A Beginner's Guide to Church Revitalization: What Makes a Church Need Revitalizing (Part III)

Having considered problems with doctrine and holiness that can lead to a church needing to be revitalized, I want to move on to mission and evangelism. In short, the church that has given up on making disciples (Matt. 28:19) has essentially given up on it's reason to exist.

Mission and Evangelism

Now I'm aware of that there's a big discussion around the mission of the church, the missio Dei and so forth these days. So I might as well nail my colours to the mast and say that it seems to me Jesus gives a mission to disciples to be disciple-makers in Matthew 28 and that this is to be enacted as his disciples are his witnesses to the world (Acts 1:8). This is what you see happening in Acts and being worked out in the letters. That this can be nuanced in all kinds of ways is certainly true, but if we lose our commitment to seeking to persuade people of the truth of the message of Jesus Christ and then teaching them to live that out, then we have truly lost the plot as a church.

The problem, as almost any church leader with a passion for evangelism knows, is that keeping evangelism near the top of the priority list in a church is very difficult. The reality is that churches can appear to be functioning very well thank you very much without doing much evangelism, but if you drop the ball on the Sunday School or the coffee rota, well that's immediately obvious (and unpopular!).

There's more to it than that though. Evangelism is hard, especially in our increasingly secular world. It can be costly in terms of relationships, discouraging in terms of rejections and embarrassing when we're mocked.

We used to think about church in hard places - and certainly there are some places that are still harder than others in the UK (traditionally the evangelical churches have struggled for example in majority Muslim areas, council estates and so on). However, I think the reality today is that there are mostly hard areas. The middle-class suburbs and universities where evangelical Christianity used to be vibrant are now increasingly difficult, because of the wide open space now between Christian ethics and middle-class liberal ethics.

All of that tends to churches gradually reducing their evangelism. Churches then become happy Christian clubs and church leaders become chaplains to the those clubs. However, they are clubs that have forgotten that following Jesus is the only real reason to join, but they're not telling anyone about following Jesus. So no-one new joins and although there may be a bit of growth as families grow, eventually a plateau and then a decline sets in with respect to numbers.

Now the question of numbers is controversial. We all know that ministry and evangelism gauged by numbers is dangerous. If greater numbers is all you want then that may best be achieved by changing the gospel! Numbers are also of limited value as a tool. First, in this case, the problem shows up in numbers quite a lot later than the actual problem set in, i.e. you start looking at the numbers as plateau and decline starts, but the cause was further back. Second, plateau and decline may actually be caused by all sorts of things (including faithfulness in an antagonistic culture!), so it's important not to conclude the wrong thing from numbers. For all that though, numbers (carefully used) do provide us with some information as to what is going on and we certainly can't expect to see growth in numbers without evangelism.

A further cause of problems I think, especially within evangelicalism, has been the focus on particular techniques and programmes of evangelism. Again this is a little controversial, but every so often in a church someone realises that we need to be doing evangelism. So they boot up the new approved technique that's doing the rounds (the Jesus video, Alpha, 24-7 prayer or whatever) and it maybe has a good short term impact (although actually results are often a bit of a let down), but the long term doesn't change, because the church (and by that I mean the Christians) hasn't been taught and transformed to be at heart an evangelistic, disciple-making body.

I think there has maybe also been something of a problem with handing evangelism over to the evangelists or the evangelism ministry group, i.e. I think a lot of Christians have abdicated their responsibility. Undoubtedly God wires and gifts some people to be especially good evangelists, but if the role of a disciple is to be involved in making more disciples, then I take it we all want to be engaged in some way in that discipleship, at least in prayer and witnessing to friends, family and colleagues.

Too many (even evangelical) churches have spent far to long in the social club mode and a key (and tough) element to revitalizing a church is often to get mission and evangelism back to the top of the agenda and, very importantly, properly integrated throughout all the Christians in a church.

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