I began a series on church revitalization entitled "Kick-Starting the Plateaued and Declining Church." This series is being 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.
Part One focused on the idea that in church revitalization, we are called to love, serve, and lead people. Today, I want to look at Cultivating a Heart for the People and Place.
Basically, we are working from the premise that leadership is as leadership does. It's one thing to know leadership skills, principles, and truths; it's another thing to lead people practically on a day-to-day basis. But, God-called leaders must discover how to do that. It means learning to do things like walking slowly among the people, being strategic and intentional on a day-to-day basis, choosing potential leaders, consistently developing leaders, and cultivating a missional mindset and lifestyle (teaching believers to follow Christ at work, at home, in the church, in the community, and to the ends of the earth). Where does that start? It starts in the heart. It starts in pursuing the Great Commandment and, as a result, cultivating a love for the place and the people that God has called you to serve.
In researching and writing Comeback Churches, we were encouraged to find that the leaders we surveyed rated spiritual factors very high. In fact, think about how profound and simple this is--the highest rated single factor overall was renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church. When asked what spurred the revitalization process, comeback leaders said that it was refocusing on Jesus Christ and His mission for the church.
How do you refocus on Jesus? Fall in love with Him again (Rev. 1:4-7, 2:4-5). Basically, pursue the Great Commandment. What is His mission for the church that He purchased with His own blood? Make disciples of every tongue, tribe, nation, and people on the face of the earth to the glory of God the Father. Sorry, we're getting a little carried away here. Let's get refocused on the specific point.
How did Nehemiah end up back in Jerusalem leading a revitalization movement among God's people? It would be easy to think that Nehemiah was just focused on rebuilding a physical structure, the wall. While that was one of the tasks at hand, his real job was mobilizing a demoralized people. That's the only way the wall was going to get rebuilt.
So, how did he get there? It started with a simple question to one of his brothers and some men from Judah -- "I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem" (Neh. 1:2, NASB). Notice, his first real concern was the people, then he also asked about the city -- the people and the place. Too many pastors (and church planters too for that matter) want to pastor a different people and in a different place than the one God gives them. Love the people and the place God sends you.
Pay attention to the morale of the people and why they are where they are, and why they are the way they are. And, pay attention to the state of the community and its people. Ask questions and listen to people inside and outside of the congregation. Listen to the answer that Nehemiah gets to his question and his response:
They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire." When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, "I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven . . . I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You. . ." (Neh. 1:3-6, NASB)
Through passionate and intentional prayer, Nehemiah cultivated a heart for the people and the place that God was preparing to send him.
Beyond that, don't go into the situation thinking that you know everything there is to know about the people and the place that God is sending you to minister. Sometimes it's easy to go into a situation and think that you've got the answers -- you've got the plan, the strategy, the techniques, just the right method to make things work. Be careful. Step wisely. Cultivate a heart for God, and let Him birth in you a deep love for the people and the place that He has set before you. This kick-starting thing will take some time. Don't underestimate the spiritual components of praying intentionally and strategically, developing a love for people in the church family, learning to love the larger community and its people, and renewing belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church.
Understand that Nehemiah already had a pretty deep comprehension of the people, the community, and its history. In addition, he was a Jew. Those components enabled him to move pretty quickly in the process. His learning curve wasn't very steep. If you are moving into a new area and among a new people, it will likely take some time to earn credibility and trust. That can definitely impact how quickly you will be able to kick-start things and make changes.
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.