The situation is common to virtually all church revitalisation efforts. A lone pastor arrives at a small, tired, discouraged flock and immediately feels as if the whole weight of the redevelopment task falls squarely (and only) on his shoulders. In some settings, expectations from the congregation or wider denomination may only serve to reinforce the presumption of a ‘one-man-ministry’ model. Despite the well-worn gags about only working one day a week, there is so much to do if the congregation is to see new life again.
The feeling for the pastor is crushing and overwhelming.
It need not to be this way. In fact, searching the scriptures, we see it ought not to be this way. Jesus himself called twelve close followers. When he sent them out on mission (Mark 6:7) they went, not alone, but in pairs (as did the larger group of 72 – Luke 10:1). For Paul having the right co-workers in ministry was an issue so crucial it even sparked disagreement and division (Acts 15:36-41). Preaching through Roman’s recently has brought me a fresh reminder that one of Paul’s purposes in writing was to raise support for his planned mission trip to Spain which might even have included recruiting a team to accompany him.
It’s one thing believing that healthy ministry is team ministry, making it an on-the-ground reality is quite another. So how should be go about “building the team” especially in church revitalisation where there doesn’t seem to be much (if anything) to build with?
Here are 6 ideas for building the ministry team. But first a few caveats – and please read the caveats before skipping on!
“Building the team” does not merely mean appointing the right folks to formal office bearing roles (though it includes that). It’s worth remembering that leadership functions and influence is exerted in many ways and at many levels. In a small congregation some of the most influential people (for good or ill) often have no formal ‘title’.
“Building the team” is NOT an alternative to evangelism. If a church is to grow and be revitalised it must grow by reaching out with the gospel and seeing people converted. This post reflects on the need to build a team of mature and active Christians who will spearhead those very efforts in evangelism and discipleship.
Caveats caveated. Let’s get on with it. To “build the team” you must…
1. Train and release people who are already among you.
A key battleground is to train, equip, encourage (even cajole) existing members of the congregation to help them to see the God-given gifts and opportunities they have. This equipping of the saints for the work of ministry is a key function of the pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11-12). Churches with a legacy of good Bible teaching but a historic culture of ‘one-man- ministry’ may well be sitting on a goldmine of mature, well-taught Christians with all manner of gifts which remained untapped for decades.
In our own setting I can think of one man who was clearly looked to as an elder by the rest of the flock, but wasn’t actually even a member when we arrived. Several months and not a few conversations into our time in Burghead he came to see and accept what others did – he was gifted to lead and shepherd. He is now an elder.
Another lady: a quiet but mature Christian with excellent inter-personal skills now leads a branch of our women’s ministry. My guess is she wouldn’t have dreamed of that a few years ago.
In addition, in a small or rural community like ours the greatest gospel asset may be the connectedness of current members. Between the 20 or so regular attenders who were on the scene when we first arrived in Burghead, I reckon we were probably connected with 80% of local residents. Repeatedly encouraging these folks to see their relationships as a mission field, and providing regular opportunities for them to invite these friends and family to evangelistic events/ services has yielded much fruit. Even those who felt they couldn’t do much else could absolutely pray and invite their neighbours to church. Some of our real leaders in inviting and evangelism come from among this group.
Among your existing congregation (even a church in desperate need of revitalisation) you may have elders, preachers, prayer warriors, evangelistic labourers, administrators and various other servants of the gospel waiting to be discovered, guided, trained and released to get on with the work.
2. Bring in a team for a one-off event.
Sometimes you need to do something or run something, but you just don’t (yet) have the people.
Early on in our time in Burghead it became an ambition to run an annual summer holiday club for kids. Strategically this seemed an important move in building community connections (I won’t give all the reasons here). However, in the early years we simply didn’t have the people, not by a long shot.
It’s all too easy to think “oh well we just can’t do it then” and give up.
We must not think that way.
If it needs to be done, but you don’t have the people, then you need to find the people! In our case we made an appeal and brought in folks from other churches (including one 400 miles away) who bought into our vision and wanted to help. They paid to get here, we housed and fed them.
There are several huge benefits to this….
- We built relationships with a network of folks who came to love our church and buy into the mission. We’re still in touch with many of them who support us in various ways to this day.
- Local Christians saw an example of sacrificial love and service from strangers who wanted to serve them. This inspires and engenders the same attitude locally.
- The Christians who came (from healthier, growing churches) brought a new culture with them. Rubbing shoulders with the locals rubbed off some good stuff.
- It was a boost in confidence to the local folks, to realise we’re not alone and that bigger things are possible.
- The thing got DONE! (The thing, in this case, being a holiday club but it could be any one-off event, mission or outreach).
3. Encourage folk to relocate permanently
This is the big one that many wonder (perhaps dream) about – encouraging folk to relocate permanently, often from a larger or healthier church to join the mission and build the team in a revitalisation situation.
It is encouraging to see more Christians considering this and more churches encouraging it. There are, however, a few things to consider.
- I have lost count of the number of small and struggling churches from whom I’ve heard some version of the following: “Why do people all go to that other church? If only they came here we wouldn’t be in this mess!” It’s easy to play the victim card and the blame game, but it is vital to realise that Christian won’t (and possibly shouldn’t) move from a healthy church to an unhealthy or dying church without their being significant new vision and probably new leadership in the receiving church. Those of us in revitalisation efforts must repent of blaming others, and redouble our efforts to dream big with God, and cast a vision for the new life and growth he could bring. Where there is real faith, vision and commitment people will follow even to the most inhospitable environments. If you just want a couple of families to bolster falling numbers, whilst remaining unwilling to change, forget it.
- If the Lord blesses you with such a team beware of the messiah complex – those arriving mustn’t think they are the saviours of a sinking ship but be willing to muck in scrubbing the decks like fellow shipmates.
- Teams coming from far away need to be especially careful to learn local customs and sensibilities. Great care must be exercised in the integration of these people. Any attitude of arrogance in the incomers will be detected and rejected by the locals (and understandably so).
- We were blessed to arrive in Burghead with a team of four others who relocated over 400 miles. We are probably years ahead of the progress we would have made without them. An incoming team (even a small one) instantly bring a change in culture, a new example of zealous service, and a needed boost in confidence and joy if handled with care.
4. Put yourself on the map for Christians who move to the area.
Wherever you live, chances are in any given year a certain number of number of new people will move into your neighbourhood. A certain (small) percentage of them may be Christians looking for a church. A further (even smaller) percentage may be mature believers who could make a real difference to your revitalisation efforts.
In his “Revitalise and Replant” podcast, Thom Rainer repeatedly warns church revitalisers against expecting “low hanging evangelical fruit” to come along. His point is to focus on conversation growth rather than attracting Christians (your church may not seem a very attractive proposition in it’s current state).
This is a warning worth heeding, but our experience tells us that the Lord may indeed send folk like this but they will need to know you exist! You need to “get on the map” so they can at least find you.
For example, shortly before we moved to Burghead my parents in law (who are local folk) spoke to a trainee teacher friend who had completed a stint in Burghead Primary School which is directly opposite the Free Church building. When they explained that their daughter and son in law were moving to that church she replied with a puzzled look asking “which church?” This teacher (to my knowledge) is not a Christian looking for a church but the point was clear – our church was virtually invisible to passers by, visitors and new residents. It simply wasn’t in the local consciousness. It had fallen off the map. A key early part of revitalisation may simply be finding ways to remind folks that you exist!
Here some thoughts to at least give your congregation a fighting chance.
• A well designed website and active social media presence.
This may seem like a trifling mater but it absolutely isn’t. Gone are the days when a good website was an optional luxury. The evidence says that the overwhelming majority of people (be they Christians or those just looking in) will look at your church website before even considering visiting your church. Without wishing to be harsh, judging by many church websites I wouldn’t be surprised if many don’t bother coming. Similarly many will find you on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram before crossing the threshold (if they even crossed the threshold at all).
• You can’t do bells and whistles but you can do warmth, welcome, and good follow up.
If you’re in a church revitalisation the chances are that Christians won’t be drawn to your congregation because you have a beautifully kept building with excellent facilities, or awe inspiring music, or slick presentation. Chances are you don’t have any of these (nor are these the best reasons to join a church). Similarly you probably cannot provide a compelling range of groups and ministries for all the family. However, whilst you may lack these bells and whistles you need not lack in warmth of welcome and good follow up.
Dying churches frequently have drab buildings with poor signage and provide little or nothing in the way of welcome and direction to newcomers. It costs little or nothing to improve your signage, train a team to warmly welcome newcomers, make things clear for visitors in the way you lead the service and be diligent in following up afterwards (an invitation to lunch, a visit to their home, a card through their door to thank them for coming).
• You can’t be the finished product but you can cast a vision and share your passion.
Speak openly to guests about the revitalisation you are working and praying for. Frequently share a positive vision for the
future of your congregation in your services (this helps and inspires visitors and regulars alike).
• Get kids and youth work going as best you can.
If you want Christian families to join you a key question is “what is there for the kids and youth?” Christian parents understand that they and not the congregation bear ultimate responsibility for bringing up their kids in the training and instruction of the Lord. However they, quite understandably, want to be part of a church that will teach and encourage their youngsters. A high quality Sunday school and a small but engaging youth work need not be beyond the reach of most congregations.
Like everything else in church revitalisation (and in life!) none of these points is a silver bullet to solve all your problems or revolutionise church life. Taken together, however, they may add up to a significant difference as you seek to build the team which, as the Lord enables, will oversee the revitalisation of your congregation.