Christ established the church, is the head of the church, appoints elders to lead it and personally died for its members. Yet, an alarming number of churches all over America are closing their doors for good. Empty, neglected church buildings stand with their peeling paint as morbid headstones for these former houses of hope.
Alongside many of these decayed bodies are bouncy baby churches toddling along with limited resources, stability and identities. Most of the newly planted churches are led by young, energetic, talented (though not always experienced) men who have a vision for a living body – one without the stench of death emanating in every worship gathering.
Decaying churches are somewhat interested to find a solution – but only if it’s a quick fix. Like a couch potato who hopes to get healthy by watching Richard Simmons’ workouts (short shorts and all), the flabby church likes to see faith in action but are much too comfortable in their spiritually lethargic Lazy Boy to get up and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called them in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14).
Instead of signing «Do Not Resuscitate» orders or trying one more fad-laden religious program, the sickly body could instead become alive by replanting itself. Churches are attempting life-saving measures by transitioning their bodies or by turning them around. They are trying to bring about change in the church without killing it.
What I am proposing is that we intentionally bring death to a comatose body so that it could become the seed planted in nutrient-rich soil that gives life to a new body. Jesus said that unless a seed dies, it cannot give life (John 12:23-25). Jesus Himself was the first fruits sacrificially planted in the ground (tomb) as an offering to His Father and by doing so, made life possible for others.
«Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel» (2 Timothy 2:8).
Dictionary.com defines replanting: «To plant (something) again or in a new place». In a church replant, a church avoids permanent death by recognizing it will no longer flourish unless conditions are drastically changed to facilitate growth. A «transition church» on the other hand, starts with a healthy organism and applies biblical principles to foster new growth.
Instead of holding on with inordinate pride to the past, a replanted church dies to its former glory, its methods, its structure, and its practices and strategically plants its resources (body, budget, and buildings) in the spiritual ground. The result is a virile replanted church with a God-renewed mission to give life to the spiritually dead community in which it ministers.
I believe God is glorified significantly when this happens. It can be a corporate example of the spiritual renewal many individuals need. Is your church ready to live by dying?
In October of 2002, I felt the strong tug of God to become more effective in reaching the unchurched and in structuring the mission of the church more in line with the historical model of the Apostles mainly found in the Book of Acts. As a reformed Baptist, I have read extensively about the Reformation of the church and of the Puritans. Their goal for the church was to renew it back to the pattern of the Bible and away from the traditions of their culture. I dreamed of a body that loved the Lord, loved His word, loved the church, and loved the calling from God to be instruments of righteousness in their community. I dreamed of a people who practiced spiritual holiness, not judged others for their lack of adherence to man-made rules. I dreamed of marriages that visibly demonstrated the relationship of Christ and the church. I dreamed of homes that were led by the Holy Spirit, by godly heads of households and by the Scriptures. I dreamed of a church that had influence in its community: spiritually, morally, evangelistically and socially. I dreamed of a church that served willingly and enthusiastically according to their spiritual gifts, passions and God-given abilities. I dreamed of a church body that had a burning passion to share the gospel in their city, their state, their nation and in their world and to be a vital link for the establishment of churches all across the world. I dreamed of a body that had an insatiable thirst to encounter God in a real, personal and intimate way.
Mediocre, I Guess
But was it all a dream? Could it be realized, I asked myself. Was I stuck in an endless continuum of leading one self-centered, apathetic, prideful, spiritually-arrogant, biblically-ignorant church after another with no real lasting change? I have always abhorred contented mediocrity and yet I found myself again in an average church with an above average indebtedness and a below average love for one another. That was not exactly what I had hoped for. My own spiritual enthusiasm had grown average itself – and that was on a good day. Had my dream become instead a recurring nightmare of mundane Christianity? I was discouraged and disappointed with myself.
My discouragement did not lead to hopelessness. I fought through the overwhelming struggles to make financial ends meet with the clear call of God to be more spiritually effective. My top priority was to meet with God but that meeting was often overshadowed by meetings with refinancing organizations, with bankers, with creditors, with private loan resources. I felt as a church we had become more responsive to the call of finances than we were to the call of God. I had never made decisions based on finance, until this time. The financial demands were high ($16,000 per month mortgage) and the resources were weak (primarily low enrollment in the affiliated Christian school).
A Whole New Church
I felt the only way to be effective and remain faithful to this church (having served for less than a year at that time) was to start a new church in our youth center with a whole new approach to church ministry. I presented the idea to my pastoral staff in November and their response was mixed but they believed in me and hung on to that even though they couldn’t fully catch the vision I had received from God. They questioned more of the semantics and details of how to practically see this accomplished. They were enthusiastic, however, about the possibility of doing ministry like the New Testament instead of in accordance to the much too common phrase heard around the church, «This is the way we’ve always done it.» No one really knew why we did it that way; it was just familiar and comfortable to the staff and congregation.
As a staff, we worked on details and vision for the new church, now called The Encounter Church. It was a regular part of our weekly staff meetings. In fact, it was the most fervent part of our meetings. I passionately worked on ideas for our new church plant and shared them with staff at our subsequent meetings.
In January 2003, the church officers (highest ruling body at the time) approved the starting of the Encounter Church. I am not sure they fully knew what it was about but at least they accepted the idea enough to pursue it from a church-wide basis. I announced it at the annual church business meeting in mid-January and held my breath when I said it would be a church, not just a Bible study. Very little excitement was generated from that meeting. I guess they had heard unusual ideas at those business meetings before. Perhaps they never came to fruition and they were expecting (hoping?) this one to die as the others. Their silence to me, however, was the primitus annuo (first approval) that we needed to go forward.
A God-Change in Plans
One unsettling incident happened in the early spring of that year. Tyler (student’s pastor) and I were visiting a church member in the hospital. The hospitalized lady was not available for another hour. While waiting for her, we went to lunch and discussed the ideas we had for the new church. We were both caught being more interested in The Encounter Church than we were in discussing our current church. I stopped and looked at him and said, «Do you realize we have been talking about Encounter for over an hour and we are both filled with energy and zeal. Do you think that would be true if we had been discussing our original church?» He was silent. I did not realize how that incident would be a seed that would not germinate for a few months.
In May, Tyler and I went to Seattle to attend a church planting conference and to view a couple of churches in that area who held to a similar vision to the one we were pursuing. After attending a 100-person church on Sunday morning and a large 1,700-person church in the evening, I pulled Tyler aside and asked him if he felt God was calling us to plant a new church or if He was calling us to replant our current church. He didn’t know what to say. I had heard the disconcerting statement that 3,500 churches in America are closing their doors every year. I had also heard the alarming statement that the church planting organization we were there to learn from (Acts 29 Network) had a 100% success rate which is compared to the 20% success rate of other church planting attempts.
During the conference and immediately afterward, I sensed a clear call of God to get into the replanting of churches in America, beginning with our church. That is all God had used me to do in the previous pastorates and I had acceded to that calling. I didn’t know the extent of that call and I didn’t know it included our current church, a 60-year-old church with a rich history in the past.
A Missional Church on Purpose
Many churches had indeed started out as a Missional church. To be missional means that the individual members and the body as a whole understand and follow their calling from God to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ fervently to as many people as the Holy Spirit would lead. It means that we are engaged in personal relationships with the lost on purpose in order to show them the love of Christ and how He sacrificed His Son to die for our sins so that we could escape the condemnation already placed upon us as a sinner by birth. It is not unusual for a church to lose their vision – our church was no exception.
In general, the congregation where we served did not spend time with unbelievers. In fact, every effort was done to ensure that we come out from among them and remain separate. Our accompanying Christian School sometimes fed that separatist philosophy. Our church had become a church that had been trained to rapidly identify the lost (by outward appearances) and run from them fearing their personal holiness would be stained by some contagious strain of sin – the kind that someone might see! This church had become an institutional church and I had no interest in running an institution. That would be crazy! It had become a church business staying busy under the roof of the church and had forgotten that our business is to share Christ with those who have never been under the roof of the church. Our mission is to share Christ with others who when redeemed themselves, will be affected in such a profound way that they will in turn share Christ with their lost acquaintances, relatives and friends and so forth.
In 1998 (before my tenure), our church contracted a consulting firm, Donne Corporation and their conclusion was that it was a church for the «already churched community.» It was imperative that we become personally missional and not leave the evangelism up to the paid staff and the foreign missions program, of which the church found inordinate pride.
A Whole New Church Again
God called me to lead this church to become a whole new church. We did not try to turn the Winnebago around in a tight cul-de-sac, but we rather traded it in for a whole new vehicle of transportation. Jesus said we can’t put a new patch on an old garment. Instead, we start again brand new so that Christ’s message will be as fresh now as it was in 33 A.D. (Matthew 9:16-17 below). I felt strongly called by God to take the entire church body to follow Christ to replant this church instead of planting a brand new church with those who desire change. We had to decide if we had the faith to follow God’s leading. We did not ever want to be the same!
Matthew 9:16-17: «And who would patch an old garment with unshrunk cloth? For the patch shrinks and pulls away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger hole than before. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. The old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. That way both the wine and the wineskins are preserved.» (NLT)
Exploring a Replant Vision
1. Envision what the church could be if no pre-existing traditions existed. Dream big. Now add God to the equation. Dream again. Then dream short-term to see the immediate needs of the body.
a. Envision what the worship gathering could be (Acts 2:42-47).
1) Attitude of Body during worship
7) Exaltation of God
8) Incorporation of arts
b. Envision what the evangelism could be (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
1) Who can you reach immediately?
2) What attitudes toward evangelism need to change?
3) Where or how could you boldly make an impact with the gospel?
4) What steps of faith need to be taken to reach the unchurched and the unsaved?
5) How could your youth evangelize?
6) How could households evangelize together?
7) What worldwide impact could you make as a body (i.e. foreign missions)?
8) How are you going to be an eternal value to your community?
c. Envision how education and discipleship could be effective (Acts 2:42).
1) How will it become a passionate pursuit of the body («continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine», Acts 2:42)?
2) What resources (people, qualities, gifts) do you have in place to launch greater disciple-making?
3) How will the fathers and heads of households (single moms, etc.) be trained to be the priest and spiritual head of their homes?
4) How will the older men and women teach and interact with the younger men and women? (Titus 2)
5) Will the age groups be segregated (children, youth, singles, college, married, etc.) or will they be integrated into the body?
6) What role will small groups play?
7) What training will be needed to help develop disciples who are passionately pursuing Christ?
d. Envision an Acts 2 commitment to fellowship (Acts 2:44-45).
1) In what ways will the body seek to meet the needs of one another (spiritual, social, financial, physical)?
2) What attitudes need to change to be sacrificially generous of time, money and resources for the encouragement and edification of the body?
3) How will the body serve one another actively and responsively in an unprompted way?
4) What will the membership requirements be? How will it communicate a covenantal commitment?
e. Envision an effective youth and children’s ministry
1) Will they be integrated into the church ministry? If so, how?
2) How will families be strengthened through the student ministry?
3) How will the youth be encouraged and trained to evangelize their friends?
4) What role will the heads of households play in the student ministry?
5) Who (person or groups) will lead the youth and children’s ministry?
6) What facility changes are needed to communicate the value of children and youth?
7) What other positions of leadership need to be filled to be effective?
8) What leadership development with the students will be put into place?
9) What programs or customs need to be extracted from the youth and children’s ministry to avoid distractions from the ministry goals?
f. Envision an equipping staff (Ephesians 4:11-13).
1) What changes need to be made with the staff (paid or volunteer) to meet the church’s goals?
2) Are the staff members doing the ministry or leading people to do the ministry? If they are doing the bulk of the ministering, how will they develop the body to do the work of the ministry?
3) Are you over-staffed or under-staffed to meet both financial obligations and the development of lay people (taking responsibility for ministry)?
g. Envision a body not reacting to finances to determine God’s call (Matthew 6:24).
1) How will faith in God calling a body to reach out to the community and world be weighed against financial responsibility and stewardship?
2) If mortgages or debts exist, how will they be paid off in a realistic way over a reasonable time period?
3) What attitudes or practices about money and finances need to be changed?
4) Is a budget in place? Is it a true reflection of the church’s giving and spending (balanced budget)?
5) What expenses can be cut immediately to be redirected toward the church’s mission?
6) Is the body (especially the leadership) making decisions based on finances or on God’s calling?
7) What creative ways can you generate more income without sacrificing resources, biblical principles, or expending paid personnel?
2. Church Leadership
a. Identify the top three or four lay leaders of the church.
1) What will each of their roles be in leading change?
2) What resource or encouragement do they need to more effectively help guide the ship?
3) Do they fully understand the vision for replanting a missional church?
4) How could they lead organized groups of men as you work through this process of change?
b. Staff Leadership
1) Does the staff (if applicable) need to redefine their job descriptions to accommodate the changes desired?
2) What role will they play in the leading of the body?
3) What knowledge or encouragement do they need to be effective in their redefined roles?
c. Board, Officers, Elders
1) Identify the governing structure of the church. Is it congregational rule, elder rule, deacon/trustee rule, pastor directed?
2) Determine if the structure is a biblical model and if it is functionally healthy.
3) Examine the qualifications of the church officers according to 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5. Work through the process for purging the existing appointed leadership if necessary.
4) Who do you believe God has appointed as lay leaders in your church?
3. Establish a Clear Mission (Proverbs 29:18).
a. Write (and rewrite) a mission statement that is easily understood and easily repeated that reflects exactly what will guide the church when determining the value of ministries (establishment and continuance). An example of a mission statement is adapted from Willow Creek «Turning unchurched people into fully devoted followers of Christ.» Another example is «Making True Disciples» (our former statement) and «Penetrating the Darkness – Sharing the Light» (our current statement).
1) What are the values of the church that could be incorporated into a mission statement (evangelism, discipleship, worship, etc.)?
2) Write out a first draft:
3) Can it be recited easily?
4) Is it easily understood by non-theologians?
5) Who could be given the responsibility of forming the mission statement?
b. The mission statement acts as a filter for all ministries. Is this specific ministry contributing to or taking away from the God-given mission statement?
1) How will ministries be dissolved without creating division among the body?
2) How open are the leaders of ministries to exploring other ways of doing things to be more effective in your mission?
c. Communicate your mission statement often in as many avenues as you can.
1) Publish is on everything (bulletins, business cards, letterhead, websites, pens, etc.)
2) Preach the mission statement in detail at least once a year. Exegete every word. Include it in preaching regularly.
4. Determine your core values that will directly contribute to your mission statement.
a. Some churches might express their mission statement through four core values of meaning, beauty, truth, community.
b. Other churches describe their values as membership, maturity, ministry, mission, magnification.
c. Your core values are the foundations which allow you to build all other ministries. Core values are expressed by the term «We will» not «We might». For instance, we will worship God passionately. We might have communion.
d. Think of ways you could creatively and visually express those core values to the body.
e. Our core values for The Encounter Church are Encountering God Intimately, Encountering His Word Obediently, Encountering One Another Devotedly, and Encountering the World Compassionately. It is visualized by the letter «E».
5. Seriously explore a name change (Proverbs 22:1; Ecclesiastes 7:1).
a. To communicate a change in focus; in approach; in product, a change in name can be effective if the product lives up to the change.
1) If the only change taking place is the name, it will not produce the desired results.
2) Changes need to be in place (or ready to launch) prior to a name change!
3) What does your name communicate to the community in which it ministers?
b. Do you believe your denominational label (or lack of one) is contributing to or detracting from your mission?
1) Determine the cultural valuation of a denomination. Is it honored or dishonored in the community?
2) This could be the greatest point of conflict in an existing body that has associated itself with a denomination both corporately and individually. Members of a church are prone to say, «I’ve been a Methodist (et al) all my life.»
3) Likewise, a person may be adamant about not being a particular denomination. Neither position is healthy. With whom will your church be affiliated?
c. Leading a church through a name change must be led by the mission statement. If your mission statement is «Retaining Our Members for Life,» you may not want to explore a name change. If it is «Penetrating the Darkness – Sharing the Light,»(tm) a name change is imperative.
6. Determine if a relocation is profitable.
a. Is the church located in a growing area?
1) Where is the fastest growing area in your community?
2) What are the most densely populated areas in your community?
3) What are the demographics of the ten mile radius around your meeting place?
4) How equipped or called is your church to minister to the residents in your church location?
5) What are the three most desirable locations for a meeting place for your church?
b. What equity does your church building have?
c. Would relocating create more opportunities for ministry and outreach?
d. Would relocating free assets for ministry of place a greater financial strain on ministry?
7. Fearlessly Lead the Replanting Process (1 John 4:18).
a. Prayerfully determine if God has called your church to enter a replanting at this time. Do you feel God is calling you to replant your church?
b. Once affirmed, lead fearlessly through the rough waters, people jumping overboard, sea sickness, and mutiny among the crew. Many people (including leaders and even spouses) will become disoriented, discouraged, and dissenting. Lead the body patiently, lovingly, but firmly – just as Jesus would. But don’t lead fearful of losing popularity, friendship, or a comfortable, secure job. A manager is a pleaser of people. A visionary leader is a pleaser of God.
c. Do you have the visionary, God-called leader in place?
d. If so, does he have the support of the leadership?
e. If not, where will you begin to look for a shepherd leader with the skill set to replant your church?
8. Center your faith in God (Hebrews 11:6; Matthew 17:20) .
a. Reject the temptation to have faith in your resources, your givers, your buildings, or even your idea. Have faith in God’s ability to honor His name by His body becoming more obedient to the principles of Scripture.
b. Follow God’s calling even if it threatens being tossed into the lion’s den (Daniel 6). God will shut the mouths of the hungry lions (and disgruntled members) if He is calling you to replant a missional church for His glory. It is His church, Christ is the head.