When Spurgeon first arrived at the New Park Street Chapel in the winter of 1853, the church was dying. But in the coming years, through the preaching of the Word, God would do a remarkable work. With the thousands being drawn to Spurgeon’s ministry, church membership would grow dramatically, elders would be called and the church would become an engine for gospel ministry throughout the world.
It was this vision of the power of God’s Word to revive dying churches that fueled the Pastors’ College. From the beginning, Spurgeon’s plan “was not only to train students but to found churches” – and this included both church planting and church revitalization. As demographics in 19th-century London shifted from the city to the suburbs, urban congregations began dwindling. Young pastors were drawn more to church plants in the suburbs than to historic churches in the city. Spurgeon himself recognized that “the resurrection and salvation of an old church is often a more difficult task than to commence a new one.”
At the same time, Spurgeon encouraged his students not to neglect these dying churches. After all, it is God who resurrects and saves, not the student. The privilege of the church revitalizer is to see God work miraculously through His powerful Word.
To encourage his students in church revitalization, Spurgeon once gave two motivations and three practical admonitions for his students.
Motivation #1: Chances are, things will get better
When you take a dying church, your ministry likely will lead to improvement in the church’s condition.
“Brethren, do not be afraid when you go to a place, and find it in a very bad condition. It is a fine thing for a young man to begin with a real downright bad prospect, for, with the right kind of work, there must come an improvement some time or other. If the chapel is all but empty when you go to it, it cannot well be in a much worse state than that; and the probability is that you will be the means of bringing some into the church, and so making matters better.” 
Spurgeon was not guaranteeing his students’ ministries in a dying church would always flourish. It is quite possible that under God’s providence, your role might simply be to help that church close well and steward its resources faithfully in that transition. At the same time, the encouragement is that things cannot get much worse than they already are and yet chances are that, under a faithful ministry, the Lord will use you to make things better. As the church brings in a new pastor, as the people are energized under his ministry, as they begin to pray and invite others, the probability is the Lord will use you to bring new life to the church.
Motivation #2: Chances are, the congregation will love your ministry
Rather than taking over a successful church and dealing with constant comparisons with previous pastors, a dying congregation will gratefully love the young pastor who comes and serves them sacrificially. This will be especially true as sinners are brought to faith under your ministry.
“If there is any place where I would choose to labour, it would be just on the borders of the infernal lake, for I really believe that it would bring more glory to God to work among those who are accounted the worst of sinners. If your ministry is blessed to such people as these, they will be likely to cling to you through your whole life.”
In an established church, gaining the love and trust of your congregation may prove to be a decade-long process. But in church revitalization, you have the opportunity to care for people who know their need and are grateful for your ministry.
Along with those encouragements, however, Spurgeon recognized that the greatest challenge in church revitalization is entrenched nominalism. Whereas in a church plant, a pastor can pull together a team that has fresh vision and spiritual life, in so many dying churches, many who remain “are destitute of grace, having a name to live, and yet being dead.” Such nominalism can exist among church members and even church leaders. Revitalization, then, is the work of pushing back nominalism and bringing spiritual life back into the church.
In such a context, Spurgeon gave these three pieces of advice to his students:
1. Be patient
In seeking to imitate Spurgeon’s practices of church discipline and regenerate church membership, too many young pastors ended up dividing their churches and making a mess of their ministry. But Spurgeon urged them toward patience.
“It is dreadful to have dead members where every single part of the body should be instinct with divine life; yet in many cases it is so, and we are powerless to cure the evil. We must let the tares grow until the harvest.”
This is not a call to passivity, but to prayerful dependence on God. In such a context, the pastor must recognize the need for God to work in the hearts of these nominal church members. This is not an organizational matter or an administrative challenge. This is fundamentally a spiritual problem. But even while the pastor prays, he also must preach and teach faithfully.
2. Preach faithfully
The first thing the pastor of a dying church should give himself to is the faithful ministry of God’s Word. Only God’s Word is able to bring the dead to life.
“But the best thing to do, when you cannot root up the tares, is to water the wheat, for there is nothing that will keep back the tares like good strong wheat.”
The way to end nominalism in the church is not by uprooting nominal members right away through church discipline. Rather, it is by watering the church patiently with the faithful teaching of the Word so that the Word begins to take root in the congregation and change the culture of the church. Rather than being characterized by preferences and traditions, the church begins to be marked by gospel unity and spiritual vitality, so that nominalism will slowly become more and more out of place.
This, then, will lead to Spurgeon’s final piece of advice.
3. Be willing to lose people
As the Word of God takes root by the Spirit, this will result either in the conversion of the nominal or such discomfort for them that they eventually leave. Though perhaps sad, this sometimes is the best outcome.
“I have known ungodly men who have had the place made so hot for them that they have been glad to clear right out of the church. They have said, “The preaching is too strong for us, and these people are too Puritanical and too strict to suit us.” What a blessing it is when that is the case! We did not wish to drive them away by preaching the truth; but as they went of their own accord … we will leave them where they are, praying the Lord, in the greatness of His grace, to turn them from the error of their ways, and to bring them to Himself, and then we shall be glad to have them back with us to live and labour for the Lord.”
Sometimes, the departure will prove difficult. Some church members will not want to see long-time friends leave. Their departures might lead to others. But in the end, the pastor must understand that the mission of the church is not simply to hold hands and remain all together. Rather, the church must be built on Christ and His mission. If people depart because of the preaching of the truth, we send them off with our prayers, we do our best to connect them with other churches and we carry on with a faithful ministry of the Word.
Spurgeon understood that there was no programmatic formula for church revitalization. But, like Ezekiel preaching to the dry bones, he believed in the power of the Word of God to raise dead church members to life and make them into an army for gospel ministry. This is what he saw happen at New Park Street Chapel, and this is the confidence he sought to instill in his students as they stepped into dying churches.
 The Sword & the Trowel, 1878, 240.
 Ibid., 263.
 The Soul-Winner, 147.
 Ibid., 147-148.
 Ibid., 148.
Published March 21, 2023