A Beginner's Guide to Church Revitalization - What Makes a Church Need Revitalizing?

So I'm writing, as a beginner, my reflections on church revitalization (check the start of the series for my rationale).

I want to begin with a few blogs that think about what makes a church need revitalizing. In doing that, I intend to suggest a few marks or issues that would point in the direction of revitalization. Most of these are continuums and often these marks are related, as we'll see. Some churches will manifest lots of them, others maybe only one or two. Some will be way down at one end of the continuum, others only drifting that way. All of which is to say I'm trying to build an approximate way to think about what sort of churches need revitalizing and also to help think about the similarities and differences in different revitalization jobs!

I want to start with doctrine.

Doctrine

If a church loses the gospel or sound doctrine, it needs revitalizing. We see that in the Galatian church, where Paul can write of the church turning to a different gospel, which is no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7). We read across the pastorals of false teachers pulling people away from the truth (1 Tim. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 2 Tim. 3:8-9; Titus 2:10-11). John writes of those who have split the church because of their false doctrine (1 John 2:19, 22-23).

You will know that these kinds of problems continue to beset churches. As I said, it's a spectrum. In some places there is a clear anti-gospel liberalism, traditionalism or experientialism. Key doctrines are denied and/or false doctrines are promoted. At the other end of the spectrum it's more a drift, or a matter of emphasis, or a possible trajectory. Sometimes the doctrines are obviously central to the gospel, other times they might seem more peripheral, the kind of thing we might be reasonably happy to agree to disagree on and yet the all-consuming emphasis on one debatable point of doctrine is causing a problem.

There are some difficult calls with churches in this kind of position aren't there? When does it stop being a revitalization job and start to be a separate and evangelize job? I don't think, for example, that too many of us are looking to try and revitalize the local unitarian church, or the local Roman Catholics. It's interesting in 1 John that John isn't looking to revitalize the leavers who denied the Son.

On the other hand, Paul (for example in Galatians) and Jesus (for example in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3) do seem willing to work even with those churches who are making quite serious mistakes.

I'm not sure it's easy to answer whether a church that has lost sound doctrine is open to revitalization, but here's a few issues to think about that might help:


  1. How central to the gospel are the doctrinal problems? The more central they are, the less confidence you will have that you are actually dealing with a church and with Christians. Denying the Trinity or the Atonement for example is probably more central than denying a complementarian view of marriage and ministry!
  2. How "official" are the doctrinal problems? If you are going into a church to revitalize against the official position of a denomination that will be hard. There are other less official, but difficult things. A church may have adopted a doctrinally incorrect set of values as part of the mission statement for example. Sometimes, the position may be entirely unofficial - it's the history or long practice of this congregation.
  3. Who has adopted the doctrinal error? A previous leader, the church council, the vast majority of the congregation, a small but influential group in the church etc.
  4. How open to being taught is the church? For many ministers who think about church revitalization, one basic question will be, can I get the job there? But for those who are sticking it out in a congregation, there is a similar question. What path can I see to some who teaches the truth becoming the minister here?
  5. How long has doctrinal error been around in the church? Or perhaps more accurately how ingrained is it?
There are probably a lot of other things to say on this mark, but hopefully this begins the ball rolling. The next mark I'll look at is holiness.

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