Along with several other congregations, First Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church is beginning a season of intentional renewal through the Church Renewal Lab. One of the books that we will be reading to help guide us through this process is Harry L. Reeder III’s From Embers to a Flame: How God can Revitalize your Church. I will be providing some highlights from each of the chapters here on this blog. Reeder is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).
Chapter 1: The Need for Church Revitalization
Reeder begins with some sobering statistics. He says that “over 80% of established American churches are either on a plateau or in decline,” and that every year “3,500-4,000 churches die in this country” (7).
Reeder diagnoses several “symptoms of a sick church“:
A Focus on Programs. His book, he says, is not about a program, but about “principles that the Lord has designed and will use to bring more life to the body as he chooses to do in his sovereign plan” (9). You can tell that Reeder comes from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition!
Nostalgia and Tradition. “Dying churches are often living in the past” (10). True dat! Reeder clarifies, helpfully: “The past is important and should be celebrated” but “we need to realize that the pleasant river of nostalgia can swell into a sweeping current that takes the church backward and downward to destruction” (11).
Personality Dependence. Dying churches presume that they need pastoral leader with a very specific kind of personality to experience growth. Often they presume that they need a charismatic extrovert. But Reeder provides several examples of unassuming, introverted pastors who nonetheless pastored growing and vibrant congregations.
A Maintenance Mentality. Dying churches just want to stay alive and pay the bills; but this mentality contributes to the death of a church.
Excuses and a Victim Mindset. Unhealthy churches say “That will never work here because ______” Or: “We already tried that,” and other excuses. These churches assume that external factors keep it from growing, and that the church is a powerless victim in the face of these factors. Reeder emphasizes that “even our weaknesses provide an opportunity for God to work in and through us” (13-14). Remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh! (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
A Bad Reputation in the Community. “The longer a church follows a pattern of decline, the worse its public image and reputation become. The community at large and the neighboring churches form opinions about the church’s condition. The people who do the most damage in this regard are often the ones who have left the church and gone elsewhere” (16). Reeder suggests that leaders regularly ask questions about how their congregation is perceived by other churches and in the community.
Distraction from the Gospel. The worst symptom of an unhealthy, dying church is when “something else has become more important than living according to the gospel and sharing it with people who need to be saved.”
The Privileges of Church Revitalization
Reeder argues that church revitalization is an important ministry, and that it should not be dismissed in favor of just starting over with a new church plant (though there are times when that is appropriate). He asserts that in most cases a ministry of church revitalization is closer to the heart of our Lord,” the Heart of the Shepherd (18). In addition, The Heart of the Apostle, Paul, was dedicated to the health of churches. Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41, cf. Acts 18:23). And Reeder claims that church revitalization can be much more rewarding than church planting, and that established churches have numerous advantages and resources that are not available in a new church plant.
Chapter 2: The Biblical Paradigm for Revitalization
Here Reeder talks about inappropriate models of the church growth, for example, the Hollywood model that assumes the church needs to entertain people, or the Wall Street model that assumes the church needs to market itself and adopt business principles, or the therapeutic model that assumes the church exists to meet people’s emotional needs.
Health and Growth
On the contrary, Reeder argues that if a church is healthy, it will grow–though Reeder says that while growth in numbers will usually accompany church health, that is not always the case. The size of a congregation is not a reliable indicator of health.
Ephesus as a Case Study
The church at Ephesus is an important example of how growth follows health. It was, as Reeder says, one of the four “epicenter” churches along with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome (30). Paul founded it along with Silas, and Priscilla and her husband Aquila. It was in Ephesus that Priscilla and Aquila discipled Apollos, who became a leading evangelist (Acts 18:24-28). The believers at Ephesus also had a transforming emphasis on the pagan culture around them, when their evangelistic efforts threatened the local cult of the Greek goddess Artemis and the local economy that was dependent upon that cult. When Paul moved on to continue his evangelistic work, he addressed the elders and Ephesus and warned them: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). And that is what happened. By the time Timothy is pastoring the church, Paul has to tell him to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (I Tim. 1:3). The younger widows in particular were being deceived by false teachers and promoting these false teachings themselves (I Tim. 5:11-15). The church at Ephesus continued to struggle, as we discover from the book of Revelation; there the Lord Jesus rebukes the church because “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (see Rev. 2:1-5).
Reeder’s paradigm for a strategic fitness plan, for revitalization, includes ten strategies, organized under the headings Remember, Repent, and Recover the First Things. The remaining chapters of the book will cover these strategies for revitalization:
- Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past
- Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance
Recover the First Things
- Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry
- Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation
- Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer
- Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching
- Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision
- Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication
- Revitalization Strategy 9: Small-Group Discipleship
- Revitalization Strategy 10: A Great Commitment to the Great Commission