In February 2022 I took the step of concluding 13 years of parish leadership and moved into a new role as a Church Revitalisation Consultant with City to City Australia (CTCA). Under God, it seemed like a good way to bring together the various aspects of my ministry over the past 35 years and apply them in a way that would be a blessing to the wider church.
CTCA has been active in supporting church planters in Australia over a number of years. As part of this work they have developed training resources for planting healthy churches and gained expertise in ministry coaching to support church planters as they get established. In 2022, we have had the great privilege of working alongside over 40 church planters as they have established new churches. A number of these are Anglican churches, but we happily work with anyone who can affirm an orthodox confession of faith such as the Westminster confession, the Heidelberg catechism, or our own Thirty Nine Articles and the three historic creeds of our Prayer Book.
In 2021 CTCA took the step of moving into the realm of church revitalisation, and as I write this article in late 2022, we are working alongside over 60 churches across denominations and around the country. This work involves either a full church revitalisation project, or a specific intervention such as coaching, relational evangelism training, or a ministry vision workshop.
Our highest profile revitalisation project on the Anglican stage is with Bishop Richard and the Multiply Tas program, but we have also been working with the Diocese of Canberra Goulburn, parishes within Newcastle, Adelaide, Bendigo, the Northern Territory, and Perth, and churches within the Diocese of the Southern Cross. Personally, this year I have had the great privilege of working with twenty different churches across Victoria, Tasmania, NSW, ACT, Queensland, and the Northern Territory. My projects included three specific coaching relationships with other Anglican clergy, eight church vision workshops with Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Brethren, and Independent churches, and thirteen ongoing revitalisation projects with a range of Anglican,
Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Wesleyan Methodists and independent churches. It is exciting to see what God’s people are doing in so many different contexts to see the gospel of Christ move forward.
The full church revitalisation program with CTCA has three phases. The first is a health check and assessment of the current state of a church’s ministry. We visit the church’s Sunday services of public worship, and we assess the church’s facilities and their suitability for purpose. We meet with parish leaders to identify the current strengths and weaknesses of the church, as well as the opportunities and threats laying ahead. There is a 360 degree review of the minister’s leadership using the Christian Leadership Framework to assess their capacity for leading change, and there is a survey of church members to gain feedback on church health and life. We also gather existing data and reports such as annual meeting reports, NCLS results, vision statements, financial reports, parish publications, ABS census data, and whatever else the church has available that helps us understand their ministry and context.
The second phase is the writing of an extensive report in which we consider the church’s mission, vision, and values; their ministry systems for engagement, integration, and maturity; the infrastructure, governance, and operating systems; their church culture; and then we make some recommendations about how the church might move forward in their ministry. Phase three is then a year long journey in which we work alongside the minister and the church to help them implement the initiatives suggested.
At this stage there are a number of themes clearly emerging across the churches that we are working with. The first is the stark reality of demographics. The churches are each significantly older than the communities they serve, often with a difference of well over 15 years, and there is a clear lack of young families, youth, and children across the churches. This clearly indicates that the churches should focus on developing their ministry to families as a priority. The clock is ticking, and time is running out!
An ageing congregation, often with limited incomes, means there is a real threat of churches becoming unviable, either financially or numerically. However, there is also a common concern that emphasis on recruiting new and younger members may result in existing and older parishioners feeling either overlooked or neglected.
There are too few doing too much, with few people having the energy or capacity to step up as volunteers, and as a consequence the churches are offering limited ministry options to their communities. There is a clear risk of the church spreading themselves too thin with a small pool of volunteers struggling with tiredness, ageing, busyness, and post-Covid residual exhaustion. It may be that Covid will prove to be a blessing in that it has enabled churches to stop lots of extraneous activities, and hopefully churches will be wise in what they restart.
Much of the load falls onto the minister, and church members are generally content with the clergy and staff they have serving. Whilst the ministers each have their own strengths and weaknesses, together with their corresponding professional development needs, they are generally suitable for the ministries they lead.
There is an identifiable sense of dissatisfaction with the support offered within most dioceses as it does not seem to clearly facilitate and enable ministry to flourish. People are feeling swamped by the legal and administrative requirements for ministry, and whilst these are recognised as necessary, they seem secondary to core ministry tasks.
Whilst the Sunday services conducted in various churches differ according to their liturgical and theological traditions, they are generally appropriate to their context and the existing congregation so there does not seem to be a great need to change existing services. But at the same time, there is the glaring problem that these services fail to engage with younger members of the community.
There is a pressing need to initiate new services that are more accessible for families and non-churched people. Consequently, almost every church needs to focus on initiating these new services. Whilst some churches have specific legacy issues related to historical abuse which clearly undermine their reputation within their community, people are generally cautious about doing church things following the Royal Commission and there needs to be deliberate attention in restoring the church’s reputation as a safe place.
A common theme is a lack of vision and the absence of a clear sense of where the church might be in five years and the steps needed to get there. I have already decided that this lack of vision and the consequent sense of being stuck in maintenance mode is actually definitional to church stagnation. Consequently, developing an easily shared vision and defining ministry pathways seems to be a priority with each parish. Churches are in maintenance mode rather than missional mode and none of the churches have an easily communicated vision of where they believe God is taking them over the next five to ten years. CTCA are addressing this issue using a vision workshop which helps the church identify where they think God is taking them and the steps needed to make that vision a reality. It is an effective tool and I think the power of the workshop is that it gets the key leaders within the church to develop an agreed sense of what they should be doing, and where they are going.
Similarly, churches do not have well-developed systems for engagement with the community, integration into the life of the church, or for producing spiritual maturity. They are generally just doing what they always have done, and there is little sense of intentionality within the church’s practice. Sadly, amongst the churches needing revitalisation there is real enthusiasm and openness to exploring new ways of using facilities to generate income, but not an equal enthusiasm for exploring new ways to use facilities to initiate ministry. Churches are running midweek ministry programs for families and engaged with community support programs such as op shops, food banks, and emergency relief, but there are few functioning pathways between these ministries and the worshipping community. Consequently, they each need to explore and define the way in which they engage with their community in outreach, integrate contacts and new members into the worshipping life of the church, and to a lesser degree, how they help people grow to spiritual maturity.
There is a general expectation that outsiders need to take the initiative in connecting with the church and there seems to be a degree of spiritual passivity, introversion, introspection, and a cultural cringe about evangelism across the churches. Most communities would not notice if their local parish closed down. There is a clear opportunity to grow the church’s profile within the community by owning our identity and developing clearer strategies for community engagement. CTCA is addressing this specific need with the ‘Ripple Effect’. Julie-Anne Laird, who is a Lay Canon for Church Planting in the Diocese of Melbourne, has developed this material together with Sam Chan and we are seeing churches enthusiastically embracing this combination of whole church training workshop, small group resources, and assistance with developing an understanding of the local community.
Ten steps to help revitalise your church
- Check the pumping heart of gospel clarity within your church. It doesn’t matter how slick your ministry is if you’re not proclaiming Christ and helping people grow to Christian maturity.
- Rally the troops to pray. It is God’s church, and He is the one who brings about church revitalisation.
- Develop clarity of your vision and identify the steps for moving forward over the next 5 years.
- Audit the existing core ministry systems of your church and check their effectiveness in engaging the community, integrating people into the life of the church, and growing to maturity as disciple making disciples of Jesus. Especially check your Sunday services and their effectiveness as the shop front for your ministry.
- Conduct a local community study in order to develop a community profile and understand your ministry context and how you might engage meaningfully with those you serve.
- Create a disciple-making culture and work on equipping people to effectively share the gospel.
- Mobilise your members for ministry by helping them identify their gifting and find areas for ministry service.
- Develop a leadership pipeline that helps people be disciple-making disciples.
- Identify and deal with any specific problems, the skeletons in the cupboards and elephants in the room, which may be having a detrimental impact on your church.
- Ensure there is ongoing support and encouragement for the Senior Minister.
Rod Morris is a Lead Consultant within the Revitalise Australia program with City to City Australia.