The Difficult Work of Renewal

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on church renewal and revitalization. One constant theme that runs through most of the resources on church renewal and revitalization is this: it is extremely difficult!

This morning, I came across this quote from Brandon Cox. “To turn things around, you won’t be able to do what you’ve been doing. Things will have to change radically and painfully, and very few churches survive the transition. You’ll have to let go of the reins and give up control. In other words, you’ll have to do the very thing human beings are most afraid to do for your church to have a chance at new life.”

Leading a church towards renewal and revitalization is a long, hard journey. There are no quick fixes.

The renewal and revitalization process requires the difficult work of:

  • saying goodbye to sacred cows
  • saying hello to new ways of being the church
  • admitting our failures (to the point of being repentant)
  • doing the hard work of figuring out who God has called us to be today
  • celebrating, remembering, and learning from our past successes
  • not allowing ourselves to have an unhealthy attachment to our past

Part of church renewal and revitalization is working through transitions. The transitions really pace through something like this: endings, the middle, and beginnings. We end former ways, work and transition through the middle, and then birth a new beginning.

In order to do this, churches have to have a clear focus. The church has to know where it is going. Once the church knows where it is going, it has to do the hard work of sifting through what will help and what will  hinder the church from fulfilling it’s mission and vision. This begins the difficult phase of transitions…ending some things, strengthening others, and beginning new ministries and programs that will better serve the mission and vision of the church.

All of this will bring about tension. Healthy churches will deal with the tension. The leaders will identify what is causing the tension in the middle and develop processes for working through it.

Church renewal and revitalization is difficult work.

Part of the difficulty stems from what I believe is one of the biggest challenges for churches everywhere…We have a problem admitting we have a problem.

One aspect that makes it difficult for churches to admit that we have problems is that, in general, people love their church. We love our churches, their history, their people…it works for us, right?

One of the key indicators that we have a problem admitting we have a problem is the language of, “Well, we’ve always done it that way.”

Let’s be honest for a moment, the whole “well, we’ve always done it that way” has ushered numerous churches around the world to the point of needing revitalization, renewal, or, in the spirit of honesty, a funeral.

So, when churches are faced with the hard cold facts of where we truly are, we get defensive (which is natural), we get dismissive, we get argumentative, and we are tempted to live in a state of denial.

Again, we have a problem admitting we have a problem.

For those of us in the United Methodist Church, we don’t want to admit that not paying our conference/district tithe is an act of disobedience and unfaithfulness.

We don’t want to admit that our buildings can be liabilities.

We don’t want to admit that we have become isolated from our immediate mission field.

We don’t want to admit that what we’ve been doing is no longer working.

We don’t want to admit that we aren’t as welcoming and inviting as we think we are.

We don’t want to admit that we really don’t trust our pastors, staff, and lay leadership.

We don’t want to admit that our pastors, denominational leaders, and church consultants might actually know what they are talking about.

We don’t want to admit that we have become too comfortable with being content and comfortable.

We don’t want to admit that we are fearful of giving up control.

We don’t want to admit that we are more concerned about our needs than the needs of the least, the last, the lost, and the poor among us.

We don’t want to admit that we are more attached to our past than our present.

We don’t want to admit that we are tragically behind the times.

We don’t want to admit ______________.

One of the first steps towards renewal and revitalization is to “let go of church as you’ve known it.” Church revitalization and renewal isn’t necessarily about transitioning worship styles, changing locations, getting a new pastor and so on. However, it will be about letting go of ministries, programs, ways of doing things that are no longer bearing fruit. It might be more about tweaking and strengthening current ministries than adding new ministries. I’m convinced that churches need to focus on doing less, better. Instead of adding new ministries that will “fix” the church, we need to eliminate things that are no longer effectively making disciples and improve/strengthen those things that have proven effective at the whole making disciples thing (which I’m pretty sure Jesus thought was fairly important).

For me, I think before we can “let go of church as you’ve known it”, we have to be willing to admit that we have a problem. After admitting that we have a problem, we have to make the decision if we really want to do “whatever it takes” to address the problems.

Church renewal and revitalization is difficult work. It takes a lot of time, hard work, and dedicated leaders. The good news is, renewal and revitalization is possible!

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