In a post-Covid world, almost every church finds itself in somewhat of a revitalization process. But even before Covid, a multi-faceted approach to planting new churches and revitalizing older churches was beginning to emerge as a unique strategy for addressing the staggering need of reaching a post-Christian world.
More and more younger leaders today are considering the possibility of church revitalization as an alternative or a means of church planting. In this month’s article, church revitalization expert Dr. Gary Moritz addresses a few advantages leaders and church planting churches should consider before planting a new church. It is possible the church you are wanting to plant already has seeds growing just below the surface. I encourage you to join this growing conversation.
– Dave Rhodes, Director of Church NEXT
In the ever-evolving landscape of American Christianity, a significant paradigm shift has been underway in recent years. Church revitalization has emerged as the new face of church planting. This transformation is driven by a complex interplay of factors, including shifting demographics, resource constraints, and a deeper appreciation for the untapped potential within existing congregations. In this article, we examine each of these factors.
Shifting demographics are driving the change.
Changing population dynamics in America have a profound impact on society, politics, the economy, and various other aspects of life. Several key demographic trends have been shaping the United States in recent years, and understanding these shifts is essential for policymakers, businesses, society, and especially the church.
One of the most notable demographic changes in the United States is the aging of its population. This shift is primarily driven by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, who are reaching retirement age in large numbers. Many established churches in the United States are grappling with aging memberships, aging pastors, dwindling attendance, and the challenge of connecting with younger generations.
Most have no succession plan in place. According to Lifeway Research, the age demographics of the church mirror those of our country’s aging population with churchgoers twice as likely to be 65 and older.1 The average age of the lead pastor in America is 51.2 According to the SBC, 18 percent of pastors are over the age of 65.3
This aging population in the church means that the number of churches that will need church revitalization in the future will only grow. As churches and pastors delay succession to a younger pastor and leader, the average age of the church increases and has the potential to die with its congregants.
How many church planters are we producing now? According to Lifeway research, more is needed.4
The number of churches that need to be planted to keep up with population trends of closure is too high for the number of churches we are planting.
Seminaries simply can’t keep up with the number of pastors needed for the number of churches to be planted. But what if we could close less churches? What if we replaced older leaders with younger leaders? What if we could mobilize lay leaders within existing churches? In other words, what if part of the way we increased churches was through revitalization? And what if we concentrated on revitalization as much as we have concentrated on church planting? We might just solve our church planting problem.
Resource constraints are driving the change.
Church revitalization has gained prominence as an alternative to church planting because it addresses the issue of resource constraints that church planters often face. Starting a new church often requires significant financial resources for land, construction, and initial operations. Revitalization may be a more financially viable option for organizations with limited resources. In other words, church revitalization brings resources to the table that church planting doesn’t. Here are several kinds of resources available in revitalization:
Optimizing Existing Assets: Revitalization leverages existing church facilities and resources, efficiently using established infrastructure.
Stewardship of Existing Resources: Revitalizing an existing church can be a more cost-effective approach than starting a new one from scratch because many of these churches have giving congregations. Many of these congregations have many different forms of financial assets that simply need to be stewarded well and repurposed.
Cultural and Historical Significance: Established churches often have deep roots in their communities, with a rich history and cultural significance. Revitalizing these churches allows you to preserve and build upon that heritage, which can appeal to existing and potential members. In other words, the community often sees the church as part of its history and therefore has incentive to see the church thrive – and can often be part of resourcing that reemergence.
Environmental Stewardship: In an era of increasing awareness of environmental concerns, revitalizing existing church buildings can be seen as more sustainable than constructing new structures, which can have a significant ecological footprint.
Adaptive Reuse: Revitalization can involve creative and adaptive reuse of church facilities, making them multipurpose spaces that serve the needs of both the congregation and the broader community. This can enhance the church’s relevance and impact and provide potential divergent revenue streams.
Growing recognition of the untapped potential within existing congregations is driving the change.
Church revitalization has gained attention and significance in recent years because there is a growing recognition of the untapped potential within existing congregations. As churches delve deeper into understanding the untapped potential within existing congregations, there is a growing appreciation for the unique strengths, assets, and opportunities that these congregations possess. This deeper appreciation has contributed to the shift toward prioritizing revitalization. This shift in focus reflects several key factors:
Community Engagement: Revitalizing an existing church enables immediate community engagement. Established churches already have connections and relationships within.
Sustainable Growth: Church planting can be resource-intensive and may face challenges in gaining a foothold in a community. Conversely, revitalization may offer a more sustainable path to growth by leveraging existing relationships and resources.
Discipleship and Leadership Development: Revitalizing a church often involves identifying and developing local leadership within the congregation. This can lead to the growth of new leaders who can play key roles in the church’s ongoing ministry.
Holistic Approach: Revitalization often involves addressing the congregation’s and community’s spiritual and physical needs. This holistic approach can result in a more well-rounded ministry that addresses a broader range of needs.
Think About Cultural Resistance
Church revitalization does have its drawbacks – drawbacks that church planting and church planters get to avoid. So it’s not all roses. Here are a few of those drawbacks:
Resistance to Change: Not all church members are receptive to the shifts required for revitalization, leading to potential conflicts and divisions. Change is becoming harder after COVID-19 lockdowns. People seem to be digging their feet deeper in society. The sociological phenomenon is the resistance to not change and getting back to the way things seem to be the behavior, and the sociological temperature.
Navigating Resistance: Church leadership often faces the challenge of navigating resistance while maintaining unity and a shared vision. Navigating this kind of resistance isn’t easy and can take a toll on the leader. It requires the kind of leader who can lead with clarity. When the focus on clarity is central, then vitality will emerge. As a good friend, Jim Randall from Auxano, says, “The conversation has changed with the normalization of revitalization mainstream.”5 The awareness is more significant, so the conversation is more straightforward. Resistance happens when clarity is not apparent.
Communication and Education: Open communication and education about the reasons for revitalization are critical in addressing resistance. But this means the congregation must choose to be learners. Education plays a crucial role in overcoming resistance, but you can’t educate people who refuse to learn. However, many congregants may not be aware of the broader trends affecting churches today, such as declining church attendance among younger generations or changing worship preferences. Providing educational materials, workshops, or sermons on these topics can help congregants better understand the need for revitalization in the context of more significant societal changes.
While church revitalization offers numerous benefits, it’s essential to recognize that the choice between revitalization and church planting should be based on each church organization’s specific context, goals, and resources. Both approaches have their merits, and the decision should align with the church’s and its community’s unique needs and circumstances.
However, the ascent of church revitalization as the new face of American church planting marks a transformative era in American Christianity. Revitalized churches reinvigorate established congregations by harnessing existing resources, nurturing spiritual revival, and engaging with their communities. While challenges persist, this shift promises a hopeful future for American Christianity, where tradition merges with innovation to reach and inspire new generations of believers.
As we move forward, church revitalization is not just a trend, but a necessary and impactful strategy for the growth and relevance of the church in the United States.