Traveling the Forgotten Path

By David Jackson

“Back to the basics.”

How many times have we heard this when we attempt to recapture a skill we learned long ago? Whether it’s athletics, farming, mechanics, even relationships, we never outgrow the need to return to the fundamentals. It should be a “given,” but often I find myself skipping over these steps, rationalizing that my experience or expertise makes them unnecessary.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Jesus made comments about churches like this when he spoke to the congregation at Ephesus in Revelation 2. A significant church with a storied history and pristine reputation, it had become dulled and distant with their God. Our Lord said to them: “But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4, CSB). Had experience and expertise cooled their hearts and made it harder for them to see and hear God?

I’m inclined to think so.

What are the steps to getting a church like this back on track? Jesus continues, “Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (2:5). All three of these statements are of great import to us here.

  1. Jesus says the church must remember how far they have fallen. This command is to help the church recognize how much the reliance on their own experience and expertise have distanced their hearts from God. The distance they felt was the antithesis of what Christ wanted them to enjoy. The idolatry of things and experiences had stolen their hearts.
  2. They are told to repent. The word metanoia, of course, means to “change your mind” (literally). But in reality, it reflects so much more. It indicates that the entity has already changed from where it was previously, and thus needs to return. It is a lifestyle word. In other words, Jesus is rebuking the church for their love wandering away in the first place, even as he calls them to return. Change is required to get back to where Jesus calls the church to be.
  3. Christ commands them to do the things they did at first. As a former church planter, I know all about what churches do at the beginning. The work is all about relationships with people and evangelism that leads to disciple making. When new churches try to do more or become a church with something for everyone, they can dilute their impact and minimize their strengths.

Couple these three things together, and the conclusion is that churches can lose their first love by adding things they didn’t do in the early days. Complexity breeds apathy. Love for Christ is lost because it has been re-appropriated to something else: our traditions, routines, experiences, places, or programs.

If you are a pastor or church leader seeking to lead your church in revitalization, let me recommend the following to move the church back toward vitality.

First, acknowledge, as Jesus indicates, this is a spiritual problem that can’t be resolved apart from repentance. Though we live in a material world, it ultimately is spiritual in nature. Idolatry is replacing God with anything else, including “creature comforts” and “sacred cows.” This is the most important “change” that must take place (Matt. 6:33).

Second, get back to the basics. Build Christlike relationships with disenfranchised (lost, unchurched, marginalized) people. Create opportunities as a church for relationship building to take place among your people. Some readers will immediately trivialize this step and say this is not “spiritual” enough. Let me respond by saying most evangelism writers today encourage us to count spiritual conversations, rather than conversions. But conversations can’t take place unless church attendees are encouraged to build relationships and maximize the strength, trust, respect, and credibility that follow when a relationship is genuine. After all, the longer one is a Christian, the fewer non-Christian friends he or she typically has. So, relationship building is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Third, focus your church back on evangelism that leads to disciplemaking. Most church plants spend 50% of their budget in the first year on evangelism. Most older, established churches don’t even spend 5% on it. No wonder there is a difference in impact! Churches serious about revitalization will have to take the necessary steps to move the church back toward an outward-focused ministry of the Gospel. For 99% of established churches, it is not realistic to aim for a 50% threshold in evangelism dollars. So, start by moving the needle toward 10%. Watch the difference it makes!

Churches that take these commands of Jesus seriously will find a new lease on life. They will find a forgotten freedom in serving God that will bring new energy and excitement to their existence. And most important of all, they will rediscover their first love, Jesus Christ, in a way that will bring joy and meaning to all they do.

Published August 13, 2020

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David Jackson

David Jackson is the NAMB Replant Team Specialist for the eastern region of the United States. He is the happy husband of Joye and a blessed father of three grown children. He works with replanters and revitalizers to coach and equip them and to consult and train churches seeking to replant or be revitalized.