Revitalizing a congregation is challenging work, so it’s not surprising that the term “revitalization” carries a sense of dread with it. It suggests that there is a serious problem in a congregation. It can easily be perceived as an assessment, if not an actual assignment, of failure. It makes it sound as though a congregation, which may be very much alive through faithful Word and Sacrament ministry, is either dead or dying. There are probably better words for what we mean by “revitalization,” but it’s the word that we’ve been dealt. Despite its shortcomings as a descriptive term, “revitalization” is what many congregations need right now to become well – and what every congregation needs in order to be faithful and effective in ministry.
The problem with revitalization isn’t the word, but the attitude and understanding that we’ve attached to the word. We tend to think of revitalization as something that needs to happen when a congregation is in serious trouble. Like a person who refuses to make use of preventative, proactive health care because he sees medical care as something for sick people, we’ve relegated revitalization to the realm of “sick” congregations. Then, like dealing with a chronically ill person who refuses to give up habits contributing to his poor health, we dread the thankless and often pointless work of trying to convince a “sick” congregation to change its ways.
This attitude about revitalization is reflected in church planting circles where it is often repeated that we should plant new churches rather than spend resources revitalizing existing churches because “it is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” Though clever, this witticism speaks to a serious underlying theological problem concerning our understanding about the life and growth of the Church. Both creating life and raising the dead are works of God, not men. While it may be His will to create new life through a new church, the Lord does not abandon His struggling congregations to certain death by casting them aside. Instead, He perpetuates their life through the forgiveness of sins poured out in water and wine. In mercy, love, and grace, He patiently tends to the wounds of His beloved Church, comforting hurting congregations which were purchased with His very blood, and bringing strength to His struggling people. “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish” (Matthew 12:20). This is our call for the revitalization of “sick” congregations, but we dare not allow revitalization to end there.
There may be better terms for this work, but let us understand “revitalization” as the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace that brings life to that which once was dead. Yes, aging and declining congregations are in need of revitalization, but, with this understanding of the word, so do young congregations and dynamic congregations and growing congregations and healthy congregations. And so do each one of us. After all, revitalization is in its very nature repentance.
As an expression of repentance, revitalization is a necessary, demanding, and endless task for the life of the Church and the sake of the world. While this work is never easy, it is a work that we should embrace with eager anticipation rather than dread. For it is in revitalization that our Lord calls us, individually and collectively, to know the joy of His revitalizing work for us, in us, and through us.
Resources for revitalization are available through “The 72 Witness and Outreach Ministry” http://lcms.org/the72