Revitalization in Rural Churches, Part 1

Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2018.

One of my favorite pastimes is driving across rural America and looking at old country churches. It pains me when I see those time-worn yet beautiful church buildings being neglected while nature and the elements take over and lead to their eventual ruin. My passion for old church buildings led me to purchase one particular church building in rural Western Nebraska five years ago. The little church had closed a year earlier. My grandfather John Miles had been the last pastor of the church until he passed away at age 92 and the church eventually closed. The building has nostalgic value to me.

Since purchasing the old church building, my wife and I and some talented friends of ours have been restoring it so that it could become our home. This summer we finally completed this five year process of patiently restoring a church building that was in decline and we moved in.

I have a similar passion for restoration when a local body of believers find themselves in a state of decline. It is difficult to see a local church that is in various stages of decaying or dying. I’ve had the tremendous privilege of pastoring in rural settings and being a part of what I like to call “restoration ministry.” I’ve had a front-row seat as I watched God infuse life into His people in these localities.

I take my hat off to those of who faithfully labor in rural places as a pastor or lay leader. I’m particularly grateful for you who seek to reverse decline in a struggling church. When you are involved in restoration work, you join the likes of Paul, Timothy and Titus as you seek to lead God’s people back to life and health. You evidence the same compassion and deep concern our Lord had for those struggling or sick churches that He spoke to so poignantly in Revelation 2 and 3.

One of the verses that motivates me in restoration work is found in Titus 1:5 where Paul told Titus to “set in order the things that are lacking.” Restoration work is vitally important work, but it’s not easy work. The problem is that sometimes our focus in the restoration ministry can get blurred and we lose sight of certain key principles that are at the core of this holy calling.

Along with many others who are involved in church restoration ministry, I’m convinced that the book of Nehemiah is an inspired handbook on restoration leadership. God used Nehemiah to lead a remarkable restoration project in Jerusalem that centered on rebuilding a wall and also rebuilding a discouraged people. There are numerous parallels to the task of rural restoration in the project Nehemiah undertook. As a restoration leader, here are some principles to help you stay focused when you feel like you’re in over your head.

Cultivate a Prayerful Dependence on God

Take a long look at Nehemiah’s powerful prayer in Nehemiah 1:4-11. Think through each component of the prayer. In addition, note the passion and urgency of his prayer in Nehemiah 4:4. Don’t ever forget that restoration work takes you right into the heart of the enemy’s territory. In light of that, observe how many times prayer is emphasized in Nehemiah. No fewer than fifty-five verses in this book mention, allude to, or record the prayers of Nehemiah and his people.

God is in control of all things, including the restoration process. We cannot lose sight of this. He is the ultimate Restorer, therefore, in prayer we completely depend on Him.

Evaluate the Church’s Situation

It is significant to see how Nehemiah evaluated his situation early on in 2:11-16. He wanted to get a good grasp of what he was up against and what the problems were. Like Nehemiah, you will need to evaluate the church’s situation (no matter how long you’ve been there).

What are some areas to evaluate in the rural setting? Evaluate the traditions. Some of them might be very helpful. Some of them might be a severe hindrance. Evaluate and seek to understand the history of your church. If you can truly learn about the church’s past, you can better understand what your church has become today. Also, since strong, shared and godly leadership is so important in restoration work, evaluate the church offices and officers and how they function. During this season of evaluation, the real key is to ask God to reveal any root causes of decay, decline or death. The One who stands in the midst of the lampstands already knows.

Educate the People

After the evaluation (and the evaluating should never really stop) we are able to see the areas where education is especially needed. This need for educating the people was not ignored in Nehemiah’s restoration project. Chapter 8 of Nehemiah reveals this to be true. In order for Titus to set in order the things that were lacking in Crete, he had to “speak the things that are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Remember that we are called to do this with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

If there is going to be true restoration in a declining church, the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word has to be the priority. Do you still believe that the Word of God is totally sufficient to breathe life into dry bones? Then preach and teach and prepare like you believe that. As one dear friend of mine says, “Teach the people where they are. Preach the Word in the language of the people. Preach the word on the level of the people. Love the people. Model what you are teaching to the people.”

One reality to keep in mind is that as you lovingly educate the people from God’s Word, you can expect some folks will leave. Sadly, not everyone is excited about restoration work. As some in the flock catch the vision of what God wants to do, others are going to depart.

In your education of the people, stay particularly focused on the need for leadership development. Right after Paul challenged Titus to “set in order the things that are lacking,” he told him to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5b). Pray that God will give you at least one man that you could disciple to become a fellow leader in the restoration process.

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