When it comes to replanting or revitalizing a church the questions everyone seems to ask are: What do you change and when?

Here’s what I felt like learned from my first read-through of Mike McKinley’s book on replanting: Basically, you should start preaching expositionally and then clean up your church bylaws and then have a lot of people over for lunch and then God will do crazy things like helping you plant a Spanish speaking immigrant church. I found the book helpful but ultimately walked away thinking, “But what am supposed to do if I actually find myself in that situation?”

You can see, then, why I was curious to see Mike McKinley at a seminar with Q&A. I hoped to get into some real specifics. So at the Q&A I asked my question: “But how did you decide what to change first? Then second? Basically how did you prioritize?” He thought about it for a second then (essentially) said this:

I started chipping away at the big priorities, then I just changed what I could when I could.

If I’m honest I thought, “What kind of a hilariously unhelpful answer is that? Why would he not get specific about what to do?”

It’s only in retrospect, after a few years of church revitalization, that I see some profound principles in Mike’s answer.

1) No one can answer the questions everyone asks.

No one can tell you specifically what to change at your church, because it’s too specific. There is no template you can simply throw over the top of your church and kickstart it back into gear.

What I’m trying to say is this: church planting is not replanting and replanting is not revitalization. For all their complexity I’d argue that church plants have more similarity than replants do, within their own type of model. Say you want to raise 60k and launch a Sunday gathering in 6 months–there are books on how to do that. Say you want to grab 20 friends and live in a missional community aiming to replicate through organic relationships–there are books on how to do that. There are seminars on how to launch a multi-site.  In contrast, the replanting books can either be very general, or tell their own specific story, which is often so specific that it may or may not be helpful.

The situation Nehemiah encountered called for different leadership and priorities than the situation Ezra encountered, despite their similar eras. Nehemiah wrestled with external enemies and Ezra wrestled with the hearts of the people. And God, speaking into the same time period, used different encouragement in Haggai and a different motivation for a call to build the temple. Rebuilding a church devastated by sin and scandal, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians dealt with specific issues like the misuse of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12-14) and called for an encouraging opening (1 Cor 1). In contrast, the revitalizing work among the Galatians called for a sharp tone (Gal 1).

I carried around this low-level paralyzing thought most of the time in the early days: “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” I felt like there was some script for success I should be following but couldn’t find. But there was no script other than the Bible. There are some principles to allow to guide you, but there aren’t steps in as specific an order as planting. If you allow it to, this can drop a weight from your shoulders.

2) Identifying and chipping away at the big priorities matters more than you feel like it does.

Anytime you’re in a replant or church revitalization situation you’re tempted to constantly be looking around the corner for the perfect program, sermon series, or structure to fix all that ails the church. But that will exhaust you and exhaust your church.

Paul writes to the Philippians “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (3:1 ESV).  Paul loved the Philippians–they were even doing well as a church. But Paul wrote the “same things” to them again. Similarly, in 2 Peter, the Apostle reminds his readers in his has last letter “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder” (1:13 ESV). No new information, rather, Peter draws attention to the same things he’s written about before. Rather than writing on a new world-changing strategy, Paul and Peter both “remind” their readers of the “same things.”

When everything in your replant situation is crying out for attention — your kids ministry is a broken, your greeters don’t show up, your sound team is asking for more money– remember those things are still not as important as the big priorities. Good preaching matters. Improving the quality of your teaching week to week, expositing the text faithfully and applying it to your situation will have a powerful cumulative effect. Practicing hospitality and being available to members will require time, but they are crucial over the long haul. Training leaders who may not make a difference next week, or even next year, feels like wasted time but is part of the church’s future.

Whatever you do, chip away at what matters most. Slowly. Faithfully. Week in and week out.

3) Changing what you can, when you can, is often the best way to change things.

In the natural life cycle of the church, leaders step down, ministries need quick retooling, old traditions get put on the table. Sometimes you can pray and plan and teach on small groups with little to no effect, but spontaneously a new ministry leader in another area emerges when someone steps down. You really want the small groups to change, but there’s a golden opportunity to bring another ministry in line with the rest of the church’s vision. So what do you do? Keep chipping away at the big priorities, but don’t be afraid to take the opportunity and change what you can in that other ministry.

This is hard for me because I like to have all my ducks in a row. I come up with a logical order (nearly perfect, actually) for how to make changes to the church, but then circumstances come up spontaneously to wreck that plan. That’s where flexibility matters. If you’ve been wanting to change your lighting and you have to replace the lights anyway, change the lighting. If you’ve been wanting to change your bulletin and a graphic designer volunteers time for it, change the bulletin. Without being vague and mystical about all this, it’s important to see the hand of providence at work in your church and seek to go with it.

[Note: This requires having a pretty clear and comprehensive biblical vision and clear methodology for your church, so that as things fall into your lap you can mold them into the direction of the overall plan. But that’s another post.]

Sustaining Advice 

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for the first year or so of replanting Mike McKinley’s advice drove me nuts, but then for the next two years it was constant and friendly companion. It freed me, sustained me, and encouraged me to be bold. I hope it will encourage you to do the same.