This is a great question, especially since it is much easier to start a church than it is to revitalize one. Church plants tend to get a lot of momentum early and carry that through their first 3-5 years. In most revitalizations and replants it takes 5 years to truly see any sustained growth. If that is the case, then why not just plant churches and let dying churches die?
I think about the story of Josiah, king of Judah in 2 Chronicles 34. After he began his reign, he returned the kingdom to the ways of David. Several years later, workers found the book of the Law in the temple. Josiah’s reign can be seen as a return to faithfulness to God.
Where we are in New England, there are so many church buildings that have abandoned the Gospel and have abandoned faithfulness to the Scripture. Many of these churches have become nothing more than buildings that are a tribute to a past that was once so influenced by the Gospel. That still does not answer the question, why should we revitalize these old buildings?
1) Location and facilities - Many of these old buildings are strategically placed in the towns and cities where they are located and can provide significant opportunities to reach the community. Our church has been able to utilize our space to do community outreach events and to allow 12-step recovery programs that could not find a home elsewhere. When I was a church planter, these were not possible because we were renting part time space. That is a common problem with church plants, finding space that is suitable to meet for worship.
2) Accessibility – I have been both a church planter and am now replanting. It is much easier to gain the trust and access of people in the community when you have a reason to be there. In areas where Christianity does not have a significant influence on the culture, non-believers tend to not understand what a church plant is, nor see the reason to start one when there are already established churches in the community. As the pastor of an established church, I have a reason to be in the community, and do not have to explain my presence and hope that people are not overly skeptical of meeting in a school, rented space or living room.
3) God’s Glory – I know this one seems simple, and the obvious seminarian answer, but it is the truth. Only God can bring life where there was once death. When a church that many in the community believe is dying, or in some cases already closed, is made alive again the only answer we can see is that God brought it back. We have begun to see those conversations happening in our community among people who have no connection to our church.
How can you help? Many of us in replant churches have the same struggles as church planters especially when it comes to resources such as finances and people, with the added burden of a building which usually needs significant maintenance and upkeep. Dying churches also tend to not draw Christians looking to join a team like is often the case with church plants. We all could use much of the same type of support that has gone into church planting, such as prayer, mission teams and regular financial support. It is important for revitalization / replant pastors see need to “play the long game” and have the needed support from others to enable them to do so.