One of the cries of the Reformation that is particularly instructive for us is Semper Reformanda or “Always Reforming.” The concept is that as a people we are always being reformed by the Scriptures. So long as we live on this side of glory, we are always reforming. To be more precise, the essence of the term is not that the church is changing but rather she is is always being reformed (by the Bible). This reformation pivots on our understanding and application of the gospel.
I rejoice in the work of church revitalization today. If you are not familiar with the concept, revitalization has to do with the reinvigoration of an unhealthy church with biblical ministry. This always starts with restoring the gospel to its rightful place of preeminence. The gospel, once enthroned in the church, seeps down into its marrow so that all of her life and ministry is calibrated by the truth of Christ crucified for sinners.
My contention is that every church needs to be continually revitalized. Let’s call it all ongoing revitalization (in contrast to major revitalization). The church is to be always engaged in the work of revitalization. This is because sin is not going anywhere and the gospel is infinitely precious. And every pastor should be aware of and therefore engaged in this work.
I am realizing this firsthand in my context. The church where I pastor, Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Neb., just celebrated her third birthday. During those three years from planting to now, pastors are largely communicating vision, introducing ministry and frankly trying not to break everything. We are excited with the new church.
But, at some point things begin to change. We lift up our head from the plow and see that the dynamics have changed a bit. Some new people have come, others have moved on. Some ministry decisions were excellent, others not so much. God has opened some doors and he has closed others. What’s more, there are some correctives that need to be made in ministry. In short, the church needs to be (re)calibrated by the gospel.
This work of ongoing revitalization is not fundamentally different than major revitalization. At its core, there is the challenge to keep shaping the church by the gospel. And this work never stops. Ironically, when the work of ongoing revitalization stops, a church is soon to be a candidate for major revitalization.
Pastors, if you are feeling comfortable in your setting, please do not. It is a first sign that you are losing a step and taking your eye of the ball. The ministry will suffer for it too. Instead, find yourself regularly engaged in the evaluation of yourself, leadership and the ministry that is shaped by the gospel.
Here are some questions that I have asked in our context:
1) How well are we doing making disciples? This has to do chiefly with evangelism, and involves local and international missions. Are people hearing and believing the gospel? Are church members active in evangelism?
2) How well are we doing training disciples? Are people being equipped for ministry? This includes people of all ages and aptitude. Are leaders being developed? Do men lead their families?
3) Does the church value the Sunday gathering? Do people come to church, and when they do, what is their disposition? Do they hunger for the Word preached? Are they joyfully content with the ordinary means of grace?
4) Is there a true sense of gospel-shaped community? Some indicators of this include hospitality, conversation, sacrificial service, etc. Do people open up their homes and lives to give to others? Is there buy-in to living all of life in light of the gospel?
5) Does the church serve? Are the same people doing all of the work? Are there clear pathways unto service? Does the church give sacrificially? Does the church embrace the opportunity to give themselves and their resources away for gospel advancement?
6) Does the church practice discipline? I am here speaking of Mt. 18. But I am not so much talking about how many people may have had their membership revoked, but whether or not there is a climate for admonishment and gospel correction in the church.
7) Do leaders speak with humility? I am often amazed at how the Apostle Paul was so transparent but yet also did not draw undue attention onto himself. Many leaders today have it backwards. They draw too much attention to themselves, while they lack the humility that comes from the gospel. Leaders in a gospel-shaped church will have the Pauline accent—they will be joyfully humble.
8) Does the church pray? Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, you would be amazed to know that many churches do not prioritize prayer, but rather they assume it. I don’t have any data, maybe Ed Stetzer and the Lifeway guys can help, but I’m guessing that church-wide prayer meetings do not dominate the calendar of dead and dying churches.
9) Do they sing like they believe the gospel? Look around on Sunday morning. Do the men sing? Is the singing at church loud? I tend to think that if the gospel is true, that even the most macho of dudes will sing loudly and passionately when they are gripped by it. Grace makes people sing. It always has and it always will. If you have a bunch of muppets in the congregation, then there needs to be a little more gospel-tonic in the pulpit.
10) Are leaders (particularly elders) encouraged? Ministry is hard work. It takes its toll. The writer of Hebrews understood this and correlated pastoral joy with members’ submission (Heb. 13.17). When the gospel is gripping a church, pastors are encouraged. Why? Because the chief desire of their soul (the glory of Christ) is winning in the midst of people they dearly love.
These are not the only 10 questions to ask, but they are ones that I am asking of our church. I want to be busy with the work of ongoing revitalization that God might be pleased to bless this ministry for years beyond my lifetime.