The Tension of Reviving or Birthing

There are many tensions that exist in present day church growth and health conversations. One of the more impacting ones is whether we focus on new church starts or church revitalization.

In my home denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this tension exists in many of the conversations taking place about long term strategy. Of course, this tension isn’t limited to just Baptists, it includes most churches.

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

This mantra is one which I learned early on in my ministry while interning at the mother church for the college I attended. It reflects an honest, and perhaps a bit ambivalent, assessment of the challenges confronting ministers who go into established churches that have plateaued or are in decline. Southern Baptists have measured that 72% of our churches have plateaued or are in decline. As a result we have a overwhelming majority of churches that are in need of intentional ministry to repurpose and revitalize their ministry

As a result, we have heard a continued emphasis about church planting that has led many of my peers to go out and start new churches. This has had mixed results, depending on who you talk to, but overall I believe it is has tremendous Kingdom value.

However, for many of our largest and focal churches across the US, they have moved away from either church revitalization and planting. They are favoring the expansion of their ministries through multi-site church campuses.

So a new tension is introduced into the conversation, it isn’t just reviving or giving birth, but also multiplication. These large churches (for a host of reasons) continue to grow at significant rates while medium and smaller churches are seeing decline. If a measure of ministry successfulness is found in numerical growth (I don’t think this is either a principal or sole measure) than these multi-site churches are perhaps the most “successful” churches in the land. Yet their approach to church strategic growth is to perpetuate their own existence by expanding their influence through new campuses. For many small and medium sized churches, it is having the same effect as what happens to small business when Wal-Mart coming to town.

So, is their resolution to this issue? Not immediately. However, if we consider that these existing churches (the 72%) still have worth if we become intentional about sending new ministers into their midst there might indeed be a wave new growth that continues to provoke change in our communities and culture. Far too often the conversation has moved to the church planting and multi-site options as having the better answers.

Church revitalization remains an important, and perhaps, more opportune ministry. By leveraging existing facilities, perhaps with a strategic rebranding and some updates, the actual barriers to entry into a ministry sphere become lower than both multi-site and planting. By revitalizing our plateaued and declining churches we might be able to also revitalize the communities in which they live.

Perhaps at this crucial moment in our churches we can embrace an ethos that motivates us to consider the all important starting of new churches an campuses alongside revitalizing established churches.


Strategic Ministry Units

We’re all probably familiar with the standard “life-cycle” chart that describes organizational growth, maturation, and decline. The chart usually looks like this:

Life Cycle Basic

For any organization there are seasons of growth, maturation, and either renewal or decline. Churches across America see this trend just like other organizations. This life cycle graph can be worked out differently for different organizations or entities. Sometimes the growth stage is shorter, other times it is longer. Ultimately, every organization sees this life-cycle curve come into reality.

Churches in particular are subject to this life-cycle and see it repeated in various churches at different times. There are many reasons why a church, following a season (or two) of growth suddenly plateau and then, eventually, decline. For churches in America, 80% are plateaued or declining. Sometimes it has to do with changing demographics in their area, other times it is established leadership unwilling to commit to change, also there are crisis moments that impact the church and cause people to leave. Whatever the reason churches will see this life-cycle play out. The challenge for church leaders (just like other organizational leaders) is to recognize when strategic decisions must be made to alter the life-cycle curve.

Leaders who are able to understand their place on the life-cycle chart can make appropriate moves well before a crucial organizational moment arises. However, if leaders are not aware that they are entering a time of plateaued ministry growth there is another key moment prior to either a time of renewal or decline. This space provides time to make strategic decisions concerning the eventual direction of the organization to either decline or renewal.

 One of the ways that successful leaders move their ministries to renewal instead of decline is by starting new strategic ministry ventures or units. Just like a strategic business unit can add value to a corporation and provide new avenues of growth, strategic ministry units can create several key forces to move a church from plateau to renewal. These key forces that are created include: new staff, fresh opportunities for vision to be articulated, organizational synergy, and a new entry point to connect with those outside our church.

Strategic ministry units often arise out of crucial conversations with key leaders that provide innovative new ministry avenues to renew and, often, energize a local church. Types of strategic ministry units include:

  • Small group unitsLife Cycle SMU
  • Outreach ministry opportunities
  • Partnering with other local ministries
  • Multi-site campus expansion
  • Life stage ministry
  • Athletic outreach
  • Alternative worship service
  • Family ministry


Other examples abound. The central idea here is that strategic ministry units provide an opportunity to change the course of an organization’s natural life-cycle. These strategic ministry units don’t have to be high cost or have high barriers for implementation. One of the central ideas in implementing them is, however, high validation from the senior leadership of a church. For highly structured church staffs, lower departmental staff can be tasked with carrying out the objectives (and certainly even in the development of units) but the new ministry unit will only grow as much as far as the leadership level which the primary motivator is given.

Many churches that need to break out of season of plateaued ministry can implement strategic ministry units to provide them the impetus to move from a pathway of decline to an avenue of renewal.

We’ll be talking a bit more about strategic ministry units a bit down the road. However, they are vital components of crafting an effective ministry playbook for healthy churches.

How have you seen strategic ministry units benefit a church? What are some examples of strategic ministry units that you’ve seen work? Where are some land mines along the way?