We’re All Replanters Now

By Bob Bickford

As Pastors and churches emerge from the pandemic, many are surveying the landscape are finding what once was, is no more. Casual attenders have vanished to places unknown, and disgruntled or disconnected members found new church homes. Program and ministry leaders, exhausted from holding things together or refreshed from not serving for over a year, are hesitant to ramp up or re-engage in ministry.

Our churches are not the same. A few outlier churches have grown, and for that we can praise God and be incredibly thankful! Most, including the one I lead, have not. Many, like the church I serve, have shrunk.

Every week, these two things happen, often within minutes of one another:

First, I talk to a pastor who is exhausted from leading during the pandemic. The stress and strain of absent congregants, virtual ministry, lack of personal connection with people he loves and the loss of friends who are no longer in the congregation are deep valleys one has to navigate. Working harder often has yielded less fruit—and some of the fruit it has yielded has come in the form of criticism.

Second, my inbox is flooded with solutions from ministry experts who promise that I can turn my church around if I’ll just purchase and follow their system for three easy payments of ______, and by the way it’s 60% off too!

Consider this: if plans like these really worked, there would be no dying churches!

Churches, the people who attend them and the pastors who lead them all are part of a complex, interrelated system, with unique contexts and challenges. No discounted solutions offering quick fixes typically work.

There is one thing I affirm and endorse coming from the “pay for progress” crowd: We can’t do church like we used to.

This may look different from church to church. You know what this means, specifically, for your church. I don’t. And you and your local leaders are the best ones to go before the Lord and figure that out, then share that with the congregation. Once you figure that out, work hard to implement whatever it is God is leading you to do.

Some churches will have to replant; others might be able to revitalize.

Replanting: the courageous decision to end the way a church is doing ministry and give birth to a new way of ministry.

Replanting often involves hitting the rest button and starting over. It should involve new ways of doing ministry, new ways of making decisions and new decision makers. Often it means a new leader. In some cases, it could be a renewed leader, but most often replanting means that a new pastor and leaders will run lead. The church, in essence, dies to self, submits to Jesus and then follows the leadership of the Holy Spirit as it moves forward.

Some churches will choose to replant through partnerships with other healthy churches, allowing them to step into the lead and give direction.

Revitalization: an intentional effort by existing leaders, through existing processes and ministries, following historic decision-making patterns over a protracted period of time, who seek to bring new life and vitality to a congregation.

In short, a revitalizing church will pull together, pray, work hard and use existing systems and structures as they depend upon the Lord to bring new life.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking to revitalize a church. It’s often the preferred method, as it typically requires the least amount of change and sacrifice. Yet, statistics tell us that, of the churches who seek to revitalize, 80% fail and never are fully renewed.

What then? What now?

If we can never go back to the way church was (pre-pandemic), we’re all hitting the reset button, whether we like it or not.  And we’re all replanters now.

So, do the work of a replanter:

  • Love your people.
  • Get to know and meet the needs of your community (which may have changed during COVID).
  • Preach the gospel: People are looking for a better story!
  • Do the work of an evangelist.
  • Pray like never before.
  • Celebrate small victories.
  • Stick it out, commit and stay the course.

Published May 25, 2021

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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