The powerful Word of God has built Christ’s kingdom since the beginning of redemptive history. It has never been defeated, and it never will be. Satan has been opposing God’s Word since he slithered up to Eve in the Garden of Eden and questioned God’s authority, recruiting humanity through Adam to join his rebellion. But since that dreadful moment, God’s Word has been destroying Satan’s kingdom, pushing back the darkness and rescuing the elect captives. Satan has never been able to tame the Word, chain the Word, stop the Word, or make the Word extinct.
And so, if a church is to be revitalized, it will only happen through the Word of God alone. The more revitalizing leaders trust the Word of God alone, the more powerful their efforts will be.
Revitalization is nothing less than the transformation of individual human hearts—by either conversion or sanctification—on a church-wide scale. This work of comprehensive salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ, and Romans 10:17 says saving faith comes by hearing the Word. It doesn’t matter what other things happen in your church; if the Word of God isn’t central to the revitalization effort, no genuine, long-lasting transformation will ever occur.
Death to Life, Darkness to Light
Perhaps the clearest verse in the Bible on the essence of regeneration is 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This is the miracle of regeneration, of being made a new creation in Christ. Paul likens the power of God to speak life into a dead soul to the power he displayed at creation in speaking light into a dark universe.
This moment of spiritual creation is the basic “building block” of any church revitalization effort. A subsequent work is like it: the Spirit’s increasing illumination in the hearts of existing regenerate church members. This progressive work of illumination reveals God’s radiant glory in Christ, as well as God’s purposes for our lives and for his church. Faith is the eyesight of the soul (Matt. 6:22) by which we see invisible realities, including the way the local church is falling short of God’s plan.
Therefore, the centerpiece of the ministry of the Word of God in the pulpit, in Sunday school, and in all Bible studies and discipling relationships must be the clear proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected as the only Savior for sinners. Though the ongoing preaching of lesser doctrines is essential to a complete ministry of the Word, the gospel of Christ must be paramount. As Paul said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). Here, Paul is rejecting the human wisdom that was the glory of Greece and the envy of the pagan world of his time. The wisdom of God for the sinful human race is the cross of Christ. Lift it high!
Man's Techniques Cannot Revitalize
The idea that revival—or for our purposes, revitalization—can be reduced to a series of inevitably successful principles or techniques is still alive today. All you have to do is Google something like “ten easy steps to church renewal,” and you’ll get an amazing potpourri of practical advice.
It’s true that every church revitalization situation is unique, with its own set of challenges. Yet in every case, true revitalization comes not with man-developed techniques, but with a firm reliance on the sufficiency of the Word of God to transform human hearts.
In the twenty-first century, man-centered revitalization techniques focus on other ways to tickle the sensibilities of seekers, attendees, and church members. These techniques aren’t much different than the approach of the medieval Roman Catholic Church or Charles Finney and other preachers of the Second Great Awakening.
Appealing to the five senses in the Middle Ages gave us cathedrals with soaring architecture, stunning stained glass windows, magnificent sculptures, the majestic tones of pipe organs, and the “smells and bells” of the Latin mass. In Finney’s era, these appeals to the senses centered on high-energy preaching with theatrical presentations of biblical themes, the psychological pressure made by the “anxious bench” (later developed into the techniques of the “invitation” and the “altar call”), and the use of culturally pleasing frontier music.
Today, our techniques might include a sleek-looking building designed to look like a country club, state-of-the-art electronics, cutting-edge worship music that stays current with popular tastes, the use of handheld smartphones and Twitter accounts to enable an interactive connection with the preacher and the audience, and “relevant” sermons that immediately address felt needs of the hearers and mostly stay away from deep theology. The employment of such human-centered techniques will never produce a genuine transformation of the human heart and, therefore, will never produce genuine revitalization.
Trust the Word
The most significant force in the revitalization of any local church is the ongoing ministry of the Word of God Sunday after Sunday. If you’re a church member in a church that needs revitalization, you should pray that God will raise up a faithful biblical expositor to preach God’s Word from the pulpit. If that’s already happening, pray that God will sustain that man in his difficult work, for there often comes a time in church revitalization when unregenerate church members “will not endure sound teaching” but will seek to gather around themselves teachers to say what their itching ears long to hear (2 Tim. 4:3).
If you’re a pastor in a church that needs revitalization, seek to gain people’s trust by faithfully handling the Word of God. When your church trusts you, people will be less likely to divide regarding difficult doctrines.
Editor's Note: This originally published at 9 Marks.