In Parts One and Two, I talked about renewal movements that can help with revitalization and the importance of keeping an evangelistic focus. While these are true, here I articulate what cannot be ignored in church revitalization.
Years ago, one of our research projects involved a study of churches that were successful in revitalization. Mike Dodson and I wrote a book called Comeback Churches to describe what we learned.
As we wrote the book, I didn’t want to focus on leadership. I wanted to see all the various factors involved in revitalization. But facts are our friends, and I couldn’t deny what the research revealed: successful revitalization is overwhelmingly about leadership.
The study showed you simply can’t overestimate the amount of influence the pastor and the pastoral leadership team have. These are the people who lead and are critical to the revitalization process if it is to be successful.
The role of the pastor in particular is both evident and overwhelming. We studied over 300 churches from over a dozen denominations. We created a formula: you had to be declining for at least five years followed by growth between two to five years through church revitalization.
We didn’t want churches who had only turned around for one year. One year could be an anomaly: they could have just had an unusually good year, or a church down the road could have split with some of their members coming to that church. Five years of decline followed by two to five years of growth was our standard.
Here is what we found: about 60 percent of the time that growth came when a new pastor showed up and the old pastor left.
Imagine writing that book. “Hey, here’s your book on church revitalization. We found the key: quit and let the church get a new pastor.”
But it was the truth—facts are our friend. Math does not care about our feelings.
Leaders for Revitalization
Revitalization comes most of the time—60 percent—when a new pastor or some pastoral leadership team comes to lead the church.
Understanding that, we were most interested in the other 40 percent. What is the story with these churches, I wondered? We identified and contacted 70 of those churches who agreed to give us more information. We asked these 70 pastors, “You were the pastor during the decline and you’re the pastor now during the growth. What happened?”
One pastor in New Hampshire said something like, “I became a new pastor. I made some changes in the way I led. I created some changes in the way our church was focused and modified how we functioned.” He has changed the kind of leader he was.
We found that a factor in these churches was they in effect got a “new” pastor, because the pastor made changes in ministry and leadership. These pastors found a greater sense of Jesus’ mission.
Other Key Factors
It wasn’t just that leaders did everything. It was that leaders led to other things.
For example, a second factor was a sense of deferral to others. Many, if not most, declining churches are driven by their preferences more than anything. These churches set aside preferences in deference to others for the greater mission.
The third thing was a renewed prayer focus. The churches that were successful in revitalizing had a healthy emphasis on prayer.
All three of these things took a leader to have that transition take place. Either churches got a new pastor with a new name (more than 60 percent), or the pastor they had become in some ways a new person with a new focus (less than 40 percent).
What is a Pastor?
When I came of age in ministry, the contemporary church was the thing. This approach often promoted a CEO model of pastor. There were some things positive as pastors learned more about leadership, but I saw some of the damage that it caused.
In response, the poet-gardener idea became an alternative—a leader who would “nurture the soil to allow others around them to grow and share ideas and accept responsibility.”
Yet, there seemed to be some middle approach in many of these leaders. They led well, not as CEOs, but maybe to mix metaphors, more like a player coach.
The Challenge of Change
Another issue we’ve learned over the years concerning leadership and revitalization is the challenge of change. This is a tough one. A lot of young pastors go to seminary, graduate, and then go rushing into a church with a lot of ideas for change. But the people who have been in that church for years say, “Well, you know, we’re doing fine. What’s the matter with you?”
Remember, if you’re one step ahead, you’re a leader, but if you’re ten steps ahead, you’re a martyr. Or crazy.
Revitalization takes both bold leadership and great patience. That’s why I go back to Kotter’s Eight Steps for leading change. It’s a process. The first step for Kotter is to create a sense of urgency.
Most churches in need of revitalization got there because they lost any urgency. The sense of urgency can be the fact that people aren’t coming to Jesus. That should create a sense of urgency. The pace of transformation has to be generally elongated in an established church in part because it takes time to help develop urgency.
The challenge of change is one of the reasons revitalizing an established church is less appealing to a lot of people. That’s one of the reasons church planting has become such a big thing. You don’t have to deal with other people’s problems—you get to make your own.
I have had the privilege of planting churches and leading churches through revitalization. Of the churches that I’ve led through revitalization, two are still experiencing health and revitalization today. One never revitalized. It wasn’t my intent, but they needed to just stay the stuck church that they were because trying to change led to division within the church.
Here’s the reality: It’s easier to birth a baby than it is to raise the dead. Church revitalization is a hard task. But with a patient and focused leadership and by God’s grace, bathed in prayer, it can be done.
If you are interested in going deeper with me on the subject of revitalization, my online course is available here.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article.
 John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2012), 39.