There Is No Such Thing as Church Revitalization

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William Chaney says revitalization is the wrong goal for churches in decline, since it implies a return to the past. Churches need to instead rewrite their DNA by rediscovering their mission, reengaging their neighborhood, and refocusing their resources.


Churches in decline or in need of renewal often seek “revitalization” in an attempt to return to their former glory. But many things that initially contributed to growth, including cultural norms, socio-economic conditions, and the population in the neighborhood, no longer exist. Real renewal comes from rediscovering their mission, reengaging their mission field, and refocusing their resources to support the mission, not from trying to revive the past.

Rediscovering, reengaging, and refocusing a congregation is equivalent to rewriting the DNA of the congregation. This kind of shift is real “church revitalization” because it is about God’s mission and not just reviving the past. These steps are essential:

1. Acknowledge the loss

When a church has been in decline for several years, the congregation must complete all stages of grief before beginning a plan to engage the future. Wanting to again experience a vibrant and healthy church and wondering each week who will show up takes a significant emotional toll on a congregation. Allowing the church to grieve before moving forward will save a lot of frustration.

2. Adopt a missionary mindset

The people groups in our neighborhoods have significantly changed in past decades. There is no longer one dominant culture that pervades most of our urban and suburban neighborhoods. To reach people who are far from God and who now live in our neighborhoods will require pastors and leaders who have a missionary mindset. This begins with intercultural competency.

3. Build a team

Leading a congregation through the process of rediscovering, reengaging, and refocusing should not be influenced by the pastor alone. The expectation that a new pastor with new ideas for church revitalization is the solution for a congregation is unrealistic. A church needs a team of five to seven influential and confident men and women who can look at the ministry context and the ministry action plan and who can implement the changes strategically as a team.

4. Pray

Prayer is the most critical component of a church rediscovering, reengaging, and refocusing on their mission. Do not trust that a golden nugget such as a great book on strategy, church consultant, ministry coach, webinar, podcast, or conference will get the church unstuck, renewed, revitalized, and healthy. I respect all of the different approaches, but unless there is prayer movement within the church, no strategy, consultant, coach, book, or podcast will do much good.

5. Consider new possibilities

Although it is difficult to entertain the possibility, not every church can rediscover, reengage, or refocus. For these congregations, they may need to consider strategies that allow their resources and gifts to be used for sake of the Kingdom, rather than just maintaining their congregational status quo. Rather than dying a slow death, these possibilities offer new life in new forms.

  • Elijah/ Elisha Transfer — This is when an existing church realizes that they can’t return to health on their own. They choose to give their assets, building, and control over to a new church that is on a mission and can benefit from the church’s assets for evangelistic work. The existing church closes, and the new church emerges after several months.
  • Adoption — This is when the existing church and a new church partner to take on the identity of the new church over time. There is a time of shared leadership and a predetermined time to hand over the leadership and branding to the new congregation.
  • Vital Merger — This is when two churches agree that their missions align with each other and that both will eventually close without significant change. Both churches sell their properties, release their pastors, and agree on a new pastor to lead them into a new ministry context.

Adapted from the Chaney Coaching Group’s Newsletter, September 2019. Used by permission.

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About Author

William T. Chaney Jr. heads the Chaney Coaching Group. Previously he led churches in the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church and worked with Discipleship Ministries.


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