Can dry bones live again?

Jim Gatliff joined the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention staff on Sept. 1 as a shared strategist, splitting his energy between the convention’s missions, evangelism, and minister-church relations departments. Previously he served two Baptist associations–Hunt and Kauf-Van–in church planting, and he has firsthand experience in church revitalization.

One of Gatliff’s main tasks is providing leadership and strategy for the Ezekiel Project, an SBTC endeavor to help revitalize plateaued or declining churches, which describes somewhere between 70-80 percent of all churches, depending on which study one references.

The Ezekiel Project was initiated by several SBTC Executive Board members and is named for Ezekiel 37, which tells of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The project officially launches in January, with 15 churches already involved in the process, Gatliff said. The TEXAN interviewed Gatliff on Nov. 28 about the Ezekiel Project.

Q. In terms of plateaued or declining churches, what are some of the underlying reasons why churches face decline?

A. Probably you could say that no two churches are exactly alike. There are multiple factors. It is usually a cluster of problems that come to bear on a congregation at a point in time. The great big problem always is spiritual though. There are spiritual roots to every problem a congregation could conceivably have. Part of the recovery process must engage the spiritual health of the church.

Q. Are there identifiable seasons in the life of a church that congregations should expect?

A. I think that’s one way of conceiving what churches go through. However, there are some real dangers in just viewing the church as having some sort of organic life cycle. The problem–even though you can map a church on that kind of birth-growth-decline curve–is that such a model does not show the spiritual vitality of the church. It does not indicate the kingdom impact of the church and it certainly doesn’t factor in the influence that God makes as he grips his congregation and fills them and empowers them to make a difference.

Q. What are some dangers that churches face in perceived success?

A. As a church grows, it has to reinvent itself at points along the way. For a number of years people have written about growth barriers at certain numerical points. There is some validity to that. A church can’t continue doing what it was doing, for example, when it had 35 people, in order to minister to a congregation of 1,000. Usually the churches that have stalled or are declining–at least 70 percent of churches–not only have they stalled out at one of the growth barrier points but they have bounced off of it.

One of the reasons churches have a hard time revitalizing is that once they begin a new growth process, often they bounce off the same exact growth barrier they hit before five years ago. In order to move ahead, we sometimes have to identify what lies beyond where we were at our peak.

Q. How would you encourage churches that want to grow, but perhaps the community around the church has changed from the heyday of the church’s ministry?

A. There are people everywhere in Texas who need to hear the gospel. Each year there’s somewhere close to 400,000 people moving into this state. Most of Texas is either experiencing population growth or population transition. That’s pretty much across the board, with a few exceptions in deep West Texas where there’s a county with 67 people, but virtually all of our churches are in mission fields. And most congregations realize that, even if they are at a loss about how to tap into that. In those cases, the only way to change is to cross the barrier into the culture surrounding the church. You have to cross that gap, and the church has to start acting like missionaries and thinking like missionaries.

Ed Stetzer in the book “Comeback Churches” has a great quote about how every church is relevant to a culture. The question is, does that culture exist? Reggie McNeal has a great statement he makes: If the 1950s ever come back, we’re prepared. Churches do sometimes lose touch with the culture. And there are huge segments of the population of the state of Texas that Southern Baptists have never reached. I think that is part of the explanation of why we see such explosive growth in certain segments of the culture. Even though there have always been cowboys in Baptist churches, as an example, I don’t know that you can make a strong case that Baptists have ever reached hard-core cowboy culture well. Being cross-cultural and learning how to reach those cultures is important.

One thing to remember though: Churches that try to reinvent their style of worship or ministry to fit a certain culture without engaging that culture have an almost impossible task. You have to be willing to engage that culture. The lone way that a church connects is by engaging it. You have to go out and meet people, do ministry, build relationships. There is absolutely no substitute to that. The fastest way for a church to become relevant to the culture surrounding it is to start ministering to that culture.

Q. What does the Ezekiel Project involve?

A. The process begins when a church sends us an application signifying they are interested in pursuing a revitalization process. The application is twofold. One is we want you to tell us that you want us to help. We do absolutely nothing in the Ezekiel Project uninvited. One of our key values is the autonomy of the local church. We make no decision, impose nothing, and do nothing without the invitation or consent of the local church. The second reason for the application is that becomes the first tool we use to help us understand what the church’s needs are.

The first key piece of the Ezekiel process is that we facilitate a strategy–a look at what God has next for the congregation. We don’t call it strategy planning, because we do it a little differently than what people know as strategy planning. We help the church discover the window of opportunity that God has set before the church and help them go through that window of opportunity, help them discover how to obey God and pursue what God has for the church.

For some churches, a total makeover is in the works and that’s what God says is next. They need to totally re-engineer themselves and rethink their ministry. But churches must have a clear discernment that that is what God wants them to do.

One of the reasons why church transitions fail is because they make a lot of piecemeal, sporadic changes that aren’t necessarily steps toward anything except that people for one reason or another decide they want to change. We do help churches identify what is that big picture, new model of ministry that God is calling us to and what are the basic and even minimal changes that we need to make in order to go there.

Because change is destabilizing, remember that the minimal amount of change necessary to go where God is leading the church is usually the best approach, and then implement more change later on. But wholesale change in the life of a church for most churches is usually a recipe for disaster.

Q. What role does leadership play in the process?

A. The second key piece is, we provide help for the pastor. The pastor is the key even though the pastor is not necessarily responsible for all the problems a church has. But certainly the pastor of the church that has stopped growing needs encouragement. They are usually very tired and have already gone through some hurtful experiences.

The consensus of studies show the pastor needs to change to bring a church back into vibrancy. Many would say the church needs a new pastor. I would wholeheartedly disagree with that. I like Ed Stetzer’s way of putting it: “A revitalizing church either needs a new or a renewed pastor.” And if a pastor is willing for God not only to encourage him but also to renew him to the extent that not only is he spiritually transformed but he is also willing for God to teach him an entirely different way of approaching his ministry, he can lead a church to revitalization.

The barrier that I have seen time after time is that the pastor becomes the greatest gatekeeper, and for whatever reason, he is protecting the church from the future that God has for it. He becomes an enforcer of a status quo that has become manageable and comfortable.

The pastor has to be willing, if there is a sense of ownership there, to release the church back to God again. He also has to be willing to release his ministry back to God again and throw himself back upon the potter’s wheel and say, “God, whatever needs to change in my life, my preaching, my ministry style, my weekly routine, my quiet time, whatever needs to happen differently in my life, I am ready for you to do it.”

I personally don’t believe that happens in too many pastor’s lives without a deep sense of brokenness. That brokenness is a couple of notches above just plain desperation. That is God’s process for getting our ministries back in his hands instead of our hands, prying our ministry out of our grubby little fingers so he can use us again.

The third key piece is help for every member, which really is in some ways just about as key as the pastor. The people in the church should have an awareness of the church’s needs and a sense of responsibility toward those needs. Revitalization only happens when those members develop the recognition that revitalization of the church is God’s calling on my life, first and foremost. I have a part in it. For the church to be revitalized, I need to be revitalized.

As we move along in the process, the church will engage in what is often called an alignment campaign. The most famous one, perhaps is “40 Days of Purpose,” but there are others as well. We are using something called the “Z/Life Campaign,” which is a six-week focus. Studies show overwhelmingly that churches that embark on an alignment campaign see increased attendance, renewed members and increased evangelism and baptisms, even increases in giving.

What Ed Stetzer found was that a huge proportion of the comeback churches had gone through some type of alignment campaign. Now to be clear, I don’t think the alignment campaign itself is sufficient to revitalize a declining church. But it serves to warm the spiritual temperature of the church and to help each member understand his or her personal responsibility in the vitality of the church’s ministry.

Part of the Z/Life Campaign takes place in home prayer groups, similar to the old cottage prayer meetings that would accompany church revivals. I guarantee you that if you get a sincere group of Christian people together and get them praying together and loving one another in a New Testament way, not only do most relationship problems evaporate in the church, but also you’ll discover that those people will be bonded together for life. That’s a no-lose proposition for a declining church.

Q. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a revitalized church without revitalized members, right?

A. That’s right. The key to moving through that window of opportunity for that declining church is our fruitfulness times our faithfulness. Our faithfulness is all about following Jesus—immediate obedience to him. Our fruitfulness is about, first of all, being people who pray and obey, and secondly, being disciples who make disciples.

A lot of the manpower to revitalize is in the harvest. The quickest way to get off high center is winning people to Jesus and teaching them to observe all things that he’s commanded. Thirdly, leaders who reproduce leaders. If every leader in the church would just grab somebody who has some leadership potential who just hasn’t been cultivated or find somebody who needs to be disciples and then start cultivating them as a leader—a 2 Timothy 2:2 principle.

And then finally, groups that reproduce groups. Arthur Flake was telling us 100 years ago the importance of new units in Sunday School. A church needs to see the importance of creating new groups—small groups or Sunday School classes—and also help the existing groups see those new units as an absolute necessity.

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