Having a Funeral For Your Church: Principles on Revitalization
Immanuel Presbyterian Church was an aging, monocultural church in an increasingly younger and ethnically diverse neighborhood in South Miami. Pastor Felipe Assis shared how replanting a church first included having a funeral.
When a church finds itself struggling, people usually say it needs to be “revitalized.” Sometimes, this is true. Many churches have found a renewed spirit after slowing to a crawl. But in some cases, churches may need to consider an alternative to revitalization — replanting the church.
What does it mean to be revitalized versus replanted? When searching for the answer to this question, John 12 comes to my mind. Jesus shows up to the disciples and tells them, “My hour has come,” and “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
As church planters think about revitalizing or replanting churches, there’s a great opportunity before us. 3,700 churches die in North America each year. Though about 4,000 are planted there annually, almost that many close their doors in the same amount of time.
In the last 10 or 15 years, the church’s discussion on expanding the kingdom has been about church planting. There’s very little material on church replanting or church revitalization. And if we don’t start taking this conversation seriously, we’ll miss a huge opportunity to help churches that have already been planted.
My own story illustrates the power of replanting.
About 13 years ago, Immanuel Presbyterian Church was on life support in Miami. It was planted in the 1970s by a man named Terry Gyger, and peaked in the ’90s. Then, the demographics of the city changed tremendously. A lot of people moved out. Church attendance dwindled, repairs needed to be made, bills couldn’t be paid, and seven pastors came and went. They contemplated selling the property and dispersing the money among several non-profits and church organizations.
Before they did, they called Terry, who had long since been called elsewhere. “The ministry is unsustainable,” they told him. “We’re down to 60 people.”
Terry said, “Don’t do anything. I’m coming down there. I want to talk to you about replanting the church.”
Around this time, I was living in Brazil, five years into a church plant. On one of his trips to Brazil, Terry asked me to leave everything I was doing to move to the United States. (You can read the story of how Terry recruited me to move from Brazil to Miami to replant the church here.)
I said, “Terry, it’s been five hard years, and my church is sustainable now. Things are going pretty well. I can actually spend time with my wife and kids. There’s a team around me. And right when the church stabilizes, you want me to move?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’d like you to move because this is that great of an opportunity.”
I went home to talk to my wife. We had just had our second daughter. Hormones were all over the place. She asked me how the meeting with Terry went. I told her he wanted us to move to Miami. She said I could go by myself — she was staying!
My wife is American, but she loves Brazil even more than I do. We had a great structure around us — our family, my parents, and a great group of friends. She felt that this wasn’t the right season to move.
We prayed about it and visited Miami for a week. We got there. I was scheduled to preach. When I walked in the church, it was like I time-traveled back to the ’80s. The youth group started at age 62. There was a handbell choir in the middle of Miami!
“I don’t think this is gonna work out,” my wife told me right before I went up to preach. I think I gave my worst sermon ever. I didn’t know who I was talking to. I couldn’t relate to the church at all.
Surprisingly enough, we continued to pray. We liked some of the folks. Though there were a lot of red flags that threw me off or discouraged me about the church, I sensed a posture of humility. They were ready to give up power and do something radical. And where there’s humility, there’s hope. So, we took the whole year of 2007 to pray.
One night, my wife and I went out on a date. She looked at me across the table, took a sip of wine, and said, “Would you be okay if we go and completely fall on our faces?”
I thought a little bit. “I think if God wants to be glorified through our failure, I’m okay with that. Are you okay with that?”
“I’m okay with that.”
We landed in Miami in 2008. We took hold of a very tired church. I gathered a core group of people across the city that were interested in a new expression of the gospel. We imagined what the church would look like and how it would reach our neighbors. And we spent a lot of time in prayer. After six months of meeting with that group, we presented the vision to the congregation and invited them to be a part of it. They said, “Sure, let’s do this.”
We imagined what the church would look like and how it would reach our neighbors. And we spent a lot of time in prayer.
We set up a funeral service for Immanuel Presbyterian Church. In that funeral, we allowed the congregation to share stories of how God had moved in the church throughout years past. People shared stories about meeting their husband, having their kids baptized, or being sent off to the mission field with the church’s support. They were beautiful stories that allowed our core group to build respect for the history and the people that were there.
And then we turned the page. We took down the church sign on the same day. We re-launched as Crossbridge Church. In the first service, we already had 168 people, the average age dropped down to the 30s, and God started a new, dynamic expression of the gospel in Miami. Eventually, other churches heard what we had done and wanted to know how they could replant themselves.
I never imagined that I’d help pastors replant churches. Throughout my life, I felt called to plant new ones. But after seeing God transform these struggling churches into new and exciting communities, I know that a replanted church can be just as effective as an entirely new one.
But how do we actually replant a church?
1. Know Where the Church is At
A church is a living organism — it’s why Jesus and Paul used the natural language of seeds, planting, watering, and growing. And if it’s a living organism, it has a life cycle. Some churches are thriving, and some are dying.
The churches that thrive are the ones that function like movements. They’re collaborative, and there’s a high level of trust, spontaneity, and creativity. They could be at three stages:
· Birth — Getting started and attracting new people.
· Organic Growth — Momentum has been generated and people have gathered around the vision.
· Strategic Growth — Structure is put into place.
At their peak, they reproduce and plant more churches. The gospel flows into other parts of the city — maybe even to other states or countries.
The churches that thrive are the ones that function like movements.
But when things go well, there’s a temptation to get lazy. When a church has great leaders, a lot of resources, new attendees every week, they may not sense an urgency to keep growing. They enter maintenance mode. They may reap the fruit of their previous efforts, but pretty soon, they may hit a decline.
And when churches decline, they may fall into territorialism, tight control, and a lack of trust. They usually enter self-preservation mode to protect against threats that might end the church. Unlike thriving churches, they may not bring as many people as possible into their vision. The focus shifts from reaching outsiders to making insiders comfortable.
Then comes the death stage. Everyone is tired. They’re tired of vision. They’re tired of things going wrong. They’re tired of the church.
When replanting a church, you have to be aware of what stage a church is at and know how they got there. What were the past stages like? How did it get to their current state? Finding this out will help a replanter determine which approach to take.
2. Identify Your Approach
What needs to be done? Here’s how I see it.
If you’re in maintenance mode, think about a refresh rather than a replant. I think that almost all churches need to refresh every five to seven years, no matter how well they think they’re doing. Culture changes much faster than that. Everything may seem fine, but assess the issues in the church and talk about them honestly. Make sure the structures put into place haven’t become bureaucratic and overbearing. This might mean disassembling structures or ending committees that aren’t growing the church. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat. Refocus your efforts on reaching your target audience — especially outsiders.
I think that almost all churches need to refresh every five to seven years, no matter how well they think they’re doing.
If you’re in self-preservation mode, consider revitalization. It may not be too late to reinstitute a culture of bringing in outsiders and reaching the community, rather than guarding a group of insiders. Reset your structure and vision. Reassess your surrounding community. Maybe re-staff, as well.
But if you’re in the death stage, don’t be afraid to let the church die and replant it. Remember Jesus’s words that we looked at in the last article: “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone.” Take the time to respect and remember the church’s history (see Part 1 for details), but gather a group of people who are willing to take it in a new direction.
In maintenance mode, reset the structure.
In self-preservation mode, reset the vision.
In the death stage, reset the identity.
When pastors implement these changes, a dying church can begin to grow again.
3. Develop a Culture and Strategy
How? First off, it’s about posture more than anything else. The posture that you take on is crucial in bringing new life into a church. Replanters and revitalizers need to make sure they’re led by the gospel, committed to changing, and willing to make hard decisions for the sake of the church — and not just to save face and keep their egos intact.
In more practical terms, there are two models of implementing change.
The first is the T-model. The previous administration leads in a certain way. But suddenly — sometimes overnight — there’s a complete break and a new culture starts going another direction. This approach is risky and damaging at times. There’s not enough time or space for people to ask questions about direction and get clarity.
I always think of revitalization or replanting as the establishment of a new culture. The culture is more important than the strategy itself. In a healthy soil, any seed will germinate and any plant will grow. You want to work on the culture itself, and that’s hard to do if you change things too quickly.
The X-model is disassembling one culture while implementing a new one at the same time. Clarity, communication, and planning are important here. It requires openness about the goals and expectations of the new culture, and how exactly it will be instituted.
The culture change needs to be approved not just by the leadership of the church, but by the congregation, too. When I help replant a church, we ask the congregation to take a vote. If the approval isn’t 85% or higher, we won’t implement the changes yet. We want them to want change.
Replanting churches may have the advantage of existing resources or church members, but they still have a lot of needs — a launch team, a new budget, fundraising, and outreach to the community. This is where coaching and training from a church planting network can help you.
It takes work, but when a church is successfully relaunched, new people come to its doors. New people grow as the disciples of Christ and become committed members of not just the church community, but the whole city. They see a vision that inspires them to serve with their time, their talents, and their treasures. And the words of Jesus ring true — when a seed dies, it can produce much fruit.
About the Author
Felipe was born in Brazil but had part of his upbringing in the United States. Felipe founded and pastored two churches in Recife, Brazil. In 2008, he moved to Miami at the invitation of City to City with his wife, Beth, and two children to plant Crossbridge Church and serve as a catalyst to a gospel movement in Miami.