Paul planted a number of churches during his first missionary journey. During his second missionary journey, Paul told Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). So, “he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41). Paul repeated this process during his third missionary journey as well: “he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23).
What is significant for the moment is that Paul’s second and third missionary journeys were not focused only on planting churches. Paul used much of his time to revisit churches that had previously been established and strengthen them. It seems he anticipated the need for them to be revitalized in order to continue as they began. Even when Paul was unable to revitalize a church himself, he sent others to do so. He sent Timothy to handle a difficult situation in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3), and he left Titus to Crete to “put what remained into order” (Titus 1:5).
The church in Ephesus provides a case study for a church that was in need of revitalization multiple times. Though its beginnings were marked by an excitement for the gospel that made an impression upon the whole of Ephesus (Acts 19), Paul later warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come (Acts 20:17–38). They did, and Paul sent Timothy to deal with the matter and bring the church to spiritual health once again (1 Tim 1:3).
A generation later, the apostle John recorded these words from Christ to the church in Ephesus: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4–5). Though the church was now adept at identifying false teachers and their doctrine (Revelation 2:2, 6), the church had grown cold in its love for Christ and the gospel, resulting in a failure to serve God as they did when the church first began.
Though Christ rebuked Ephesus for its decline in love and works, He also gave the church what one might call “three steps to church revitalization.” They were to (1) remember what they once were, (2) repent for why they were no longer what they once were, and then (3) return to the love and deeds that they had at first.
How does a church experience revitalization? From the example of Ephesus, it remembers its past, repents for present sins, and returns to the love and works it had at first. On these matters, more will be said in days ahead.
For a more detailed discussion of the above, see pp. 19–20 and 30–33 in the book by Harry L. Reeder, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church (rev. ed.; Phillipsburg, N. J.; P&R, 2008).
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.