Churches have been in need of revitalization since the New Testament church began because churches are made up of sinners who individually and collectively need to be sanctified. Typically, churches go through seasons of growth and decline. Unfortunately, some times the decline is not addressed and the decline continues. The attendance numbers decline, the mission of the church fades into the background, programs are dropped or held onto regardless of their effectiveness. Those with less loyalty or stake in the game leave, which are often the younger people and change agents. The end result is what is found in many declining, historic churches in New England, a small elderly congregation with little hope of surviving long term.
When such a church is in the midst of pastoral transition, there is potential opportunity for replanting the church and changing the trajectory from decline to growth.
Depending on the duration of the church’s decline, there are three typical models of replanting:
- Revitalization: The basic structures are in place but church needs to embrace the biblical mission and wrestle with how to contextualize the message for the 21st century. Tim Keller exhorts the church to do the hard work of developing their theological vision, to develop a “faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment of history.” . The church needs to hire a pastor who will help them realign their programs and mission to address the communication and cultural styles & complexities of the 21st century, in order to be better equipped to communicate and minister the biblical message to their community.
- Replanting: There is barely enough people (if they engage) to carry out the basic programs of the church, such as Sunday morning, an adult Sunday School class, and staff the few committees required to keep the church functioning. The majority of congregants are older and tired. The church is stuck in the past, continuing to implement an outdated model of church. The service is typically traditional with low energy which meets the needs of those attending but often doesn’t communicate or connect with younger couples and families. The church is ineffective in reaching the community and functionally invisible to the average person in town. The church needs to hire a pastor who will help them recontextualize the biblical message and mission in order to reengage the community with the gospel. They need a pastor who help them navigate the difficult waters of change, while maintaining unity and caring for the entire congregation. A replant will require significant changes to most aspects of the church, including the Sunday service and methods of outreach. All of which are difficult but far better than the alternative of closing.
- Restarting: The church doesn’t have enough people to carry out the basic programs of a typical church. The elderly congregation has neither the energy nor capacity to implement the significant change required to change the trajectory of the church from its steep decline. The congregation needs to hire a pastor who will continue to minister to their needs, keep their traditional service going but give the pastor the freedom to begin new ministry and services to functionally start a new church in the existing building.
Replanting/Revitalizing a New England church is very complex but understanding the starting point is critical. For most replant situations, it must begin with hiring a pastor committed to the scriptures, a pastor attuned to the 21st century New England culture and a pastor with the ability to lead the church through change as the church learns how to communicate the gospel, live out the gospel and engage in effective mission, while growing to love one another and those in their community.
I know these terms are used in a variety of contexts with different definitions but I wanted to share how I use them.
1]Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2012), 20.