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How to Revitalize an Old Church (and Live to Tell the Tale)

How to Revitalize an Old Church (and Live to Tell the Tale)

Let’s state the obvious here. If we let a church die and go out of business, then bring a new group into the building and start afresh with something different, that’s not the way to revitalize anything. We have held a funeral and then birthed a new flock.

And that is often necessary and good.

We’re talking here about taking a dying, dwindling congregation, one that has been on the decline for years and even decades. To revitalize it means turning it around, giving the people new vision and watching God turn it into a strong body of believers.

Hard to do? You bet. And, may we say, pretty rare, too.

Most dying congregations are that way for a reason, chief among them being that they are wed to the present way of doing things and are dead-set on not changing a thing.

A young friend will be leaving his church soon to move to another state where he will be taking the pastorate of an older congregation that has been dwindling in numbers. Members who remain are all in their golden years.

The pastor was excited but clear-headed. He knows this can be hard in the best situations and impossible in others. So, wisely, he’s picking the brains of seminary professors and veteran pastors with experience in the business of turning around dying congregations. And, he’s interviewing young ministers who are accomplishing this very thing, wanting to know what they have learned.

As is often the case, his small congregation has invited a larger, dynamic church to revitalize them, completely turning over the keys to them, so to speak, which is the only way to achieve this. The big church is the one bringing in my friend to lead the one on life-support. That’s a good sign and shows the weak congregation is serious about wanting to survive and have a strong presence in their community.

For what they are worth, here are a few of my comments to the young minister about how to revitalize an old church…

1. To revitalize a church, the older congregation must want to change.

Anyone who does not like change is going to have trouble with Jesus.

He said, “Who said that?” I said, “I did,” with a smile.

The Christian life is all about change, i.e., growth. See 2 Corinthians 3:18.

I can take you to several dwindling congregations that say they want to revitalize, and clearly they need an infusion of new members. However, get beneath the surface and you quickly see they want to grow so long as this will not result in any kind of disruption of their patterns. They like things the way they are and resist anything new or different. Such churches are headed to the graveyard just as fast as the hearse can get them there.

In a defining word, the Lord Jesus’ last message in the New Testament includes this line: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). He is indeed. He is always at work making things new. His people should beware of being wedded to yesterday’s methods and successes.

2. It’s not that old people dislike change. They just don’t want it suddenly and abruptly, but gradually.

There are no 1948 Packards in the church parking lot. The seniors all drive late-model cars, many own wide-screen televisions and they use the computer.

They can handle change, so long as it’s not abrupt, not forced on them, and they are given time to adjust to it. (The way they got from the ’48 Packard to the late-model Buick was by a series of increments: a 1957 Ford Fairline, a 1968 Chevy Impala and so forth.)

The members of my last church complained when we brought the drum set into the sanctuary. But these days, the instruments accompanying congregational praise include several guitars, a keyboard, digital drums, a violin or two, and a number of wind and brass instruments.

The people have learned to love it.

3. Those who made the decision to invite the big church to take over and “make this work” will need to make follow-up commitments to the change.

One pastor of such a dying congregation told me that two members of the committee bringing him on board soon left the church. One said, “Pastor, I know we said the church needed to make changes, and we meant that. But I didn’t know the changes would affect me personally.”

That’s why it’s not enough for the church to vote to change one time. They must continually own the change going on before them, painful though some of it must be.

Old people especially—I’ll reach 74 my next birthday, so we’re talking about my group!—get used to things the way they are and find adjusting difficult. They have their friends at church, they have known the members of their Sunday School class for years, and most will not automatically welcome newcomers into this mix.

Are these points contradictory, saying that old people do not automatically dislike change and yet they find it difficult sometimes?

Probably. But they’re still true.

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Joe McKeever has been a preacher for nearly 60 years, a pastor for 42 years, and a cartoonist/writer for Christian publications all his adult life. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.