How to revitalise a dormant church
David Brown, a pastor based in Paris, has nearly half a century of experience revitalising churches across Europe. Christian Today speaks to David about his new book, Reconnect Your Church, and how churches can stay healthy and prevent decline.
CT: What is the situation like in France as the country emerges from Covid?
DB: For the last few decades the evangelical church has been growing. There were an estimated 50,000 evangelical Christians in France in 1950, and probably about 750,000 today, so it's quite a remarkable growth. Perhaps not quite a revival but a reflection of the steady planting of churches around France to about 2,700 today. Covid made things difficult but we reckon that most of our churches survived quite well. The committed people remained committed and the ones we lost were those who were already a bit on the margins anyway, although we're trying to get back in contact with them.
CT: Has Covid opened up any new possibilities for the Church?
DB: Yes, many church activities have remained online, which is useful for some people who find it difficult to attend in person because of their health or jobs or other circumstances, although there is a real desire to meet in person and I think most churches are putting the emphasis on this.
Most churches are fairly optimistic that things are improving now. The real issue we have is that it's more difficult to reach out to people in general because of society's increasing suspicion of the Church and the different philosophical ideas floating around in post-modern Europe.
CT: Is the identity debate big in France?
DB: Yes, we're part of western Europe so the identity issues are very strong here.
CT: Have you seen any patterns or trends in churches that are emerging from Covid in a healthy position?
DB: Even the churches that are doing well are still challenged when it comes to reaching out to people outside of the church and this is the case all over Europe but particularly western Europe. It's what I call the 'plausibility gap', in that, for most people Christianity just isn't plausible, it's not something that people would take into consideration. If you think of the life goals of the average young person, it's things like getting married, starting a family, earning a lot of money. It's not likely that their list is going to include 'becoming a Christian'.
As I write in my book, we need to reconnect with these people and the only way we can do that is for ordinary Christians to see that mission is their role. To be a missional church means that all the Christians need to be in contact with the people in their environment. We all have four relational networks - our family, our neighbourhood, our place of work or study, and our social or leisure networks and each of us meets all sorts of people in those areas.
If you have 10 non-Christians in your wider family, and you know 10 people in your neighbourhood, 10 colleagues at work and 10 people in your football team, then that's 40 people. So in a church of only 10 people, the congregation might know 400 people between them.
These are the people we can be praying for, witnessing to, doing good to and loving. This is how we can make Christianity plausible to those outside the church.
CT: You mentioned that the Church in France is growing and yet at the same time there is this plausibility gap. What then do you think is driving the growth in the French Church?
DB: We've been through various stages of growth in the last 70 years and I would wonder to what extent after Covid we're still growing. But the growth that we have been seeing in the last few years has been primarily within immigrants coming to France from places like Africa, the Caribbean, India and other parts of South-East Asia.
CT: What experience do you have with reviving dormant churches?
DB: My wife and I planted three churches in France, two in the east and one in Paris, and it was about 12 years ago that I became pastor of a church in Paris that needed revitalisation. At that time, I didn't know the word revitalisation but it was something that was being talked about in the US. The US is a different culture so I had to think about how we could do things in France and in Europe. When I became coordinator of the Revitalisation Network of the European Leadership Forum, I started travelling around Europe and finding the same issue, north, south, east and west, that we needed a revitalisation model that would make sense in Europe. The book is a very Europe-centred book.
CT: What's the model for going in and revitalising a church? Is it working alongside existing pastors or sending new ones in?
DB: Research in America - and I would say it's probably similar here - suggests that two thirds of the time existing leadership can revitalise the church, but there may be one third of cases where they need to bring in someone new to give the church a new start. I would like to think that any church could be revitalised and I prefer the model of trying to work with the people who are already there and that's mostly been my experience in Europe.
But essentially revitalising means seeking to make a church healthy again. It's not primarily a question of numbers, although of course we hope that a church will grow.
Generally four things are needed for a healthy church. One is that it has to be centred on the Gospel. Secondly it has to be a place where Christians learn to love God and - thirdly - to love others as themselves. Finally, they need to do this in their cultural context. And the church has two aspects - the gathered church and the scattered church. The gathered church is when Christians are together - and this includes Zoom meetings. Hebrews 10 tells us that the purpose of the church meeting together is to encourage each other in love and good works so essentially it's also about worshipping God and learning together how to live as Christians the 90 per cent of the time when we're not in church. In reality we're only gathered for a minority of our time. The rest of our time we are scattered and in our relational networks.
I always recommend that when we gather together on a Sunday, we do four things: worship, Bible teaching, teaching about the world we are in, and talking about our every day lives, at work and in the home. I call the four things we should do as we meet together as Christians our AIMS - Adoration of God, Issues in today's world, Mission and Scriptures. These are all essential to revitalisation. It's also important to stress that every Christian is a missionary within their personal networks and it's the church's job to train people to live as Christians in such a way that our faith becomes a plausible 'option' in today's world.
CT: Why is that important?
DB: Christians need to understand the issues affecting our world and how to talk about them in a way that connects with unbelievers. In my own church service, I spend 20 minutes talking about things like woke ideology, LGBT, ecology, screen time, how we raise our kids, the history of Christianity, or what the Lord is doing in different parts of the world.
Neil Hudson of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity came up with TTT (This Time Tomorrow) in which churches interview someone in their church for about 10 minutes at the end of the service. They discuss their job, what they like, don't like, how they might have been able to witness and how they can be prayed for. It sends the message not only to that person but to the whole church that what you do during the week and how you live as a Christian is important.
CT: Thinking about the churches that you go into that are in need of revitalisation, is there something typically that has gone wrong?
DB: There can be all sorts of things and that's why when I first go to a church, I encourage them to do a health check up. Churches can start to feel that something is going wrong when they have plateaued or are decreasing in number, but in truth, any church can be in need of revitalisation. A church could be feeling satisfied because they are running all sorts of groups and services, but it could be that they've forgotten about the Great Commission. If churches are starting to plateau or decline, it's a good time to think about what they could be doing better.
CT: Is there any church that's beyond help?
DB: I would like to say no but in some cases there may be a reason why it's better for that church - especially if there are just a few people - to join up with a thriving church nearby. It's important that churches don't allow themselves to reach a point of decline where it's difficult to reverse it.
CT: There is church planting on the one hand and church revitalisation on the other. What is the balance between these two?
DB: Both are 100 per cent necessary. We need to go on planting new churches because it is also a good way to reach out to people. In France, for example, we have to plant churches. I'm in a borough of Paris that is home to 65,000 people but there hasn't been any ethnic Protestant or evangelical church in the area for over a century. So our church plant was necessary in that situation.
But an existing church has the advantage of a building, which is a big challenge for church planting. Each church plant I've planted has needed to fundraise at some point to buy a building, whereas an existing church already has that. They're also known in the area and they often have a range of people in them. Church plants tend to be under-30s reaching out to other under-30s.
But there are other possibilities as well. For example, I revitalised a church in Paris where we started a second evening service reaching out to young professionals, so it was almost like a church plant within an existing church.
CT What would you say to a pastor who feels that their church is in need of revitalisation. What's the first step? Where can they turn?
DB: Many denominations are increasingly aware of this and have someone who's working specifically on that, such as the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, so the first place to look is your own denomination. Secondly, reading the book I have written, Reconnect Your Church, could give pastors some ideas. They can join the European Leadership Forum's church revitalisation network and also check out my website, revitalisation.fr, where there are more resources.