Now the church offers two Saturday evening services and three Sunday morning services, one of which remains traditional.

Unfortunately some churches’ stumbling blocks are individuals whose poisonous relationships fuel an attendance drop. “When compromise and loving confrontation don’t ease the tension,” Easum says, “these people must leave because it’s impossible to grow a church with that kind of conflict present.

“Some churches would rather die than face confrontation. They’re not churches; they’re hospices,” he says bluntly. “Their focus is no longer on reaching lost souls but on placating individuals, on preserving the status quo and on perpetuating the existing church structure.”

Principle 4: 
Determine your church’s unique call.

An individual mission statement is a powerful reminder to members—and a strong declaration to visitors—of a church’s unique role in a community. Once that statement is embraced, future changes can be made more easily as they are explained in light of the congregation’s mission.

Frazee thinks a church’s mission should be so clearly understood that any member could recite it verbatim. To communicate Pantego’s mission (to transform people through the work of the Holy Spirit into fully developing followers of Christ), the church prints the shortened catch-phrase (“Fully Developing Followers of Christ”) on every bulletin and piece of stationery that leaves the office. Each worship service cites the mission at least once, and the congregation has even gone so far as to print the statement on T-shirts.

One of Senior Pastor Dan Gillett’s first steps at First Reformed Church in Holland, Mich. (firstchurchofholland.org), was to get the entire congregation thinking about its spiritual call. An historic church, the oldest in a 150- year-old community, First Reformed had lost sight of its original mission.

Gillett and his consistory moderated an all-church brainstorming session to determine the congregation’s greatest strengths and to discuss their vision of the future. From those findings, the consistory developed a church mission statement. That statement, often shortened to the “3 E’s: Exalt, Equip and Evangelize,” is visible on a church banner in the sanctuary, and the church organist even wrote a choir anthem that incorporates the core of the mission in its lyrics.

Principle 5: 
Put your call into practice.

The best mission statement in the world won’t revive a church if it doesn’t commit to putting its call into practice. “Our church had a tradition of reaching out to newcomers through the side door,” says Gillett, referring to secondary ministries like Wednesday night suppers, VBS or programs to reach the needy. “So we decided to build on that tradition with new ministries.”

Immediate changes included the addition of a Care Closet that provides non-food items to the needy; community block parties on the church’s front lawn; and participation in Kid’s Hope, a tutoring program for at-risk elementary-age students.

Pastor Ty Raver and the congregation of Bashford Manor Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., see VBS as their church’s unique calling.

“It was something the whole church could get involved in,” Raver explains. “We were excited to be doing it and even more excited when all the children showed up.” Gift Bibles and home visits cap off each VBS session.

And while only a few of those families have joined Bashford Manor, the church has grown from 25 passive worshippers to 40 attendees each week focused on their community.

Principle 6: 
Staff with equippers, not doers.

According to Easum, thriving churches staff their offices with servants, not professionals.

“You must empower and mobilize the congregation,” he says. “The staff exists to train, encourage and equip the congregation to minister, not to do ministry.” If a church is staffed by individuals who relish in—and perhaps even insist upon—performing all the church’s ministry tasks themselves, the church may indeed grow. But the growth will likely be short-lived, built on ministries that collapse when those individuals move on. Those churches also run the risk of creating a shallow congregation—comprised of pastor-centric members rather than true disciples.

Moreover, allowing a church staff to do all the work impedes congregants’ spiritual growth and development. And that lack of spiritual commitment is likely to cause growth problems in the future. “The less actual ministry the staff does, the more likely the church is to grow,” Easum asserts.

Principle 7: 
Shift your focus globally.

One of the most common characteris- tics of a growing congregation is its ability to turn its gaze outward, away from its own problems, toward a hurting world.

The Lancaster Evangelical Free Church in Lancaster, Calif. (lancasterefc.org), had dwindled in attendance to only 50 worshippers when Daniel Holmquist was hired as its senior pastor in 1999. It was clear that the congregation was in need of revitalization. After a church-wide study of John Piper’s book, Let the Nations Be Glad (Baker), the congregation embarked on a missions program that would eventually involve trips to Myanmar, Egypt and China. Although the congregation is still small by most standards—attendance runs around 150—the church has rediscovered a passion for the unchurched.

“We are not interested in becoming a megachurch,” Holmquist says. “We hope to plant new churches instead. But we’ve proven you don’t need to be a big church to make a big difference.”

Kim Kruger, pastor of Malone Assembly of God, in Malone, Wash., also believes that directing a church’s vision outside of itself is crucial. In 1990 the congregation felt immobilized by their small size, financial problems and a history of pastors who seldom stayed longer than three years.

“We may have a lot of problems,” Rev. Kruger told his congregation, “but we’ve also got the answer! We have Jesus!”

Almost immediately Kruger involved the church in a missions plan, beginning with the support of five overseas missionaries. In the ensuing years, Malone Assembly has increased its support to 48 missionaries, has sent members on mission trips to 11 nations, and has seen 17 congregants called into full- time ministry. That original group of 30 discouraged worshippers has blossomed into an enthusiastic total of 200 worshipping in three Sunday services—and all of this in a community of 200 residents.

Principle 8: 
There is no status quo.

Once your congregation has found new life, course corrections will be an ongoing part of your future. Examine existing ministries and evaluate the usefulness of your programs. Add, eliminate and retool those that require it. And envision what path your church will take in the next 10 years.

“Once you’ve turned the church around, you need to continue to work on areas of weakness as they arise,” Easum cautions. “It takes just six to 12 months of failure to do what a church is called to do, for that church to become stagnant again.”

When Randy Frazee arrived at Pantego in 1989, the congregation, he says, “knew they had to change or die.” Having seen attendance rolls hemorrhage to one-third their original levels, Pantego’s membership was prepared to make serious changes. Now the church sees a regular Sunday attendance of 2,500. With things going so well, the temptation exists to relax.

“Pastoring in those crisis years was actually easier than now when we’re not in crisis,” Frazee says. “Now, we must constantly make the case that we’re not finished yet. But I have never had a day in my life as a pastor that I have not been in transition to someplace else.”

Principle 9: 
Patience is essential to new life.

Research shows that significant changes in a congregation require an average of two years to implement; completely reviving a church will take four to five years.

“When you are starting the turn-around process, you’ll probably see your attendance go down before it goes up,” Frazee says out of experience.

“Unfortunately most pastors quit right at the point the church is beginning to turn around, mistakenly believing their efforts to be ineffective.”

And where do those pastors move? Usually it’s to other stagnant congre-gations, often to witness the same discouraging pattern.

“Find a mentor,” Frazee advises, “someone who’s been where you have been. And keep in mind the principle of momentum: When a ball first begins to go downhill it moves rather slowly. But the longer it rolls the faster it moves, eventually becoming an unstoppable force.”   

Edited by Amy Eckert. Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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