The Problems and Pitfalls of Church Revitalization

The Problems and Pitfalls of Church Revitalization July 9, 2019

Hi! Last time we met up, I showed you Thom Rainer’s new-old post-LifeWay business plan. It’s the usual muddle of snake oil and big promises that we expect out of evangelicals trying to line their pockets before the gravy train comes to a complete halt. This type of business, church revitalization, might well be one of post-Christian America’s most lucrative cottage industries. Today, I’ll show you what revitalization is–and why it’ll fail just like everything else Christians do to try to regain their onetime cultural dominance.

OMG (Jared Rice.)

Church Revitalization: A Primer.

Out of all the totally-not-secrets in the world, none figures so large as the fact that Christian churches in much of the world are having serious trouble recruiting–and keeping–their members. We don’t know exactly how many churches close each year (any more than we know much of anything else for sure in Christianity; I always take their figures with a lot of grains of salt), but it’s a lot.

The people running these churches likely find the truth to be painful. Yet here it is all the same: even with churches’ massive tax perks, opening a church is no longer a guarantee of a good living for its owner(s). With as few Christians as there apparently are who even bother with tithing or attending church each weekend, most churches struggle mightily just to remain open.

But once Christians open a church, they can’t imagine it simply failing. Especially if they once had a big crowd attending, they think they can get back to that size of a congregation again. In their heart of hearts, they believe that the larger congregation was the default state of their church–not the smaller one.

So really, they just want to know the trick to regaining that level of popularity. After all, there’s got to be some trick to it. They just need to figure out what it is. Do they need cooler worship music? Or lower light levels? Or maybe a new youth pastor who can really talk to KIDS TODAY?

That’s where church revitalization enters the picture.

Someone promises these frantic, desperate pastors the moon. Somehow ,”Jesus” hasn’t told them what they’re doing wrong. Also somehow, “Jesus” never tells them that these hucksters are pure-and-simple charlatans and conjobs who have even less of an idea of what works than these pastors themselves do.

Waltzing on the Deck of RMS Titanic.

Church revitalization, congregational growth, and making disciples is neither magic nor mystery.

— George Hunter, To Spread the Power (1987)
(Spoiler: It turned out to be both.)

As a concept, church revitalization didn’t begin with Southern Baptists. I began hearing murmurs on the topic from as far back as the 1980s out of various right-wing-leaning churches (like this one from 1985). All through the glory days of Christian dominance in modern America, Christians tried to get traction on the idea of church revitalization. They probably all sounded to their fellow Christians like the guys telling Noah in that silly song that it’d never rained before.

Well, here we all are in This Current Darkness Year. Christian churches and denominations can’t even keep up with basic inflation and population growth. Now, suddenly, revitalization looks very interesting to the sorts who always see a silver lining in every cloud. (And that lining somehow always looks to them to be very literally silver!)

Nowadays, one sees no shortage of websites talking about this topic. They argue about how properly to do it, how not ever to do it, and what awful dangers exist in doing it wrong.

What Isn’t the Problem.

Bear in mind that Christianity itself isn’t declining because none of its claims are true. That fact is not what began their decline. And it’s not what made their hucksters see an opportunity in revitalization.

After all, Christian claims have been untrue ever since someone invented their religion. Despite that lack of veracity, Christian leaders still managed to become a world power. Then they held that power for many centuries, all without having objective real-world support for their many claims.

Plenty of groups center themselves around untrue ideas and still bring in lots of recruits. Think about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs), for just a start! And others involve plenty of true ideas and still can’t get the number of recruits they want. The number of recruits in a group, and whether that number falls or rises, has little to do with a group’s hold on objective truth.

But think for a moment about how Christianity became a huge, powerful religion long ago. If you do, chances are you’ll know exactly why it’s now losing so many people and so much credibility and relevance.

The answer has to do with how much power Christians can bring to bear to coerce compliance from others. 

big big shark
(Laura College.)

The Real Problems That Revitalizers Won’t Dare Reveal.

American churches and denominations face some really big problems. And most of these aren’t problems they can fix.

That, or these problems are even worse than unfixable. They’re problems that Christian leaders could fix but won’t. Christian leaders hold back because fixing those problems would require bigger structural and systemic changes than they’ll ever be willing to make.

I’m betting Thom Rainer would never in a billion years be brave enough to tell church leaders any of this stuff to their faces.

What Does Work, Sometimes-ish, Somewhat-ly.

Of course, we can look at other kinds of groups to see what makes them popular and what makes their recruitment drives successful.

  • Churches with a lot of money can put programs like childcare into play. These programs represent tangible benefits to membership. Megachurches can handle that outlay. That is why their membership is the only one really growing in Christian-Land. Smaller churches get eaten alive by those larger ones.
  • If a church can snag a really charismatic head pastor, that makes a big difference. The few who can pull off charismatic leadership turn into superstars in their denominations–J.D. Greear, Ben Mandrell, etc. But unless they want to spend a ton of money they don’t have, hiring committees must get really lucky and hire one of these wunderkinder fresh out of school.
  • Becoming a vibrant, integral part of their home neighborhoods can make churches relevant. Most Christians simply feel few if any ties to their churches’ neighborhoods. (See endnotes for my startling realization here.) And like the other ideas that seem to work, community involvement requires congregations that have time, money, and inclination to do the necessary work.
  • Having a good, well-functioning group that enjoys spending time together and does stuff that feels meaningful and/or fun draws people in as if by magic. Navel-gazing and intense self-focus doesn’t count.
  • And, of course, treating one’s volunteers and rank-and-file members decently goes far toward reducing churn.

I know a few churches that run along these lines and they’re doing all right. Some of them actually grow–slowly, but they do. My own mother-in-law volunteers at one such church. They treat her like solid gold. And every time my husband and I have visited there, I’ve noticed a thriving subset of children, teens, and young adults in their pews. The church building itself is little more than a Quonset hut, because a big chunk of their money goes straight back into the community for charity.

But I doubt Thom Rainer would approve of them at all–from their friendly female pastor to their egalitarian structure to their decision to sit out the culture wars, they’re the antithesis of what a revitalizer would consider a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church.

So, pretty much and in all ways: evangelicals are SCREWED.

SKA-ROOED.

But Hucksters Can Take Advantage Of These Factors.

That’s where we find ourselves now. Several big-name evangelicals have lit out on their own to make their fortunes as their ship sinks beneath the waves for good.

Thom Rainer and his peers in this new industry share the same strategies and tactics.

Zero Move: Laying down a scary foundation. Y’all, if you’ve ever thought I’m over-optimistic about Christianity’s decline, then you ain’t seen nothin’ if you’ve never seen a revitalizer work the crowd before laying on his sales pitch. They make it sound like next year, America will be 100% secular. (OH DON’T WE JUST WISH.)

First, these hucksters make sure that pastors themselves feel generally free of blameAs Chiropter astutely put it a few days ago, pastors already suffer an enormous amount of pressure in evangelical churches. They tend to blame themselves for a lot and to have very few outlets they can use to ease that pressure. Revitalizers will, at most, act like these church leaders simply need to recapture their former zeal.

Second, they don’t let up on the culture wars. They mustn’t ever forget their Republican overlords who helped engineer their rise to power to begin with! No no, that wouldn’t do!

Third, they demand more drilling-down on doctrinal correctness, fervor, and proper practices. These are always regarded as perfect, so once the important stuff’s out of the way, that becomes a necessity. (I call this trifecta Jesus-ing harder.)

(Very) Optional Fourth Move: Some mouth-noise blahblah about community outreach that nobody will care about. Congregations will take these noises to mean more door-to-door canvassing for visitors.

Enjoying the Ride While They Can.

Revitalization works. It works grandly–just not for the churches who pay for these services. Because oh yes, they pay. They pay dearly. These hucksters don’t give away their info for free–not even when the stakes are as high as they say.

In a nutshell, then, revitalizers represent all that Christianity really is. It’s a power-play for the power-hungry. And it’s promises of security for the authoritarian followers in the group. It’s pure profit for those who love money. And it’s an outlay for financial stability for those who think easy fixes exist in their world. Best of all, it’s the pretense of change and busy-work without all that scary change and serious effort that scares off today’s evangelical Christian.

Truth–the having of it, the lack of it, either way–didn’t cause this decline. Thus, drilling down on what they imagine is truth won’t affect it at all. But hey, it’ll keep everyone busy for a bit longer, and make some few of them rich at everyone else’s expense.

The sharks among them smell blood in the water.

And Christian sharks never did let details get in the way of some Jesus-flavored profit.

NEXT UP: Part III! We examine a downright hilarious and infuriating podcast about revitalization. In the doing, we discover some of the real obstacles to revitalization efforts. See you soon! <3


Endnotes.

About community involvement: Something has just occurred to me, for the first time in 30 years. It’s this: I really have no idea what the neighborhood looked like around that first Pentecostal church I attended–beyond the Mormon church that stood next door. I can’t remember a single gas station, shop, bank, or anything else. It all just blurred into “the bad neighborhood I had to navigate to reach my church.” None of us ever stopped anywhere around there.

Biff once got us into a horrible car accident a block or so from that church. He ran a red light on the way home one Sunday. Luckily, we narrowly escaped serious harm. As intense as the experience was, I couldn’t tell you today exactly where the accident took place along that road.

Now then: you wanna play Guess the Demographics about the area? Or do you make it a policy not to take a sucker bet? (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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