Throughout much of the United States (and a few other parts of the world) evangelical churches quite literally litter the landscape.
Many of these churches are like trash left on a street corner—they cause people to cross to the other side to avoid them. The people who belong to them profess to believe in the gospel, and their historic statements of faith confess the gospel. And some true Christians do belong to such churches. But on the whole the life of the church broadcasts anything but a gospel message. These churches instead churn out toxic waste rather than the nourishing food that people need.
Some churches in this state may be unrecoverable. But the sad thing is, many evangelicals seem content to ignore such churches and simply start new ones.
Church planting is important and strategic, and I am glad to see more and more people taking up that work.
But if you saw a garden overrun with weeds, would you simply plant some nice new irises right in the middle? If you couldn’t hear the news on TV because your radio was blaring, would you simply turn up the TV?
I would suggest that church revitalization—bringing life to dying churches by dealing with the causes of decline and building toward faithfulness—is a biblical burden. That is, when we see these churches acting as anti-witnesses to Christ, we should, according to Scripture, have a burden to do something about it. The burden of this article is to prove that point.
CHURCH REVITALIZATION: AN APOSTOLIC PRIORITY
Consider the letter of 1 Corinthians. Paul planted the church in Corinth sometime around 50 AD, and he wrote this letter just a few years later in response to reports he had heard about the church, as well as some questions the church had posed to him. What were the issues that prompted Paul to write? Consider the following:
- Divisions and factions: some saying “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos” (1:10-17);
- Tolerating sexual immorality (5:1-13);
- Lawsuits among church members (6:1-8);
- Confusion over marriage and sexuality (7:1-40);
- Division in the church over the limits of Christian freedom (8:1-13; 10:1-33);
- Worship wars (chs. 11-14);
- And false teaching about the resurrection (ch. 15).
If you squint your eyes slightly and adjust the cultural particulars, the church in Corinth circa 55 AD is the spitting image of many evangelical churches today. Many churches today are beset by a similarly potent mixture of false teaching, immorality, division, infighting, and all-around worldliness. Many churches today are in similar need of radical pastoral surgery in order to save their lives and restore their health.
So when faced with these issues in Corinth, what did Paul do? He didn’t say, “Those people are hopeless. They’re a mixture of false believers and proud, stubborn religious people. You don’t want those people in your church anyway”—and then commission Timothy to go and plant a new church in Corinth.
Instead, he pleaded with them. He came to see them again and again. He rebuked them and instructed them and bore with them. In short, he worked to reform the church of God which was at Corinth.
Yes, there are discontinuities between Paul’s situation and ours. For one, this church was the only church in Corinth at the time. But the point still stands: instead of abandoning the church at Corinth to simply rot away in its sin, Paul labored to repair and restore it. A similar kind of repair and restoration is exactly what countless evangelical churches need today.
And this is consistent with Paul’s broader priorities as an apostle. Unlike some contemporary missionaries, Paul didn’t simply try to start as many new church plants in as short a time as possible. Instead, here’s what Paul did after his first missionary tour: “And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are’” (Acts 15:36). And so Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41).
Paul was so concerned for the health of the churches he had planted that, with huge regions of the Mediterranean still to be evangelized, and an ambition to personally do so (Rom. 15:20), he went back through a region in which he had already labored, in order to strengthen the churches. I would suggest that if we are to follow in Paul’s footsteps, as Scripture calls us to (1 Cor. 4:17, 11:1; Phil. 3:17), then we should have a burden for the ongoing health and strength of congregations which bear the name “Christian” and profess to adhere to the gospel.
Churches aren’t compostable. And when they begin to decay, they can give off a stench for years or decades or even centuries that utterly overwhelms the aroma of Christ. When a church is divided, it proclaims that Christ is divided (1 Cor. 1:13). When a church tolerates immorality, it says to the world that Christ isn’t holy—and that the sexually immoral and idolaters and drunkards and swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
So we, like Paul, should have a burden to restore, revitalize, and reform churches that are in various stages of sickness. And we’ve got no shortage of those churches on our hands, especially in America.
JESUS THE CHURCH REFORMER
In the letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus himself works to reform those local congregations. He speaks to those churches in order to set right what is broken, to heal what is sick, to rebuke what is false, and to give new life to what is dying.
Here’s a sampling: Jesus rebukes the Ephesians who are doctrinally sound but lack love (Rev. 2:2-7). He commends the church in Pergamum for holding fast his name, yet he rebukes them for entertaining false teaching, and he calls them to repent (Rev. 2:13-17). The church in Thyatira had some who held to false teaching, and Jesus promises to judge them (Rev. 2:20-23), but the rest of the church he commends and encourages to persevere (Rev. 2:19, 24-28). And to the church in Sardis, Jesus says,
You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard…Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. (Rev. 3:2-4)
If you need a one-verse proof text for church revitalization, Revelation 3:2 is it: “Strengthen what remains and is about to die.”
True, this verse was written to the church itself, but shouldn’t sister churches and aspiring pastors exemplify the compassion of Christ toward churches like the one in Sardis? Shouldn’t we have a similar concern for the faithful few in such churches, who suffer at the hands of false teachers?
Jesus reformed and revitalized churches—seven of them in these two chapters alone. So should we.
GOD’S PEOPLE BEAR GOD’S NAME
One more motivation Scripture gives us for reforming and revitalizing churches is that God’s people bear God’s name. Christians are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Christians are the end-time temple, the embodiment of the place where God caused his name to dwell (1 Kgs. 8:17, 19). The church is the people who are called by God’s name, whom he created for his glory, whom he formed and made (Isa. 43:7).
Further, God is jealous for the glory of his name (Isa. 48:9-11)—and we should be, too.
But, as I’ve said, when churches languish in sin and division and nominalism, God’s name becomes a byword in the community. Such churches slander the name of God, rather than adorning and magnifying it.
A decaying, sin-riddled church is like a lighthouse with a broken bulb—and mirror. Instead of reflecting the light of God’s glory for miles around, to call sinners into the safe haven of God’s mercy, such a church leaves the night as dark as it was before—or even darker. It’s like a radio transmitting station that’s been hijacked: regardless of what they claim to believe, such a church broadcasts lies about God rather than the truth.
So a concern for the name of God, which he has placed upon his people—and upon their corporate gatherings in a special sense (Mt. 18:20)—should move us to reform and revitalize churches. As Mark Dever has so often said, church revitalization is a kingdom two-for-one. You tear down a bad witness and set up a good one in its place.
If this biblical case holds water, what should we do about it? I would simply say that as we think about how to spread the gospel and witness to the kingdom, church revitalization should be a major option on the table. It should be something our churches think about and strategize over and pray for. Churches that want to spread and promote the gospel should be concerned, as Jesus and Paul were, to strengthen and restore the witness of struggling churches.
Consider seeing what your local church can do to assist other local churches that may be struggling. Get to know them. Discover their needs. Build relationships with them. Be open to helping them in whatever ways you can, including, if the opportunity arises, sending a pastor and people to help with the work of reform.
If you’re an aspiring church planter, consider church revitalization as another option in addition to planting. If you revitalize a church, you may be able to glorify God and serve his people not only by establishing a new church (which is essentially what church reform often amounts to), but by cleaning up the trash your brothers and sisters have left around the city. As with cleaning up your neighborhood physically, you might be surprised by how much your neighbors appreciate a spiritually renovated church. And who knows how many churches may be planted or revitalized out of your renewed congregation!
Church revitalization should be our burden because it is God’s burden, as seen in the personal ministries of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul. God’s people bear God’s name, so we too should strive to strengthen what remains and is about to die.