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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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There are so many churches that are barely making it. They may be weeks, months or just a few years away from closing their doors. What, if anything, can be done to bring them back around?

First, some churches are going to shut down but keep in mind…that doesn’t mean the kingdom comes to a halt. Those people and resources can be poured into other congregations. It is sad to see a church close its doors but it isn’t the end of the world. The church in Ephesus stopped meeting at some point in time. Can you imagine being the last person out from a church Paul planted? Maybe that was easier to do when they met in homes. Keep in mind…every single congregation will close its doors at some point in time. This is why starting new churches is essential. I digress…

What can a church do to bring about renewal? Is it a strategy to reach young people? Better worship? More community service? Those are all well and good but the reality is none of those are going to be a quick fix and much of that can be superficial fixes. What is really needed is a reboot…a change in our operating system. We are running Windows 95 and we at least need to be up to Windows 7 or maybe even go to Mac in some situations. In other words, the way we think may be what is killing us and until we change our underlying assumptions, superficial fixes won’t help much. Getting a new, energetic song leader won’t get you very far if you aren’t willing to try new things.

Not every church needs to implement the same thing but I can tell you this – every struggling church needs to start looking at renewal and start with fasting and prayer. You can read a dozen articles on how to turn it around but if you aren’t seeking God over the experts you won’t find the right “thing” because it isn’t about a “thing” it is about God. Churches in trouble often have leadership out of step with the Holy Spirit, running headlong without spiritual discernment or biblical directives. Fasting and prayer reprioritizes everything.

Are we serious about following God or not? Are we serious about His mission or not? Are we going to be obedient to what He told us or not? Fasting and prayer. Fasting and prayer. Prayer and fasting. Let God show you the way because the expert writing the article on how to turn things around doesn’t know your church and your church doesn’t belong to her – but God knows and we belong to Him.

Any church renewal strategy that doesn’t start with fasting and prayer is going to miss the point. It may be you fast and pray and are more convinced to close the doors and use those resources in a new way…maybe start a new church with fresh DNA. It may be God shows you a glaring need in your community that your congregation has a unique position or potential to meet.

If you aren’t listening to God you won’t find renewal.

If church is all about Sunday then for many of us church is effectively over for the time being. If church is about putting on a good show on Sunday then church is done for the foreseeable future.

You and I both know that isn’t what church is really about and that the church carries on even if we can’t walk in the door. In many regards church may be at its best right now than it has been in a while. Members are serving and loving and connecting via social media. Needs are being met. People are being checked on.

What is most important is becoming obvious in a way it couldn’t before all this happened.
The big question is, what changes when we return to assembling? Does this change anything? Does it deepen our relationships? Does it change our emphases? What is going to be different, if anything, when we return and all of this settles out?

I believe we have a tremendous opportunity to put some pieces in place that weren’t there before. There are ministries that need re-focused. We need to be thinking about that now. There are things we don’t need to keep doing. That will become clearer and clearer as things progress.

But maybe the biggest question of all is, are we even willing to consider these things or is our church culture so strong that homeostasis (reverting to the same state) will instantly set in with a gravitational pull back to tradition that no amount of energy can generate escape velocity to a better approach?

Let’s be reminded of Acts 4. The church in struggle becomes a bold church.

Let’s recall Acts 8, a church scattered is a church spreading the gospel.

Let’s look at 1 Peter 1 again, a faith tested results in glorifying God.

Let’s not lose sight of the opportunity for fear of the threat. We cannot come back from this as if it never happened.

We are already living in anxious times.

COVID-19 has taken things to an entirely different level.

A friend of mine was shopping at her wholesale club store this week when she witnessed a customer “steal” a pack of bottled water out of the cart of a shopper who had turned to look at another item. Another friend shared that someone had stolen a pack of toilet paper out of her car this week. I suspect many of us are wrestling with a scarcity mindset right now, but come on….these are not normal behaviors.

Clearly anxiety is getting the best of us. In times of uncertainty, we need a way of reminding ourselves about what we truly believe.

If the Coronavirus and the ensuing fears of scarcity have you feeling a bit more anxious these days, I want to share a few simple breath prayers with you that I’ve found to be helpful. Breath prayers have a rich history in the contemplative Christian tradition, dating back hundreds of years. These prayers are intentionally brief, typically corresponding with one’s breathing pattern (thus the name). Over the past few years, breath prayers have become an integral part of my devotional life, a powerful way of praying the Scriptures and reminding me about what I believe.

For most, a breath prayer consists of a simple phrase repeated over and over as a form of prayer. Some will immediately object that Jesus prohibits such prayer in Matthew 6:7, but not all repetitions should be considered vain. Furthermore, the Scriptures are filled with some of the same prayer phrases over and over again. (“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever,” I’m looking at you.) My prayer life has benefitted greatly from the use of these easily repeatable words of prayer and supplication. And in particular, repeating some of these lines from Scripture gives me strength when I am fearful.
The first breath prayer comes from Psalm 94.

Psalm 94:19, When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.

I’ve started praying this when I feel anxious and fearful. I don’t think of myself as a particularly anxious person, but I think everyone experiences what the Psalmist describes, moments when anxiety is truly great “within” us. My anxiety usually manifests itself as irritability. (Just ask my friends and family.) For others, anxiety can lead to insomnia, nausea, lack of concentration, and a host of other things. We must use discretion to seek professional counsel when anxiety becomes chronic. But I’ve found this text to be a tried and true spiritual method for decreasing anxiety when I feel it becoming “great within me.”

When I’m praying this breath prayer, I shorten the line to something like: “In this anxiety, console me with your joy.” (Remember, breath prayers are short and simple, corresponding with our breathing patterns.) I’ll say it several times in a row, maybe as many as a dozen times in a minute if the situation warrants it. As I direct these words heavenward, I can feel my anxiety and fear dissipate slowly. And I feel a sense of God’s peace, which is indeed a joyful reprieve from the throes of unease.

Other times, I simply pray, “Jesus Christ is my peace.” When I feel uneasy or when things seem to be spinning out of control in my life, I come back to this bedrock truth: “Jesus Christ is my peace.” That’s taken directly from the prophet Micah and the apostle Paul. But this prayer helps to remind me that even during times of chaos, I serve the One who commands the winds and the waves. Even the chaotic power of Death could not defeat King Jesus! He is our peace — the One who can calm our fears.

We cannot control the circumstances of our lives. But we can control what we pray. In these times of anxiety, may we seek the consolation of the One who provides joy and peace.

Pandemic reveals who you are and what you’re made of. It scours away the pretenses under which you operate. It unearths the true character of your church.

The covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is already an unprecedented disruption. While some are hoping for a quick return to normal, realistic models show nothing less than eight weeks of drastic cutbacks. Major events in June are already being canceled.

What does your church look at this stage of the pandemic? Will your faith community look the same coming out of the coronavirus lockdown? Or will this drastically change your congregation?

Here’s the long and the short of it. This is a chance to rethink your church’s mission. Or to put it more bluntly, this calamity provides a window of opportunity to finally get with the mission of following Jesus.

Here’s the problem. Too many North American churches focus far too much money, energy and time on the Sunday morning gathering. Their resources, their staffing and their property are all largely directed toward putting on a good show for their paying consumers. The mission of way too many churches is to keep people coming and giving. Do whatever it takes, or so the logic goes, to get butts in the pews and money in the coffers.

Unless I’m badly mistaken, Jesus never called us to do what most churches today view as their central focus. These are luxuries we greatly enjoy, but they should not be our mission. Producing wonderful worship is not the mission. Preaching a good message is not the mission. Amazing children’s and student ministries are not the mission. Even providing an inviting space and good coffee for fellowship is not the mission.

Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a post against big churches per se, even if some are great offenders in this regard. Small churches can be just as guilty of putting all their eggs into the Sunday-morning basket. Far too much of what most churches do goes into producing a product they can feel proud of on Sunday mornings. This is true in big and small churches alike.

This pandemic will lay bare the fact that many North American churches are focused on consumerism instead of discipleship. And in this midst of this crisis, we have a chance to repent and refocus on the mission of going into the world and making disciples.

Jesus did not call us for the purpose of meeting on Sunday in a church building. He called us for the purpose of being his people. To be salt and light. To be the pillar of truth. To be resident aliens. To be disciples. To be the family of Christ, the household of God. Perhaps this temporary shutdown is a chance to refocus our churches on the mission of Jesus.

Where can you find healthy models of how to commit to the mission of Jesus? I’d argue that they are all around. In immigrant churches. In minority churches. And in third-world churches. The role of pastors in those churches is not to deliver an outstanding product on Sundays but to know the Good Shepherd and to be a shepherd all week long. The role of worship in those churches is not to titillate the senses for a few minutes on Sunday but to give people the words and the music by which to live all week long. The focus of these churches is totally different because they are still on mission—something we would do well to rediscover right now.

While your church is furloughed, you might be tempted to spend your energy on live-streaming messages or on technical gadgetry to wow your people and keep them from forgetting to donate. Instead, use this as a time to reconnect with God, your church and your neighborhood. Go for long walks and greet your neighbors. Read your Bible. Pray without ceasing. Publish your cell phone number so anyone in your church can text you. Do the unexpected. Be like Jesus.

I pray for a quick end to this infectious disease. Most of all, though, I pray that God will be at work to transform your church into the kind of people who can truly make a difference, into people committed to the mission of Jesus.

Many churches are waiting on finally making the right hire to finally find revival. It isn’t realistic. No one from the outside can do what you can’t do from the inside.

It is Deus ex machines – a last minute rescue from an unlikely source.

Your Savior already came and He wasn’t your next preacher.

If you want to see church revival it falls on you to begin doing what you can do to see it through. Stop waiting on someone else. Start embracing the opportunities God has put all around you to make a difference.

“But you don’t understand my elders…”

I can assure you, I do.

Elders won’t stop you from praying. They won’t tell you to stop encouraging people. They won’t tell you that you aren’t allowed to disciple people.

If you want revival stop waiting on humans. Start waiting on the Lord. Do what you can do to see it through. The most important pre-requisites for revival are “yes” not “no.” So start getting the easy wins, the small victories and be faithful. Then watch and see what God does with it all!

In my work with ACU’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry, I have the honor of consulting with congregations all over the country. Church decline and church renewal remain vital and popular themes throughout countless conversations with churches of varying contexts, sizes, and flavors. So I constantly watch for resources to aid churches in this important work of renewal.

Recently I found a work from a British author that offers a simple and useful way to reflect on the practices and life of a congregation. In his book The Healthy Churches’ Handbook (Church House Publishing, 2012), Robert Warren offers seven indicators of what makes for a healthy church. 

These seven markers emerge from his research and engagement with a number of churches throughout England, where many churches have suffered decline and are now experiencing renewal. These markers resonate well with numerous others who have written about congregational health, and I share them in hopes that they will help you in your own context.

Here is a brief summary of what Warren learned about healthy congregations:

  1. They are energized by faith. Healthy churches are deeply aware of the presence and goodness of God. Warren declares that “faith is the fuel on which these churches run.”
  2. They possess an outward focus. Healthy churches are not focused on internal matters but are fully engaged in their context and the life of their broader community. The gospel matters to the world, and these churches identify with both the joy and the pain evidenced in their contexts.
  3. They seek to find out what God wants. Healthy churches are not content to simply be; rather, they are bent on learning and following God’s will and purpose. They are characterized by prayer and a relentless willingness to move and adapt for the sake of God’s agenda.
  4. They face the cost of change and growth. Healthy churches, like healthy people, are capable of facing hard facts and courageously moving forward. Relinquishing things of the past for the possibilities of the future is necessary.
  5. They operate as a community. Healthy churches develop and sustain robust relationships that are generous, trusting, and open. Authenticity and care infuse communication, leadership practices, and ordinary life.
  6. They make room for all. Healthy churches practice hospitality. They constantly create space for others to join in the life and vitality of community.
  7. They do a few things well. Healthy churches have a quiet purposefulness about their life and ministry. Rather than rush from one thing to another, healthy churches live with meaning and intentionality, doing what they do with excellence.

What might you discover by using these indicators as a way of reviewing and reflecting about your own congregation? Could such a review lead to new insights or practices?

If you would like a conversation partner as you reflect the health of your church, my team and I would love the opportunity to walk alongside you. Some helpful starting points on the Siburt Institute website might be our consulting page, our Church Health Assessment page, and our contact page.

May God bless you as you seek God’s renewal in your community life!

A version of this article was originally published in a Siburt Institute e-newsletter. To receive this monthly newsletter or other communications from the institute, subscribe here.


Dr. Carson E. Reed is vice president for church relations at Abilene Christian University and executive director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as director for the Doctor of Ministry program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment as an associate professor of practical theology in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work on governance, transitions, and new ecclesial forms with congregations and church leaders. His teaching and research focus on practical theology with a particular emphasis on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married over 35 years and have four adult children.

In our conversation on church restoration it is important that we examine our foundation. How many home renovation shows have you watched where the drama of the episode focused on a major and unforeseen problem with the foundation. Everything looked good on the outside but underneath it all, there were cracks.

We have to examine our foundation and my concern is that over time we have shifted our foundation to a system that we were profoundly confident in.

If our certainty is founded on and is in a system we can act like we have certainty but underneath it all is extreme anxiety and uncertainty. Christians in our fellowship (Churches of Christ) so often seem certain in our teaching but very uncertain about our salvation. When the home inspector comes and finds that to be the case, she has found crack # 1…like stairstep cracks in a block wall, it is symptomatic that something underneath has shifted and the house is sinking. Things need to be shored up.

Systems have inconsistencies and where those inconsistencies crop us we have to do something to hold it all together…either question the system or twist things up to keep the system in place.

We need to deconstruct the system and see what we are left with, what is true vs what is tradition.

Then we need to reconstruct something far more robust with a new foundation…no longer will the foundation be the SYSTEM. The foundation will be the SAVIOR. He isn’t inconsistent and He cannot be twisted. We must conform to Him rather than Him to us. Systems and Saviors don’t operate the same way. Praise God!

Paul wrote this in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15,

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

The only foundation the house can be built on is Jesus. Period. If we move away from that we move to uncertainty. Uncertainty is always present when things depend on imperfection and impotence. We move to anxiety. Fear. Worry. That is a gospel that isn’t the Gospel. If you use church as Gospel rather than Jesus as Gospel, you have shifted the foundation. If you preach salvation coming through attendance in the proper church rather than salvation coming through Jesus and the work of the Spirit, you have another gospel.

We need to go back to the Bible, look at the word “Gospel” and define it as the Bible defines it and preach that message. Instead, we have often defined gospel in terms comfortable with our tradition and conformed the Word to our work. That is crack #2. The home inspector is going to find it. As Paul said, that doesn’t mean the house is doomed…it just means it is compromised.

Once we make the move from system to savior, we will finally find certainty, peace, and lack of fear/anxiety about our salvation. The system lends itself to judgment and fear. The Savior lends himself to grace and peace.

What/Who his your faith in?

Church renewal is always Christian renewal.

            That should be rather obvious but I’m not sure if it is. Having served in ministry as a pastor for the last fifteen years, I’ve heard and engaged in many conversations about church renewal. Numerous books, articles, blogs and podcasts have been published, with many of them addressing the issue of church renewal as it relates to the challenges of leadership and conflict, spiritual formation and the mission of God, as well as even evangelism and reaching the next generation. Such conversations are necessary and generally helpful. If our local churches are to experience any sort of renewal, however, it will happen because the individuals of the church are experiencing renewal.

            This is why it’s so important to remember that church renewal is Christian renewal. Our local churches are us. We are the church. Yes, we organize ourselves in a manner so that we may function as a church community. And yes, sometimes the way we organize becomes a hindrance to our participation in the mission of God. However, before we can tackle the organizational  and theological challenges present in church renewal, we have to ask if we are being renewed by the Spirit in our faith as followers of Jesus.

            Several years ago I went through a series of seminars with Mission Alive, which equips people for planting new churches and leading renewal among existing churches. The seminars I attended focused on the latter and appropriately, the first seminar dealt with our own personal faith. That’s because, as Mission Alive states on their website, “The first ministry of any spiritual leader is to his or her own soul. Your leadership board, group, team or committee cannot lead others into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with God if they are running on empty.”[1]

            To speak of church renewal as Christian renewal, we must talk about the practices or disciplines that open us to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an ever deepening faith among us. Just as the proper disciplines of diet and exercise correlate to good physical health, so does proper discipline correlate to a fit faith as followers of Jesus. We are not talking about earning our salvation in any sense. We are simply talking about participating in the activities that will allow us to live as healthy followers of Jesus, exhibiting a courageous and convicting faith that is fueled by the Spirit of God at work in and among us. There are plenty of books written on  spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on scripture, prayer and fasting, solitude and self-examination, etc.[2]

            I’ll confess that I am neither naturally inclined to physical fitness nor to faith fitness. I’m always a few pounds overweight and I’m still struggling to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The habits of my youth, which were unconcerned with physical fitness, much less faith fitness, are deeply ingrained within me. So I have to become intentional about watching my diet and getting exercise, which typically involves walking (and having a Saint Bernard dog helps). Walking also opens space for me to reflect, become aware of both the ways I see God working and the ways I am struggling in my faith. That open space is where I become intentional about praying, which is a struggle. I also have downloaded on my iPhone several apps for reading the Bible as a discipline, not for sermon and Bible class preparation but simply so that I might hear God speak through his word in anticipation of seeing as God sees and joining in his work as a follower of Jesus.

            I’m neither an expert on physical health nor an expert on church renewal and maintaining a fit faith. Still I am trying to live as a follower of Jesus and I happen to serve as a pastor among a church that has been experiencing renewal. Both are evidence of God’s work and nothing else. But both following Jesus and renewal suffer if I’m not intentional in engaging the exercises maintaining a fit faith.

            One key reason church renewal doesn’t come without Christian renewal is we now live in a time where churches are increasingly made up of Christian consumers. The consumer interest in participating in a local church depends on whether that church provides desired goods. The consumer mindset is not one of how can a Christian serve with their church to participate in the mission of God but instead seeks to be served by the church. Such consumerism, which is antithetical to following Jesus and a hinderance to church renewal, seems especially prevalent among younger adults and students.[3]

            Consumerism is encouraged by our culture, but it is also learned from inauthentic Christianity encountered in church. We must resist the consumer impulses ourselves by attending to our own faith, engaging in the exercises that allow us to maintain a fit faith — a faith that follows Jesus rather than consuming religious goods. Ultimately, the goal of church renewal is participation in the mission of God but that goal begins by attending to our own faith as people committed to following Jesus. Such faith is the authentic Christianity that breaks through consumerism, embodying the gospel and igniting church renewal.


            [1] See http://missionalive.org/renew/.

            [2] For example, there is the now classic book by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary Ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1978, 1988, 1998; also recommended is Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

            [3] David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019, 27-28.

One of the strongest hope-offers from God toward us is that of renewal. The trend which He anticipates for us is to be new day by day. Don’t you love the very thought? Such isn’t merely rote habitualizational church chatter. Rather, it is that profound hopeful element that drives us as a church upward and outward.

Is there hope for the church today? No, I mean really…is there reason to be an expectational people? Shall our leaders buy into the idea that congregations can move from stagnation or decline into a renewal mode? Certainly.

Transition into acceleration toward growth will come about the more we abandon the business model and transition to the truth of dependence upon the Spirit of God within and among us. Admittedly, this is a necessary risk that is challenging…and productive. For too long I tried to do the work of the church from my best…well…my best know-how. But God does not function within such meager limitation.

What will help us turn things around? Oh, we are seeing it. Prayer is the starting point. Yet, and it isn’t prayer alone; but a believing prayer. Shelling out words without the faith backing is simply offering air-chatter…and hopeless talk at that.

Therefore, a congregational confidence via prayer will include key assistance for all of us to gain insight as to how we actively fit the (church) body life. Equipping is essential. Sometimes our tendency is to offer calls or assignments when we may need to back up and do a bit of training.

When I began in ministry, I could not teach a person how to be saved. Oh, I knew the rules and the verses. Yet, I didn’t think that I could share it. Others could do it better; so I stayed out of the way. Admittedly, I avoided the responsibility for a long time. Guilt finally drove me, no forced me, to try. As I tried, God seemed to open my heart as well as my skill.

May we learn to help each of our members feel more than merely responsible. We must help them see that they fit. I’m noticing so many of whom we would regard as attenders only who simply do not see themselves as important or necessary to make a difference for anyone else. And, I’m sympathetic for that’s how I felt.

But when focus is given to patiently assist our members in seeing that they are important and do fit in, their faith action will increase. As leaders we cannot assume that our members know this power amazing within them. Thus, they step politely aside yielding, in their minds, to the more qualified. But, they are mistaken. Each is embedded by the Spirit to do valuable work for the Kingdom benefit.

Such a calling will take more than an announcement from the pulpit or in the church bulletin. This message is the calling of our wonderful and powerful leaders. When these work with our members individually with both explanation and invitation, it seems that renewal begins for form. Patience pulls us forward and confidence seems to build.

As Jesus began his ministry…one by one…today’s work follows the same effective pattern. Patient, calm, partnership and training allows our hesitant members to begin to try…to try to serve others. What happens is discovery…a discovery that we are able to do more than we thought or imagined because such is the actual trend of God in us.

It is because of God’s tender and patient leadership…that we can actually make a great difference…for our neighbors.

Many of us feel a longing in our bones for something fresh. Something alive. A movement.

We can (and must) start new churches.

But what is God doing with existing churches? Not all of them are struggling. Some are growing. Growing churches are not the majority. Studies have been done that out growing churches around a quarter to a third of churches are growing (mostly growing through programs).

What will it take to turn churches in decline? Some will need to die, that’s natural not morbid. Some have life left in them, they just need vision and direction. They need healthy governance. They need the release of members’ gifts for kingdom work.

What is God doing to renew legacy churches and how can we get in board?