How to Wake Up a Dead Church
“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14).
A pastor I know has a problem. It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.
He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people. When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.
Sound like your church? Sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.
The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice. Had I written anything on how to revive a comatose church? Does our website have any help for him?
I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance. (More and more, I keep thinking: This is an uphill task, waking a sleeping church. If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining.)
Here are my observations, for what they’re worth, on how to transform a collection of comatose do-nothings into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements. Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip past the rest.
1. The bad news: You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve. No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent. It’s the human thing. In high school physics we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling. So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor, how to get it up and going.
2. Don’t quit. Leaders must not be discouraged by those who sit and stare when they should be receiving your message as what it is, a holy word from the Heavenly Father. We must not let the lack of response–or more likely, a negative reaction–dishearten us. The harvest is worth the effort, so keep at it. “Be not weary in well doing,” said the Apostle. “In due season we shall reap… if we don’t quit” (Galatians 6:9).
3. Stay focused. Get your eyes on the Lord, and keep them there. Whether the church is responding and growing, or ignoring you and fossilizing, leaders who want to make a lasting difference must stay focused on the Lord. You do that in a hundred ways: staying in the Word personally, staying on your knees daily, self-talk (“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with you”–Psalm 116:7), and continually bringing all you do and all who depend on you before the Father.
4. The good news: Some people will respond to you quickly. Go with those who are listening, who show up, who are responsive and want to move out and obey the Lord.
Put another way: Do not wait for the entire congregation to respond before you do anything. Get this vehicle moving and others will climb aboard. And even if they don’t, don’t punish the faithful by making them pay for the sins of the majority.
5. Stay positive. Don’t fuss, complain, or harass your people. And, you must not let those who are responding become critical of those who aren’t. That’s a strong temptation they will need to guard against. All the negativism will accomplish is to further harden the resistance of the pew-dwellers. Instead, they should encourage them to “get up and come join us.” The Tom Sawyer episode with the white-washed fence comes to mind. Let them see you having a great time and some will want to get in on the fun.
6. Start small. Think of starting a fire. You gather a small amount of the most flammable material you can put your hands on–pine kindling, a fire log, shavings, or a newspaper. You strike a match. The old campfire chorus said, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing...”
7. Look around. Ask yourself: Who in the church is most on fire for the Lord? In love with His word, truly worshiping, sharing their faith? Who is already experiencing revival. To put it another way, Where is God already blessing this church? Do I see His hand at work in any particular place? And if so, start there.
8. Pray, pray, pray. Get more serious about prayer than you have ever been in your life. We have no suggestions on how much to pray, how long, or how intense. Do it your way. But remember that “the effectual FERVENT prayer of a righteous person availeth much.” Fervent surely means you care deeply and are praying intensely. Also, enlist a few prayer warriors both from within the congregation and outside it. The latter may be people you’ve known in previous churches, but who can touch Heaven with their prayers and will not talk about this to others. Get them praying, and keep them informed. (But never tell them anything you don’t want repeated. A lesson learned the hard way!)
9. Preach Jesus. Don’t talk or preach about revival. Talk and preach about Jesus, about loving Him and obeying Him and being found faithful. If He is lifted up, He will draw all men to Himself (John 12:32).
10. Wait on the Lord. Even as you continue preaching and leading, wait and watch for the Spirit to do things in answer to your prayers–perhaps to send a key leader who will be a great influence, to start a small movement with great potential, to make some change in you. Stay alert. “Wait on the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage. Yes, wait upon the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).
David said, “I waited on the Lord and He heard my cry…” (Psalm 40:1). He may have been waiting, but he was crying at the same time. Our Lord told the disciples to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41). I think that’s the same idea. We can wait and watch while remaining on the job. (see Nehemiah 4:17)
11. Seek outside help and counsel. If you know a dynamic, successful leader whom God has used in significant ways, invite him/her to visit your church and make recommendations. Or you travel to their city and interview them. (In the interview, tell them your situation, then ask “What would you do?” Take notes, ask more questions, thank them, and leave. What you do with their suggestions is between you and the Lord. Write a note of appreciation (and possibly, enclose a check) immediately on returning home. And if the consultant offers to be available for further meetings, promise nothing. Your major adviser is the Holy Spirit, and you will be seeking His counsel on what to do next.)
Caution: I do not suggest you give that visiting “expert” a week or weekend with your congregation for some kind of focus or self-study. Do that and you are now pushed off to the side. Even though as pastor the Holy Spirit has made you the overseer (Acts 20:28), you could be sidelined by the advice of the expert and the ill-advised enthusiasm of some of your members. Announce to them that “I don’t believe that is what the Lord would have us do,” and they will turn on you. Best to do your job and remain in the driver’s seat.
12. Write lots of notes (the hand-written kind). When someone does something good, write and tell them so. On Sundays, keep a small notebook handy in which you jot down names of people who will receive notes from you that week. Then, Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, get to it. —The notes, incidentally, need be no more than a few sentences. Just enough to say, “Your solo in church was wonderfully used of the Lord, Kristi. I saw people with tears in their eyes. Thank you for blessing us.” Or, “Bob, the breakfast you cooked for our men’s meeting was outstanding. Thank you for getting up at 4 a.m. and setting such a great example of faithfulness and diligence. You are a blessing to your pastor.”
People get so few letters these days that yours will stand out. They’ll keep your note for a long time and read it a dozen times before dropping it into a drawer somewhere. You will do few things more powerful than writing notes to those who do well.
13. Write nothing negative. When problems demand your attention, deal with them personally or over the phone. Write nothing negative in a letter. If you do, Satan will delight in using this to slander you, stir up dissension, and arm your opposition with plenty of ammunition. (I speak from sad experience here.)
14. Stay at home. No absentee pastor ever grew a great church. The minister who is out of the pulpit a great deal–preaching in other churches, leading groups to the Holy Land, attending conventions, taking extended vacations–is not giving his congregation the hands-on leadership they need. In time, after the congregation is thriving and a good leadership team is in place, you will be able to take those vacations and preach in other places, as God leads.
15. Set the standard. Become the role model for what you hope to accomplish. Visit in the homes of your church members and love on them; knock on the doors of people you hope to reach for Christ; make your daily devotional life the gold standard for your congregation. You cannot expect your people to grow beyond what their leadership is doing. If you want them to be generous, you start giving. If you expect them to witness, you share your faith.
Oh, and do not tell the congregation that you are now giving sacrificially or knocking on the doors of so many prospects each week. Keep it to yourself. The Lord will know. And when your people find out–as they will–God will use that to motivate them.
16. Ask, watch, listen. Be constantly searching for ideas. Read widely, and not just from the mega-church preachers. In your public library, check out the magazine section. Scan the contents of publications you never heard of, in search of fascinating subjects and interesting articles to prompt your own thinking. Attend conferences of other denominations that are in your area. Sit there and listen. Take notes. Pick the brains of successful people in many fields.
One of the most helpful hours in my entire ministry was spent in a hospital waiting room while the wife of a deacon was in surgery. I wanted to know how this man went from being an unknown banker to president of the American Bankers Association, eventually becoming one of the three commissioners of the FDIC. I’ve benefited from his insights a hundred times.
17. Expect setbacks. Ask any pastor of a thriving church and you’ll hear this same tale: Somewhere along the road to health, this church went through a crisis or two in which some members grew upset and left. As they exited, they turned and said cruel things about you the pastor, predicting the church was going to hades, and warning that without their money you were never going to make it. The best revenge, as they say, is living well. That church had to get back up and get going again, but they did, and they’re now able to tell the story. So, don’t be surprised when this happens.
After all, you are not going to grow a great church without pains. Some will decide they liked the church better when it was dead (“we had a family spirit then, but now I don’t know who all these people are!”). Some will accuse you of making changes (well, duh!). And some will fabricate stories or manufacture reasons to leave.
Let them leave. John Maxwell says, “If you make no changes, the winners will leave. If you make changes, the whiners will leave. So, decide which group you want to keep.”
18. Be selective. Be slow to choose staff members and lay leaders. Go for quality, not quantity. Best to have the part-time leadership of someone really gifted and committed than the full-time efforts of a lazy, dull minister. (Again, the stories I could tell!)
19. You will never arrive. Do not expect to arrive at a time when you can check “awaken a sleeping church” off your list of things to do. There will always be pockets of resistance, members who haven’t opened their Bibles in years and are determined not to do so, and new babes in Christ who need to be grown and nurtured. Your work will never end.
Therefore, be careful about announcing to the church that “We are now in revival” or “We have arrived!” Always press forward to the goal (Philippians 3:14), but keep in mind you will not reach it in this lifetime. (Announcing we have arrived will encourage your people to reward themselves with a vacation. Soon, you will find yourself shepherding a flock of the sleeping, and will be back where you started!)
20. Experiment. Do not get too comfortable with something that is working today. Ask Shoney’s Restaurants or K-Mart or Sears. Rick Warren says he never uses the word “change,” since some find that word threatening. “We say we’re going to experiment,” he says. “If this thing doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else. That way, no one is threatened.”
God bless all pastors and staffers and lay leaders who have a heart for Him and are not satisfied with “good enough” or the status quo.
Beware of gimmicks, pastors. Beware of quick solutions to deep-seated problems. Beware of doing a thing just because some hot-shot preacher or know-it-all layman told you it’s the only way.
Eyes on the Lord. After all, it’s His church. “I will build my church,” He said (Matthew 16:18). Give Him the chance to do that where you serve.
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