"Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones, Raise a banner for the nations (Isaiah 62:10, New International Version).
What will it take to turn around a congregation? To put it quite frankly, far too many churches are in trouble and need a radical change in direction. What is needed today is renewal or revival, no matter how one wants to phrase it. However, does this mean we put up a tent and have a "revival meeting?" Do we find a program that has worked some place out West in a growing community and plug it into our little small town church in rural New York or in the hills of Pennsylvania? Do we purchase more books and materials that will suddenly jump start our congregation? What will it take?
I believe, while some of the above suggestions might be helpful, that a good place to start is to look at the Bible. In Isaiah 62, we see a wonderful picture on how a nation that is in exile will be restored. It was a nation that was in trouble which needed a turn around. It was a nation that basically was spiritually (and geographically) dead, but God had plans to bring it back to life. However, it is clear that God's people also have a stake in this by a call to obedient faith. As a result an important question must be considered: What are the important responses that God's people must have if revival or renewal is to take place? Of course, it starts with God and His power to bring transformation, but this does not mean that the church is to stand idly by and expect revival or renewal to happen on its own. True revival demands a response which is outlined for us in Scripture through a number of imperatives. In Isaiah 62:10, we see five imperatives for church renewal or revival which outlines the type of response the church needs if we are to see congregations pass from death into new life. They are as follows:
IMPERATIVE #1: PASS THROUGH THE GATE: The first step for revival or renewal to happen is to leave where we have been and to pass through the new direction that God has. For years, the nation was in exile but Jerusalem would be rebuilt, the gates restored and the temple would be reestablished. Yet for renewal or revival to take place, there was a call to God's people to "pass through the gates." It is noteworthy that in the text, "Passing through" is repeated. Whenever words are repeated in the Bible, it means that a point is being emphasized and highlighted. To paraphrase this verse, it, in essence, is saying, "Get off of your duffs and pass through!" For the church today, it cannot be business as usual. It cannot be thinking about the old days nor holding on to what has always worked. It is noteworthy throughout the Scriptures that "passing through" takes place when God was about to do something significant. In Exodus and Joshua, the Israelites passed through two bodies of water in addition to the desert in order to receive the Promised Land. In the New Testament, Jesus passes through the gates of the city on the way to the cross, thus securing the redemption of humanity. The question for the church is, "What gate is God asking our congregation to pass through?"
IMPERATIVE #2: PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE PEOPLE: In the Isaiah passage, anticipating the influx of people meant that the city must be able to handle those who had returned. Houses would have to be rebuilt, infrastructure would have to be repaired and updated. Spiritually, since they were the people of God, a place would have to be restored to encourage worshipping the one true God. Likewise for the church today, a congregation must ask the question, "How prepared are we for the influx of new Christians that the Lord may bring to us? Are we in a position to mentor and disciple them? Are our facilities conducive to be a welcoming place for potential followers of Christ? Is our focus inward or outward? I once heard a pastor ask this question, "Besides Jesus, who is the most important person in church?" His answer was, "The person who has not attended here yet." How prepared are we for people?
IMPERATIVE #3: BUILD UP THE HIGHWAY: Yesterday, I had to travel up Interstate 81 in Upstate New York to visit my mother. On the way, there was an all too familiar sight that is typical of the short summers in the snowy part of New York State called "construction season." In places, the road was down to traveling over the rumble strips on the shoulder of the road to get by the tearing up of the other lane in order to restore the road. To say the least (especially for a preacher whose dream is to drive the Audubon), it was frustrating to slow down and to maneuver around heavy equipment. Yet, if Interstate 81 is to be a highway that will continue to transport people, the construction was necessary.
It is important to understand, that congregations are in the highway business. How is our congregation providing a way for people to find the Lord? How must we change in order to accommodate this change? How are we sensitive to the environment around us? What ministries are no longer effective and must be eliminated? What new ministries does God want us to be involved in? This process can be long and slow and, like a construction site, is a work in process. Yet when a congregation invests the time, prayers (and money too!), a new highway of helping people find the Lord is established.
IMPERATIVE #4: REMOVE THE STONES: Any construction site not only involves building something new but in removing the old. After Jerusalem was destroyed, the city was in shambles. Streets were blocked with rubble and stones and those stones had to be cleared out and removed. Likewise, there are stones in the church that have to be removed. Some of these stones are relational stones-stones where people have not been able to forgive others along with bitterness. There may be stones of unrepentant sin that will require some difficult decisions to be made. This is especially true in churches that are in conflict or there is a power struggle. Some of the stones that have to be removed may be old programs and events that have long gone past their life-cycle yet have been retained because "we have always done it this way." If revival is to happen, then something will have to go.
IMPERATIVE #5: RAISE A BANNER FOR THE NATIONS: So far, the first four imperatives focused on creating the right environment for revival to happen. But it is possible to act on the first four imperatives and forget the most important last piece in revival-the proclamation of the gospel beyond the church's four walls in word and in deed. The methodology on how this is done will vary from congregation to congregation but it all comes down to Christians telling others of the good news of Jesus Christ. According to Dr. John Ewart, it is estimated that 90% of church members have no intention of sharing their faith. As a result, even if the first four imperatives are followed, there will not be enough Christians raising the banner to have much of an impact on our culture. Thus the last imperative for revival to happen is to become a congregation that openly raises the banner of God's grace to the nations.
In conclusion, there is no question that revival and renewal are sorely needed in today's church in America. In order for it to happen, God has already done His part in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. But the question for the church is whether it will be obedient to the imperatives that God has outlined for us in His Word.