The 5 Cs of Church Revitalisation
In 2009, I had the privilege of being given a front row seat by Jesus to watch him bring back to life a church that had declined over decades and was at the point of death.
From that seat, I have seen Jesus answer the prayers of old tired saints giving them a renewed hope in the gospel, a love for the church, and a desire to reach the region of Merseyside; I’ve seen a load of people get saved, many getting baptised; and I’ve seen Jesus multiply his church through four new plants from a small, tired Brethren Assembly in the back streets of Liverpool.
As I’ve watched, participated in, and led Cornerstone Church Liverpool, as well as helping other churches through the process of replanting and revitalisation over the past 11 years, there are five Cs that have been evident and which I think are vitally important to consider - not only to walk that process well but also to remain on the Road of Life that Jesus wants our churches to be on.
When we arrived in 2009, the church didn’t know who they were.
The dominant narrative, like most declining churches, was “what they used to do” and what they were still doing. As far as they were concerned, if we had young people or a young pastor, that would sort it. We just needed people to help us.
Yes, these people loved Jesus but they had no conviction for who they were and why they existed. They needed reminding and showing who they were as the church according to what the Bible said, not according to what they were doing or not doing.
Clear biblical conviction is the foundation of any process of church revitalisation: when you have a clear conviction to who you are and what your purpose is as the church, it enables you to move forward. Without it, the process of change will feel rudderless and, dare I say it, pointless for those you are seeking to lead.
Clarifying conviction has to come first.
Most churches that need replanting are stuck in a cultural time warp. You could probably go back in a time machine 20 or 30 years and what was occurring then is probably still happening today, despite the massive cultural change in that time frame.
When we have clarity on the conviction of what it is to be the church, the question is what sort of culture do we want our church to be? And also, what sort of culture does our church need to be? If we can go back years and the church culture is the same, there is something wrong.
Now, I’m not talking about the preaching of the word, communion, baptism, or the gathering of God’s people. And, before anyone freaks out, I’m not talking about making the gospel relevant to the cultural moment of the day. I’m talking about a church culture that flows from our convictions that actually displays the gospel in a way that shows that it is relevant for today, through how it is taught and how it is lived out.
For us, in 2009 Liverpool it was two things: community and men.
Now when I say community, I’m not talking about a 10-minute chat and a bourbon biscuit at the beginning or end of a meeting. I’m talking about real community, deep communion, where people moved into the area and intentionally lived out community in the everyday, together amongst non-Christians at the school gate, living out a gospel culture that flooded the local shops and coffee shops of the community.
And when I say men, I don’t mean quiz nights, golf days, and cheesy ‘faith and football’ evenings with a 5-minute talk at the end. I mean a culture where men are called to live out biblical masculinity, to put to death passivity and create the atmosphere and platform for those around them to flourish for the cause of Christ.
We needed to work hard and be clear on what sort of culture we wanted to have for our church and what that needed to be in order to reach the culture of our city.
Our convictions led to this form of culture which then needed to be underpinned and supported by the right constructs.
Within days of arriving at the church I was confronted with the question ”so, when are you starting a kids ministry?”
My answer of "we’re not” wasn’t the answer that person was expecting. And the response, as you would probably imagine and might be even thinking yourself, was ”but we are a church, that’s what churches do”.
Now, please believe me, I genuinely wasn’t being awkward and I honestly wasn’t on some “let’s get back to the first-century church crusade”. I was in a situation where the church that I was leading was literally ready to be wheeled into the church mortuary and I wasn’t going to just do a patch-up job that gave it a couple of years. We had a great opportunity to think through what the right constructs (ministries/programmes) were for our church at that time.
See, the problem I think we have fallen into as churches - and I’ve seen it in church revitalisations and church plants - is that we build, or try to maintain, the constructs of the church first rather than building constructs that flow from, and underpin, the church's conviction and desired culture. The reason why many churches fall into decline is that the constructs are seen as foundational in the life of the church which cannot be moved, rather than scaffolding that can change.
The reason why we didn’t start a kids ministry straight away was that we had four kids, all under the age of three - two were mine and the other two were part of the team that came with me. Actually, our heart to develop a close community meant that our kids were being discipled by people in our church every day, not just for an hour once a week.
Constructs are the means by which we live out our convictions and culture; they are the ministries and programmes that should be stopped and started regularly. Putting constructs in the right place when walking through revitalisation helps lead change, helps stop things, and opens up doors for new things to start.
If you are fearful of stepping into conflict maybe church revitalisation is not for you. Let’s be frank, maybe church leadership is not for you. The story of the gospel is a story of conflict.
The call of the church is a call to be the aroma of Christ to God which, for some, will be the fragrance of death, a call to step into conflict. Yes, with the ministry of reconciliation, but it’s a step into conflict.
The reason why churches often decline is that either people have not stepped into what I call good conflict (conflict that comes from being gospel peacemakers who step in for the sake of reconciliation and life), or that people have fostered bad conflict (people doing things for selfish ambition, power and or comfort).
It’s interesting that when Jesus writes to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, he confronts five of them and steps into a potential conflict in order to confront sin, challenge hearts, and bring warning. Jesus wasn’t concerned about the reputation of the churches, the glories of the past, or the gifts that they had. He stepped in and pursued them, calling them to get back on the Road to Life as he intended.
Revitalisation is a walk through conflict, difficult conversations, the potential of people walking away, and the grief of letting things go.
Part of the journey of revitalisation is identifying the sacred cows of the church. These are the things (apart from gospel truths or values) that are non-negotiable and untouchable. These things are often certain ministries, ways of doing things, or pet projects of particular people. More often than not these sacred cows need to be killed, and this can’t be done without some sort of conflict.
So, as the leader, your posture of heart, tone, and pursuit of change needs to be one of good conflict.
You need to show that these things are being killed for gospel reasons that flow from clear conviction and culture work. Part of doing that well is figuring out which ones need shooting dead immediately because they are causing issues and hindering gospel growth. You also need to identify the ones that will take much longer because they are not necessarily hindering growth or causing major offence, but they have the potential to distract or may not be best for the vision of the church.
Not dealing with these things has the potential to kill the vision, hope, and even you over time, so conflict that graciously walks with the folks who have treasured these things for years is a vital element for healthy revitalisation.
Let me stress: conflict is inevitable so therefore the potential to sin is probable. Guard your heart, listen, walk, and talk with people, but step in with a heart to see life and fruit for Jesus and the church’s sake.
Church decline doesn’t happen overnight - it happens over a generation or generations and it starts many years before anyone notices.
Generational decline starts when the church is full and the ministries are buzzing, when the budget is being met and the staff is increasing. It starts to happen when the word revitalisation is not a word used to describe the church’s needs.
When we think of the five churches that Jesus pursued in Revelation 2 and 3, none of them would have been described as being churches that needed revitalising. On the face of it, everything was great. But Jesus identified things and pointed out issues that had to change. If they didn’t change they wouldn’t be churches anymore: Jesus would shut them down.
The process of revitalising convictions, culture, and constructs, and walking through conflict together has to be a continuous thing. We are in a spiritual battle and we have an enemy who is doing anything he can to destroy the church. He’ll even use the apparent success of our church to do it.
The journey of Cornerstone Church Liverpool and the Cornerstone Collective has been amazing; Jesus has given me a front-row seat to see him build his church and through the process of revitalisation he has breathed new life into something that was dead. He has renewed gospel hope and belief in the hearts and lives of those who thought they were finished.
Jesus is in the business of revitalisation and, until he returns, there will always be hope of gospel life. Let’s step out and help or let’s review and lead our churches on the Road to Life as Jesus intends.
This was first written for the North West Gospel Partnership.