Hiding Behind Revitalization

I have said it many times, “We are revitalizing a church.” “I am a revitalization pastor.” “It’s a revitalization.” It sounds quite admirable coming off of my lips, but it is not. I recently realized that I have come to use the term “revitalization” as a means of insulating myself from failure and isolating myself from my flock’s imperfections.

This realization has brought me face-to-face with my own failures and imperfections. What happens when your ministry philosophies fail to be the magic bullet you had imagined? What happens when you employ best practices and wise counsel with fruitless and even adverse results? What happens when you have to face your own inabilities and shortcomings?

I have been truly stunned and humbled by my staggering failure to lead my church forward toward noticeable organizational and spiritual health. A complex sludge of factors has our church declining in numbers and morale. While I would prefer to expound on the source of these problems to bolster my ego, I will not. For many reasons, the church I pastor is not doing well. This has left me feeling vulnerable in an incredible number of ways. At some point in this decline, I began to use the term ‘revitalization’ to hide from the problem.

The term ‘revitalization’ can easily be used to disproportion fault. It can be used effortlessly to assign blame and cast criticism on the congregation, instead of the pastor. If I say on my resumé that I gave my best in a revitalization effort, I don’t have to explain or even admit my shortcomings in the decline of the church. The word can merely consign the whole flock into a mental category of unfit, unhealthy, ungrateful, and hopelessly strayed sheep. When my peer’s church is flourishing, I simply need to brandish the spiritual work of revitalization to lift my status and my ego.

The term is an equally useful escape from having to identify myself as one of the flock. If I envision my people as the contagiously ill patient, then I can continue to aid them through sterile, latex gloves – never willing to sit down and join them in their brokenness, failure, and embarrassment. Yes, I have used the term ‘revitalization’ to remain aloof, even distance myself, from my people and their problems.

Yet, by God’s grace, I am currently preaching through John. I am now preparing to teach from chapter 13. It is a humbling passage. It says that “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garment, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:3-5).

The passage has haunting ramifications for ministry in a contaminated world. The gospel does not allow us to lead from a place of superiority or safety. Jesus Christ inserted himself into our brokenness, joining us in our mess, that He might redeem us. He calls His under-shepherds to follow His lead as servants and fellow sufferers. Shepherding is unavoidably dirty business. If we refuse to get into the sheep pen, we will never have the effectiveness and affectionate touch Christ desires for His people.

Church revitalization is a noble calling and a worthy task. The word is not inherently bad, nor should it be avoided. I am so grateful for the recent uptick in concern for existing, struggling local churches. I have simply become aware of a danger in using the term in a self-serving way. I cannot say with certainty that I will mend my errors overnight. However, God has brought it to my attention, and I intend to serve more faithfully. My hope is that my error will prevent you from a similar mistake.

Shepherd well; get dirty!

This post originally appeared at Practical Shepherding.,

Published June 10, 2020

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