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How to pastor a "comeback church" and live to tell about it

Today Larry and I taught a session at our Church Life Resources co-hort in Ft. Lauderdale, about church revitalization and pastoring what is known as a "comeback church." For some reason, God has called us to do this a few times. Still trying to figure that out... but anyway... Dr. Lee called us last week, and asked us to come prepared to teach a session covering some things we've learned over the years. We shared 15 things and I'm going to post our main points here.

1) Wait to develop your vision. Jesus always went to where the people were at spiritually. Find out the true state of the church/community – do not develop your vision until understanding this. Too many pastors come in and share their "vision" the first week at a church and many church members will even push you to do so. Sometimes the board even asks in your interview, "what is your vision for this church?" How can you possibly know "the vision" until you get to know a city, a church, and it's people? Also the history of the church factors into this a great deal.

2) Practically every book you read on pastoring or church growth reminds you to "love the people." While all of us need to be reminded of this, many don't know how to flesh that out. I've heard things at conferences about the pastor keeping a "mystique" and endearing people to you by what you say in the pulpit, but can't really love your people unless you spend time with them, particularly your leaders. You can't connect with everyone, but you can with many. Churches need a spiritual mother and father, someone to lead them in "doing life." Love equals time invested. Your people don't need a mystique, they need a hug. Also, every good family has fun together. What have you done to show people that although you are pursuing a holy life, you are not a space alien? You're more like them than they realize. Show them that in addition to reading the Bible and going to prayer meetings you can also go to the movies, play softball, and beat them in DDR. (Dance Dance Revolution on Playstation.)

3) Resist the temptation to fix the previous pastor’s decisions. No matter what things you may first look at as foolish that they might have done, don’t be too hasty. You will find out in due time why he/she arrived at their decision. There is probably more to it than meets the eye. If they shut down a Bible study or a prayer group be very careful to re-start it, at least right away. There's probably a very good reason that they stopped it, and after a few months you'll find out, and hopefully not the hard way. Just hold steady. Usually the people the pastor had to correct will be the first to come running to you to ask for something to change, or be re-started, or for somebody to be reinstated to their ministry position. It may have taken the pastor five years to ease somebody out of a position they didn't belong in. They might have been the biggest stronghold in that church and you can destroy five years of work in a day. So WAIT to make these decisions.

4) Don’t try to disprove people’s perceptions, just keep moving forward. Many may question what God has called you to do in bringing the church to health. Your real friends know the truth, and those who aren’t your friends will never believe you anyway, so just press on with what God is calling you to do and don't pay attention to whisperers or naysayers. Anyone who has ever done anything great has been talked about by people in a negative fashion at some point. The greater the light, the greater the bugs.

5) Don’t try to duplicate what another pastor or church is doing – even yourself in your previous church. Reinvent yourself as God leads you, to meet the needs of your current situation.

6) Model evangelism to the max. The pastor has to model relational evangelism for people, and not just in the sense that you will plan a canvassing day with the church, but more in the sense that you reach people on a daily basis. You really need to have examples in front of the people of those you are reaching for Christ. This gives you great credibility when you get up and preach about reaching people.

7) Model Servanthood . Many pastors will say, "I can't get anyone to do anything around here..." but are you an example of servanthood? Things are caught more than taught. George Bush (the elder one) once said, "The only reason authority is every given to somebody is to serve people."

8) Don’t underestimate the value of hospitality. Most people, especially in this day and age are absolutely blown away at being invited over to the pastor’s home. We have all our newcomers nights at our home, once a month. We have a dessert fellowship, then gather in the family room with our newcomers and staff. Staff meetings, leadership meetings, vision team meetings, etc. People like this – as the church grows, of course you can’t invite the whole church over, but you can still do this with your leadership. This builds a family atmosphere and shows them you really care and want to be part of their lives and have them as part of yours.

9) Pastoring a church revitalization is risky – many pastors don’t want to develop relationships in their new church out of fear, mistrust. Most have been burned before. But the truth is, you can't really start to build the church until you build relationships because everything these days is about...relationship.

10) Create your own staff as soon as possible without destroying the church in the process. It's hard when you come into an already existing staff. But eventually that will change, and once you get your own team, it will breathe fresh life into the church. Even when we are not in a growth spurt, are going through a plateau or are even going through a rough patch, it just makes everyday life on staff and in the office enjoyable, because we all like who we work with. As Mark Batterson says, so much of ministry is WHO YOU WORK WITH. Many times our staff is together "after hours." Our staff spends all day working together but we really don’t get tired of each other. It makes all the difference in the world when you really enjoy who you work with and share the same values, work ethic and commitment to the church. At Northside we often use the phrase, "TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK."

11) Pre-determine what hills you are willing to die on. In the beginning especially there will be so many things that you can't wait to change, however it would be very costly for you to do so, perhaps even lethal to the ministry. Determine what you're willing to go to the wall for, at least at first. Once you develop them, of course mission and vision are something you never budge on. But many other things are negotiable and often, pastors die on hills that are so insignificant.

12) Develop multiple levels of communication. Have you heard the saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword?” Martin Luther said, “if you want to change the world, pick up your pen.” I believe there is not only power in the Word, but power in the written word. I have always taken charge of all of our church publications. Right now we have someone on staff (Pastor Lindsay) who I have mentored who actually puts our newsletter and ezines together but everything from those to the bulletin, to any flyer, newspaper ad, ANYTHING crosses my desk for a final reading before it goes out and I check it mostly for the “slant.” Most people check written things for spelling and grammatical errors, but I personally think if the slant of the piece is off, that is much worse than anything else. We put a positive spin on anything that goes out. I can't believe it when I read many church bulletins or newsletters, and read all the "negative". For instance:

"Attention: we need teachers. All our kids club workers have just stepped down. We desperately need help. Please see our children's pastor if you can fill one of these positions." Or, "Giving has really been down this quarter. Please seek the Lord as to what you can give to meet this need." Or, "No one showed up for the canvassing night last week. Please come this week because we really need your help."

I've never understood the reason why some churches print such negative things in their bulletins or newsletters! It's like a woman shopping for a bathing suit. You have flaws, but you don't accentuate them. You purchase a suit that looks best on you for your body shape. Any church has flaws, but don't shout them from the rooftops. Not a good idea. Also take full advantage of things like blogging, e-mail, instant message, Myspace, Facebook, etc. to communiate with your people. (Anyone who is on here reading this blog probably doesn't need that explained.)

13) Be prepared for a lot of disappointing days – a recent article we read about pastoring a comeback church states that they interviewed 324 pastors in comeback situations and all said there were a lot of disappointing days and nothing was easy. Comeback churches are more difficult than church plants. Develop group of friends who have done this who can share/speak into your life. Realize, to effectively pastor a comeback church is going to take a tremendous amount of commitment and time. You can't do this in just a few years. You have to fully commit yourself to the process.

A survey was done of the largest churches in America and consultants were looking for the #1 common denominator in all of them. The one they found was most of the pastors had been there 21 years or more. Also keep in mind we are leading in more difficult days than ever before. The attrition rate these days is terrible - statistics tell us that most churches have a compete turnover every 4-5 years. This is absent of any conflict or church problems, it's just the norm. The attrition rate in Florida churches is about 30% in the metro/suburban areas. In other areas it's about 15-20% depending on location. One out of every 7 Christians is "in flux" (thinking of leaving their current place of worship, in the midst of leaving their place of worship, or just arriving at a new church.) You have to grow a significant amount just to stay the same to make up for the attrition and then beyond it to grow even slightly. Are you committed to this process?

14) Realize the power of mentoring. There is nothing more powerful to Larry and I than the sons and daughters we have both naturally and spiritually. Dr. Lee encourages us to ask our church members, “what is your dream? Will you do it through the ministry of this church?” Then help them - equip, train and guide them to reach their dreams. As they reach theirs, you will reach yours. (What you make happen for others, God makes happen for you.) Also don't overlook people. Some of your church people may even think you are crazy for certain people you choose to invest in based upon their past, their personality or such but keep in mind, Jesus chose the most unlikely people as well. Keep in mind, there is nothing like mentoring your upcoming staff members. There are gems in your church waiting to be mentored. Invest in them and they will be loyal. See those who are willing and those who QUALIFY. (To qualify they must really want to be coached and mentored - not simply encouraged. (There's a big difference.)

15) Remember to trust in none of the above but only in the power of God and Him advancing the church through prayer, fasting and bring the people His word. While we have learned that these things we’ve talked about are very helpful, we have seen personally that when we begin to trust any of those things as our “reason for growth” God will teach us a lesson that only He can advance the church.


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