Stories & Commentaries

Reviving the Dead Church

What do you do when you go to a church where people don't trust each other and don’t welcome others?

a little church

iStock photography/EJ_Rodriquez

What do you do when you go to a church where people don't trust each other and don’t welcome others? Where church leaders are in disagreements most of the time over theological views and don’t invite visitors for potluck? As the pastor, how can you bring healing to that church? 

Some years ago, I pastored this type of church. The weekly church attendance was around 15 people and their spiritual condition had placed them in the ICU. They were dying.

I had a choice to make: either remove all the life support from the church and let it die naturally, or keep it plugged into the life support, change treatments, and help the church recover. I decided to follow the advice in Galatians — “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, NIV); and Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

I began to pray for the church, believing and claiming the words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil.4:13, NKJV). My conversation with God was, I believe you brought me here for a reason and you have a plan for this church. I then set up four goals: 

  • To reach out to families and recover the brokenhearted; 

  • To engage members in spiritual growth;

  • To activate our core in ministry and leadership; 

  • To mobilize our members to impact the community. 

Reach Out to Families and Recover the Brokenhearted

When a church goes through discouragement, loss of trust, and anger amongst members, there are many hurt and broken people. I needed to understand why they were dealing with each other in this manner. I decided to visit every family, listen to them and pray with them. I pressed into the presence of God, knowing there is strength to be obtained from God as my helper.

To meet people in their homes is entirely different than meeting them at the church. Visiting the church members brought about a mutual understanding that they are part of God’s family and helped me know the needs of my members. I decided to love them and just listen to them. The principle I employed is to "WAIT" — Why Am I Talking? By listening I started to understand the reason for their behavior in church. These visits helped me see how to develop a vision for the church that would include each member and establish an atmosphere of trust and unity. 

After visiting members in their homes, I began inviting them to mine. Inviting them to my home made a huge positive difference in how they viewed the church; its members; and me, the pastor. I also invited board members to my house. It was good for them to get together in a socially friendly place. They started to talk to each other — and laugh with each other. The visits to the homes of the members plus the visits to my home took me two years to accomplish, and this time allowed for trust building and friendships to develop between the members, board, and leaders.  

This process took a longer time than I expected, and I needed to be patient and wait for God’s time. Patience is the ability to hold ourselves back, to not act out of our flesh. “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone (1 Thes. 5:14, NIV).” 

Engage Members in Spiritual Growth

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1, NKJV).” The Christian life isn’t just about believing; it’s also about belonging. We started to create a spirit of belonging to Christ. We studied and talked about how to spend moments with the Master. "If God's word were studied as it should be, men would have a breadth of mind, a nobility of character, and a stability of purpose that are rarely seen in these times" (Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 461).

We did a day of fasting and praying. We started asking questions to help us grow spiritually. Are you the one everyone looks to in a situation? Are you more of a leader who takes initiative, than a follower? Do you share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others routinely? Do you mentor others to do the same? We focused on how to seek the kingdom of God and help others to seek the kingdom of God. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:13, NIV)”

Activate Our Core in Ministry and Leadership

We started to focus on how we could make the church a friendly and safe environment and place for visitors and members — very few were doing this work. We started to engage more members and ask new leaders to lead out.

We took Ellen G. Whites advice to heart: “The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers. Let them learn to work as Christ worked. Let them join His army of workers and do faithful service for Him” (Counsels for the Church, p. 69). Involving new and more leaders helped activate our core team in ministry. 

Mobilize Our Members to Impact the Community 

For two years we did not do any ministry for the community. Instead we focused on how we could build trust among members and create a friendly, inviting, and safe environment. The time came when the leaders of the church said they were ready and wanted to reach out to the community. I had my evangelistic cycle plan ready and presented it to them. 

We chose a day to fast and pray and ask God's guidance before we started the plan. We looked at the needs of our community which included 1) How to manage money and financial issues; and 2) Family and marriage struggles. We addressed these needs by setting up a financial workshop and marriage seminar with the support of the leaders of the church. We also held a Thanksgiving brunch for the community, as well as an agape feast. 

During this time, we learned that there was a senior who had posted on Facebook that she needed help cleaning her yard. Amazingly, there was a good response from the leaders and we had a team go to her home and clean her yard. She was very thankful. These activities helped the church to establish friendship, trust, and unity, and grow spiritually. They helped the members and leaders to feel a part of the church and their community.  

Conclusion

We do not always know how huge problems are, or what the members of the church are struggling with. Our focus should not be on the problem, but on God who is able to lead in amazing ways. We do this by learning to listen and allow God to lead us. Today I have an amazing relationship with this church. The love we have is mutual. The average attendance has moved from 15 to 45.

I believe that God, who raised our church from the dead and performed miracles in our midst, can and will do this for His glory through any church that begins to pray.

— Isaac Hanna pastors the Orange, Stafford, and Culpeper church district in Virginia; the original version of this article appeared on the NAD Ministerial Association website.