Part Five in this series on church revitalization entitled "Kick-Starting the Plateaued and Declining Church" is adapted from an article that I co-wrote with Mike Dodson (who was also my co-author for Comeback Churches) for the Spring 2010 Journal of Evangelism and Missions. You can read the rest of the series here.
In reading the account of Nehemiah, it's pretty clear that he knew this wasn't going to be easy. He knew it would be difficult getting permission from the king. Nehemiah knew that people of Jerusalem and the city itself were in bad shape, and he also figured out pretty quickly that he would face opposition. When the officials surrounding Jerusalem "heard that someone had come to seek the well-being of the Israelites, they were greatly displeased" (2:10, HCSB).
As Nehemiah began to catalyze the people to make changes by rebuilding the wall, the opposition began to voice its displeasure, "When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard [about this], they mocked and despised us and said, 'What is this you're doing? Are you rebelling against the king?'" (2:19, HCSB). First, they make false accusations. Then, as the rebuilding begins, they plot to act on their displeasure in chapters four and six. How does Nehemiah respond? He prays. And when necessary, he responds to their accusations simply. He does not engage in debate or long conversation. Nehemiah let's God fight the battle for the people.
In leading a church toward revitalization, the opposition may not occur externally as much as internally. However, if a church has garnered a bad reputation in the community, opposition may exist externally also. That can only be changed through actively and lovingly finding ways to serve the community over time in order to change the reputation. Regardless, expect to encounter some opposition. This is ultimately a spiritual battle, and the enemy does not want to see God's people renewed and getting back on track to fulfill their mission of making disciples of all the peoples.
In one revitalization effort, Valley Station Church had experienced significant decline, losing hundreds. When another healthy church was approached about adopting this church, Valley Station became a satellite. However, this didn't occur without significant, vocal opposition from within the declining church. After both bodies voted to join forces, attendance went from 250 and settled at about 180. Currently, Valley Station is averaging about 220 in worship and has been baptizing new people over the past three years, including 12 baptisms in 2009. The transition hasn't necessarily been easy, but the dynamics of the congregation are changing and an outward focus has been developing through mission trips, community service projects, and offering ESL classes.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.