The advantage of revitalizing an existing church instead of starting a new one is that it already has the land, the building and the people. New church plants often expend incredible amounts of money, time and energy finding land and building a new building, or finding an existing commercial building and converting it into a church. Some would argue that this money and energy might be better expended on helping an existing church modernize and rehab their building. New churches also must spend an incredible amount of time and energy gathering a core group, training the core group and then using that core group as a base to reach out to the lost and de-churched to bring them into the fellowship. Finding that first 40-50 people is the hardest. An existing church already has that core group and if they could be trained and deployed to be on mission, then it would seem to many that such an approach would make more sense than starting a new church from nothing.
The disadvantage of revitalizing an existing church is that it already has the land, the building and the people. Yes, you read that correctly. The advantages that an existing church has are often also its greatest disadvantages. For example, if the location the existing church is located in is no longer workable but the building is also not very marketable for resale and relocation, then the land and location become a liability instead of an asset. Many rural churches were built in places that once were surrounded by farms with large families. Now the farms are run by one or two man crews with big equipment, the families have all moved away to the nearby town and the old home church is in the middle of nowhere. It is nearly impossible to sell, so relocation to a better spot is not really viable. Even though the old home church is struggling, its location makes it impossible to reach the children and grandchildren of its members. A new church will need to be built closer to the population. The same is true in urban areas. Perhaps a church was built in a neighborhood where people walked to church. No parking lot was needed. Now the homes are gone and businesses own all the land around the church. People have to drive their car to church and need a place to park. If a small church does not have the funds to buy an expensive piece of business property next door to turn into a parking lot, suddenly the location is a hindrance instead of a blessing.
Sometimes it is not the location that is the problem, but the building itself. It could be a building in a rural area or right in the midst of an urban center, but if the building is in such bad condition that it is cost prohibitive to repair and is worth so little that it cannot be sold for enough make relocation a viable option, then the building becomes a weight pulling the church down instead of a tool for community outreach. Often the remaining members love their old building and keep meeting in it despite all the code violations and leaky roofs and non-functioning bathrooms. But visitors are not going to come to such a place, at least not for a second visit. In such situations a new church must be started to reach that very same area that the old church once impacted.
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of revitalizing an existing church is the people. More important than location and buildings are the people that make up the church. In fact, it is the people that ARE the church, not the building or the location. If a church building has slowly fallen into disrepair, it was the people who let it happen. If the church failed to relocate 20 years ago when it still possible, or buy adjoining property when it was available, it was the people who made that choice. If the congregation is no longer a viable part of the community, it is because the people have chosen to focus inward instead of outward.
While it would be nice to think that if we sent a young energetic preacher there with some innovative ideas that the people would have a change of heart and the church would turn around, that seldom happens. In fact, many declining churches have tried that a time or two, and often fired the young preacher when he pushed the envelope too far, even though they hired him to do just that. In discussing this issue with other pastors, I am reminded of what Joe Paskevich, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Eastern Connecticut, said; “Many times those wanting revitalization simply want more resources (people, money, remodeled facilities) to perpetuate what they have always had. For revitalization to happen there will need to be a transition which would include things that will ultimately make the revitalized church look and feel like a church plant anyway.” Bible teaching and author Jeanette Sullivan says, “The hardest part of revitalization is the BIG word...CHANGE! Unless people are willing to change what they have been doing for 30, 40, 50 or more years, then it can't happen.” Sadly, most people are just not willing to change, and therefore, revitalization often becomes impossible. Sometimes a new church is what the community needs, even though several churches already exist in the same community. It can be a hard truth to accept, but it is a truth nonetheless.