The Path to Church Renewal Leads through the Desert

The Path to Church Renewal Leads through the Desert

In the past, I've written and spoken about church renewal from a hopeful and theoretical perspective. I can now begin to speak of it from experience. May God be glorified! But here's a warning: it's been tough. Across the country, aging churches such as mine in Central California face difficult choices. Some still have enough membership and resources to forestall the difficult yet inevitable conversations. Others have bet the farm on radical worship changes intended to modernize their gatherings or on new facilities, hoping to bring growth in a supposedly strategic part of town. Most are just hoping for the best, praying for a miracle, and waiting for the Lord to deliver them to the promised land of church vitality once again.

Almost all aging churches have one major problem, however, that the above courses of action (or inaction) fail to address. The problem with aging churches is that they have turned inward. They no longer know their neighborhoods. They have little capacity to impact the public good or even be good neighbors.

Let me clarify. I'm not suggesting these churches are unkind or unloving. Some may be, but most are filled with gracious people who want nothing more than to be a shining light to their neighbors. They simply have no clue how to live out the mission of God other than by stereotypical evangelistic methods they rightly reject as outdated and paternalistic.

In days gone by, churches played a pivotal role in North American society. Given the dominance of churches back then, a congregation didn't need to know its neighborhood. Churches were strong, social constructs deeply embedded in the social classes that defined them. Their neighborhoods tended to reflect the churches themselves, and vice versa.

My church here in Fresno was the same. To say that the College Church of Christ knew its neighborhood at its founding in 1964 is to assume that the church knew itself. They were reflections of one another.

North American society and most individual neighborhoods have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. A church would be unwise to assume it reflects or even knows the community in which it exists. Addressing this gap requires skills that were unnecessary all those years ago: reciprocity and dialogue. These skills are still lacking in most churches today.

The current disconnect between a congregation and its neighborhood is a common problem across the US. From Cincinnati to Nashville to Fort Worth to Los Angeles, many churches find themselves as islands in communities that are no longer reflections of the churches themselves. No one is to blame for this problem. It’s a natural development of our changing world. Doing something about it, however, requires courage and hard work.

This is the journey I am now able to describe. As a weary and wounded church pastor, I'm warning that the journey toward missional renewal isn't easy. In calling Christians to radical dependence on God, you are confronting the gods of our society that have co-opted so many churches. In calling Christians to the missional skills of listening and humility, you will face misunderstanding, slander, and betrayal.

Put most simply, the path of missional church renewal leads through the desert. You must intentionally lead your church away from certainty and familiarity. You will have to let go of Egypt and embrace the challenge of wilderness wandering.

But despite what people assume, the desert is not a place of barrenness. It is where God once again takes us as God's own people, just as the prophet Hosea spoke: 

Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her vineyards, and make [for her] a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth. (Hos 2:14-15)

One of the most helpful models for me comes from the work of Al Roxburgh and his co-collaborators Fred Romanuk and Mark Branson. Their “3-zone model” of missional leadership clearly lays out the path of missional renewal. You can find more about it in The Missional Leader (Joseey-Bass Press, 2006).


Most aging churches are in the red zone, having long since moved out of the blue zone of high performance. This is the mode of reactive leadership, and churches get stuck there. Why? Because leaders keep trying to go back and recreate the performative leadership of the recent past. They continually attempt to reinvigorate the congregation by resurrecting old ministries or introducing new, magic-bullet ideas. This attempt to go back and the corresponding inability to let go keep them mired in the reactive mode. Instead of fixing things, this further exacerbates an already fragile condition.

To move toward renewal, a church's leadership must embrace something counter-intuitive. You have to willingly travel into the desert. In order to experience a renewal of God’s Spirit and a fresh incarnation of God’s mission, you have to relinquish the old days of Egypt and accept God's provision in the wilderness.

What does this look like? According to my experience, which matches Roxburgh’s model, you have to embrace the crisis of confusion, uncertainty, and struggle. As long as you seek to avoid this stage, you will never bridge the gap. You’ll never move from crisis to an emergence of new life. Without entering the desert, you’ll never grasp a fresh sense of mission under the kingdom reign of God.

It's time to take your medicine and stop fighting the desert. It won't be easy. You'll need the right leaders who won't panic in the face of uncertainty. You'll be wounded and become weary along the way.

But get this. New systems and structures will eventually emerge in the midst of a reemergent leadership. A renewed church will start living into fresh ways of doing things. As long as you remain blind to the fact that renewal leads through the desert, you have no hope. But I can now testify that hope emerges in the desert.

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