R is for ‘repentance’

By Bob Bickford

The fact is beyond dispute: Hundreds and thousands of churches are plateaued or declining, some are near death.[1] What also is true, especially in the past few years, is that resources directed to address the decline have exploded onto the market. Consultants, pastors, and practitioners have created surveys, assessments, strategies, and programs to help congregations in trouble.

In a recent gathering of denominational leaders, we were reviewing one of the resources, which employed a well-known and widely disseminated model of congregational evaluation: the church life-cycle.

According to this model, in the early phases of its life, a church goes from birth, through adolescence, and into adulthood, when it is conveyed that it should be at peak maturity and having maximum impact. As the church ages, the model suggests it is more likely for a downward slide to begin. The mature church begins to lose its effectiveness, its impact begins to wane, and if nothing changes, death awaits.

What’s the solution? According to the life-cycle models (depending on which version you might view) a church simply needs to employ the activities associated with any or all of the following “R” words: re-envision, re-dream, redefine, realign, reconnect, rebirth, relearn, replant, or revitalize.

I’ve not seen (at least at the time of this writing) one model with this word: repent.

I think that’s a problem. In fact, I think that’s a really, really big problem.

When reading the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation, the only “R” word we see used to help the churches get back on track is the word repent.  When you dig into the message Jesus gives to John to send to the churches, you’ll see their downfall wasn’t that they lost their dream, or that the vision had become fuzzy, or that they were no longer aligned, or that they had disconnected with their communities.

The problem we see in the churches in the opening chapters of John’s revelation was a sin problem.

Could it be that the same is true in the struggling churches today?  I think that’s an easy answer:

Church decline and death is first and foremost a spiritual problem.

When a church tolerates sin – even though its bylaws allow for church discipline to be exercised, that’s a sin problem.

When church members love their preferences (anything from style of music, decor, programs, etc.) more than Jesus, that’s a sin problem.

When people in the church talk about each other (gossip, slander), rather than to each other, that’s a sin problem.

When some in the church seek to exert their will for the church, rather than seek Jesus’ will for His church, that’s a sin problem.

All the redreaming, realigning, re-envisioning, recalibrating, reconnecting, and resourcing won’t root out the fundamental problem facing the church.

But repentance will.

I’m not opposed to all those other “R” words. In fact, I think they are needed and probably could be helpful. But they are not first steps.

If churches hope to see decline and death defeated and life return, repentance must occur first.,

Published May 5, 2019

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick