This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Christ & Cascadia conference, Seattle, October 14th, 2016.
The Pacific Northwest holds that dubious honor of ranking highly among the most un-churched regions in the country. In a recent study, the top two slots in a survey of religiously unaffiliated U.S. cities went to Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. So then, what can be done to reverse this ranking? By what means can our region become known for the vibrant work God is doing in and through the church, instead of for its relative lack of church participation?
By way of answer, numerous and diverse means have been suggested and attempted. These include: church planting, evangelistic crusades, regional initiatives facilitated by parachurch organizations, and increased attention to social justice concerns and community partnerships. However, while acknowledging all of the genuinely positive outcomes of such labors, there remains a glaring omission: only limited consideration has been given of, and scant energies and resources allocated to, the revitalization of existing churches.
Intriguingly, while Pacific Northwest cities frequently rate at the top of charts when it comes to being un-churched, they simultaneously rank exceedingly high in terms of the number of churches per capita. For example, according to above-referenced study, Seattle ranks #2, nationwide, in terms of the number churches per capita, as well as ranking #2 in terms of the percentage of residents who are religiously unaffiliated. Such statistics suggest that the problem in the Pacific Northwest is not a dearth of churches. Rather, the issue seems to be that the churches we do have are dying.
As such, greater attention to church revitalization, as a component part of a broader strategy of regional renewal, is warranted. I say this not merely as a dispassionate theoretician, but instead as a passionate practitioner, and an indigenous resident of the region. As God placed a burden on my heart for church revitalization, he also provided an opportunity to take part in this work—as the lead pastor of a church revitalization effort in Northeast Portland.
Through it all, I’ve come to believe that the surest way of navigating these waters is not primarily through innovation, but rather, through alignment with the principles and priorities found in Holy Scripture. In order to supply an outline of these, I have assembled six items in the form of a manifesto. My intent is to provide a working sketch, for the purpose of sparking interest in and thinking better about church revitalization, in hopes that it will become a more deliberate focus, as churches in the Pacific Northwest labor alongside each other for the sake of regional renewal.
Church re-vitalization is, by definition, a return to life . . . a return to vitality . . . a return to health. Importantly, what we are talking about here is spiritual life, vitality, and health. The concept of ‘church re-vitalization’ presumes an existing congregation that was at one time spiritually vivacious, but has is now in a state of stagnation or a cycle of decline.
Statistics show that church plants cannot keep pace with the number of existing churches that are dying. In short, more churches are dying than are being planted. The solution is investing in existing churches, rather than neglecting them. In order to even keep pace, revitalization work is imperative.
A church revitalization does not intend merely to accomplish stylistic changes, programming changes, homogeneity, or numerical growth. Indeed, a church can embrace a contemporary style, have plenty of programs, and be filled to the gills with people, and still be spiritually dead or dying. So then, rather than any of these, the main goal of church revitalization is spiritual life, spiritual vigor, and spiritual growth.
If spiritual life, vigor, and growth indeed is the goal, then what means can be undertaken to facilitate this goal?
Admit that change is needed. Revitalization usually begins with repentance—with admitting that a congregation has embraced an unholy contentment with privation (something less than what is to be the normal state of affairs).
Plan a course for revitalization, and carry it out. Such a plan, at a minimum, might include: (1) prioritizing the ordinary means (Word, sacraments, prayer, fellowship, accountability, and service), (2) shepherding the congregation that is already there, (3) encouraging the congregation as a whole to intentionally reach out to the local community.
Depend on God, knowing that spiritual life, vigor, and growth can finally only come in and through the will of the Father, the mediation of the Son, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
In terms of the commitment it will take, there are, at a minimum, three things that must be considered.
People. Church revitalization efforts need people that are committed to the work of church revitalization. In order for people to commit, the value of doing so must be reinforced.
Time. Experts say that, on average, a typical revitalization effort will take 5 to 10 years. Sticking with a revitalization effort for the long haul requires dedication. One must be resolved, at the front end, to see this work through, regardless of the sacrifice required, and also knowing that there are no guarantees regarding the outcome.
Sacrifice. Church revitalization means giving up many of the accouterments that accompany larger, more established churches. The preaching and worship, while biblical and faithful, will likely not be flashy, cool, or professional. The people you will meet will tend to be the outliers in society: the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the infirmed, and the socially awkward. Also, churches in need of revitalization often cannot afford to pay a full-time salary, and so pastors who are committed to this work will often need to be bi-vocational.
Having heard all of this, it may legitimately be asked: why bother with church revitalization? Why not just let existing churches that are in a cycle of decline die off? Here are just two reasons why:
Revitalization provides an opportunity for personal sanctification.
Commitment to church revitalization places a believer in a situation where he or she must resist natural tendencies, for instance, towards homogeneity, and the impulse to be served rather than to serve. All in all, the many challenges of committing to a church revitalization effort are at the same time opportunities for sanctification.
Revitalization is counter-cultural, and tangibly displays the power of the gospel to the surrounding culture.
People are confused—in a good way—when we invest in a church that is diverse and populated with outcasts . . . one with an off-kilter and decidedly unprofessional worship service, all taking place in a run down or poorly decorated building. This initial confusion on the part of the culture can lead to opportunities to talk about what it is that truly unites us (and hint, it’s not good coffee, comfy seats, or an edgy worship team).
 Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Atlas, 2014.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.