In my last article, "Face and embrace the crisis," I asked: If Jesus were to write a letter to your church, what would He tell you?
Jesus did not give up on the Church of Sardis, despite their disturbing diagnosis (You. Are. Dead!). Just when one would expect the Great Physician to “pronounce,” He pivots and offers this hope-filled imperative:
I can imagine the Sardinian believers wondering about His stark invitation and if there was still hope for their troubled congregation. Was there still hope?
I like the story of three men who were asked what they wanted people to say about them as people looked at their bodies in the casket at their funeral service. One man said he wanted people to say that he was a man who loved his family and friends and who impacted their lives for the good.
The second man said he wanted people to say he used his skills as a medical doctor to help people enjoy their lives and to live healthily.
The third man thought for a minute and then said, “What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? ‘Look! He’s moving!’ ”
This may be what the Sardinian believers were hoping. “Jesus pronounced us dead – but we’re still moving!”
Indeed, they were! Jesus wanted the church to have a new lease on life. He was offering them another opportunity to thrive! Now it was time for the believers to come to their senses and make the vital changes.
The sooner, the better
The call Jesus gave to the believers was to hope and to change. In fact, their only hope wasto arise to finish the work they still had to do.
Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. –Revelation 3:2
The awareness of ones imminent demise creates an inspiring and stimulating sense of urgency. This must have been the case with the Church of Sardis. The Head of the Church impresses upon them that they needed immediate and intense intervention. Ignoring His prescription would mean certain death.
I heard the story of a Doctor who was looking over the recent blood work of a very sick and terribly out of shape patient. The Doctor began his assessment with, “You are not well. In fact, you are extremely sick. If you don’t change your behaviors and habits, you’re likely to die in 10 . . .”
At that point, the patient nervously interrupted the Doctor and asked, “10 what? 10 years? 10 months? 10 weeks?”
The Doctor continued, “9, 8, 7, . . .”
Procrastinating does not make change any easier. In fact, the longer church leaders wait to deal with the Church’s decline, the more complicated it will be to re-establish ministry momentum. A lengthy disobedience in the wrong direction typically requires a more protracted period of recovery.
Though issues of church decline are often difficult to introduce and address, the sooner churches accept their wake up call and address their loss of vitality, the better for all involved. From my research for my dissertation, I discovered that declining churches waited an average of 3.5 years before addressing issues related to their decline. That’s 40 months that people who could be reached remain unreached and when people who should be experiencing the love and ministry of Christ through a revitalizing Church remain like sheep without a shepherd.
One of the central issues related to answering the wake-up call is obedience. Jesus’ admonition for the Church of Sardis to “Wake up!” is in the imperative mood. This was a command, not a suggestion. The Church’s faith-driven obedience to Jesus’ authority would be the determining factor in its recovery.
There’s an old joke that asks, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer? One. But the light bulb has to want to change.”
So how many consultants, pastors and ministry leaders does it take to revitalize a church? Answer? It doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t want to change.
For revitalization to happen, those who are the decision-makers and ministry leaders must be willing to change what they‘re currently thinking and doing. They have to crave vitality back in their church ministry more than their longing to preserve tradition, retain ineffective staff people and prolong outdated ministry approaches.
It is well-known in church and corporate culture that change, even when essential for survival, is difficult to initiate and lead. Change is also very hard on those forced into it. Most often change is met with resistance and rebellion. It has been wisely stated that people change when:
• They hurt enough that they have to change
• They hope enough that they want to change
• They learn enough that they’re able to change
Two of the elders who experienced and helped lead the revitalization in the church this writer was privileged to lead (New Life Community Church in Ukiah, CA) were asked, “To what do you attribute the turnaround of the church?” In virtual unison, they answered, “We were ready for change.” They had hurt, hoped and learned enough and were ready to accept and fulfill significant leadership responsibilities that led to change. Embracing the crisis and waking up to the potential of revitalization paved the way for the significant transformation several ministries of the congregation enjoyed.
Pastors, networking pastors and middle judicatory leaders could head off a steep decline in a church’s fruitfulness and/or greatly shorten the length of time that the church declines by recognizing declining vital signs and intervening by offering consultation and resources.
 Richard Frazer, Principles and Processes of Revitalized Churches of the Western and Central California Districts of the Evangelical Churches of America, p. 61
Photo source: istock
Richard Frazer / Rich Frazer is President of Spiritual Overseers Service (SOS) International, a global training ministry equipping indigenous ministry leaders. He holds a Doctorate of Ministry with an emphasis on training ministry leaders to upcycle declining churches.