Chip Strickland believed in church revitalization even before he pastored a Savannah, Ga., church that might soon have to close. He’d attended the usual conferences, but remained troubled by a repeated emphasis on programs. “They wanted you to change your style of worship,” Strickland said, “and I knew that getting rid of the piano wasn’t going to work here.”
But after attending an Embers to a Flame conference, Strickland was sure he’d hit upon something different. “It’s a biblically-based, Christ-centered approach that works in any context, with any style of worship,” Strickland said. “I knew it was right because it comes directly from God’s instruction to the church at Ephesus.”
Embers to a Flame is a ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham, Ala., focused on equipping church leaders to implement biblical strategies that nurture church vitality. Since its inception 12 years ago, the ministry has equipped between 300 and 500 churches through Embers to a Flame conferences, both in the U.S. and internationally. The ministry now reaches nine countries stretching from Japan and South Korea to Uganda and South Africa. It also extends across denominational lines, allowing the PCA to encourage and teach the larger body of Christ.
Following the initial conference, many churches receive ongoing support through Fanning the Flame, a 14-month coaching ministry that helps church leaders diagnose the specific problems affecting their church and develop a long-term action plan with the assistance of a coach.
Inspired by Necessity
Harry L. Reeder III, pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala. and founder of Embers to a Flame, sought out the biblical principles of church revitalization when, as a young seminary graduate, he stepped into his first pastoral ministry at Pinelands Presbyterian Church in Miami and encountered a church in desperate need.
Reeder, in his book From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, describes his disheartening experience. The once-vibrant congregation had dwindled from nearly 900 to fewer than 80, with an average age of 69. Reeder soon discovered that some of the elders probably didn’t know the Lord. During Reeder’s first week, a denominational representative from the church-growth committee asked him to consider closing down the church and planting elsewhere.
In a church body where a flame once existed, Reeder explains, all that remained was embers. “I desperately wanted to see God ignite those embers into a fire again,” he writes, “so I searched His Word to find the biblical principles that apply to church revitalization. By God’s grace we put those principles into practice, though with many mistakes. And by God’s grace, the church came alive.” Within three years, the church’s average attendance grew to more than 400, with more than half coming from conversion or rededication to Christ.
In an interview with byFaith magazine, Reeder points to stagnancy in American churches as a serious problem that must be addressed. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of churches in the U.S. are stagnant. More churches are closing than are being planted,” Reeder says. “Planting more churches is not the solution. We need to focus on revitalization.”
Revitalization requires a focus on church health over church growth, according to Reeder. “A healthy church will grow, but you can grow without being healthy. Steroids will make you grow, but they will also [kill you]. The key is to lead churches into health and vitality. As you do that God builds healthy DNA into the church.”
Reeder points out that after the apostle Paul planted churches, he went back to strengthen them. Following Paul’s example, revitalization needs to be an intentional strategy, Reeder says. Embers to a Flame provides the structure for that strategy.
Remember, Repent, Recover
Reeder summarizes the key principles of Embers to a Flame with three words: remember, repent, and recover. These precepts are outlined in Revelation 2:5. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first.”
The first key to revitalization, Reeder says, is to remember. To remember is to take account of the great things God has done and to celebrate past victories. Churches often attempt to spark revitalization by introducing new programs, which can alienate charter members who remember the way things used to be. Instead, churches should involve long-time members by encouraging them to tell stories of the great works of God they have witnessed. This not only helps reignite older members, but also helps newer members regain a vision for what God can do.
In addition to remembering, a church needs to repent, Reeder says. When asked how churches go into decline, Reeder answered that sin is often a key factor. “Many times it’s an issue of sin that has been covered up rather than confessed and dealt with. When this happens, the Lord’s blessing is removed. He then uses that to call the church to repentance.”
According to Reeder’s From Embers to a Flame, churches should encourage the confession of sin by creating an atmosphere of grace. “People need to understand God’s mercy and forgiveness,” he writes. “It’s also vital to emphasize personal responsibility. Many times, renewal in the church needs to start with church leaders and key members.“
The second part of repentance involves restitution, restoration, and reconciliation, says Reeder. These are defined as paying back what is owed, setting things right, and renewing broken relationships.
The final key is recovery. Embers to a Flame takes churches through a 10-step process based on the model from the church at Ephesus that involves a change in both heart and action. Remember and repent are steps one and two. Steps three through 10 relate to recovery, which is explained simply as “putting ‘first things’ first.”
Jim Simoneau, pastor of Young Meadows Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Ala., took his church leadership through Embers to a Flame in 2003, shortly after he became pastor there. “I was familiar with the ministry, and I knew we needed it as a church.”
Since Simoneau and his church first became involved with Embers to a Flame and Fanning the Flame, they have seen the church’s prayer ministry deepen and grow, with the congregation taking more ownership. Simoneau also credits the ministry with helping strengthen Young Meadow’s outreach program, both locally in Montgomery and internationally with the church’s ministry to Bulgarian village churches. They’ve also invested in key discipleship, evangelism, and leadership development, intent on living out the church’s vision statement to “embrace, enable, and equip its members to exalt God and to evangelize Montgomery and the world for God.”
Chip Strickland, whose church was on the verge of closing, now describes it as healthy and growing as a direct result of implementing the Embers to a Flame principles. “Our spiritual health has improved tremendously,” Strickland says. “We see lives being changed. Churches in the neighborhood are taking notice and asking, ‘What happened?’”
He is more than happy to tell them. “It works because it’s a process, not a program. It’s not just a style you implement and then walk away. It’s a process of changing the whole ethos of the church. It becomes the way the church operates.”
For more information about Embers to a Flame, visit www.emberstoaflame.org.