Editor’s Note: We published a portion of this article online in December 2016. Below is the full article from our spring 2017 issue.

Rev. Harry Reeder didn’t graduate from seminary in the 1970s intending to focus his life’s work on church revitalization. But he became convinced of its importance when called to be the pastor of a small, dying church in Miami, Florida.

That experience at Pinelands Presbyterian Church, with an average attendance of 55 members who grew in faith as they took uncomfortable but essential steps toward a Gospel-healthy church, profoundly affected Reeder and sparked a lifelong passion for teaching Christ’s model for revitalizing churches. In fact, he says now, “Those were three of the greatest years of my life.”

When Reeder joined Pinelands in 1980, the church exhibited classic signs of degeneration—prayerlessness, disunity, a culture of fear, a lack of vision. But its membership also displayed key signs of potential life — a desire to change and grow, a willingness to submit to godly leadership, and an eagerness to return to the biblical disciplines of worship, prayer, preaching, evangelism, and discipleship.

Though denominations typically have clearly defined strategies for planting new churches, Reeder suggests that they also earmark resources and leadership for the important work of revitalizing existing churches.

This blend of hope and humility provided a framework for Pinelands to regain its footing, and by God’s grace, eventually to thrive. When Reeder left the church three years later, attendance had surged to 400. Though Reeder stresses that spiritual health is the objective rather than numerical growth, the transformation was startling.

Since 1996, Reeder’s “Embers to a Flame” conferences and its coaching arm, Fanning the Flame, have helped shepherd dozens of churches through the revitalization process each year, including churches overseas and in multiple denominations.

Remember, Repent, Recover

Reeder, the senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1999, initially wrote the book Embers to a Flame as his doctoral dissertation for Reformed Theological Seminary. In it, he distills scriptural teaching for spiritual health by looking at case studies of church revitalization through Titus, Timothy, Paul, and John. These case studies provide 10 biblical strategies for churches to use as they implement the Christ-designed paradigm of church revitalization: “remember, repent, and recover the first things” (Revelation 2:4,5).

This makes way for the heart of church revitalization — returning to your “first love.”

When Rev. John Kenny arrived at First Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan (RCA), in 2006, he experienced all the good and bad that comes with a 150-year-old congregation, including the aftermath of several splits over the years.

“Embers to a Flame had a huge impact on me and my church,” says Kenny. “Our church had been in survival mode, and it provided a roadmap to health.”

He attended an Embers to a Flame conference and was thankful for the biblical strategies and practical benchmarks it provided.

“Embers to a Flame had a huge impact on me and my church,” says Kenny. “Our church had been in survival mode, and it provided a roadmap to health — it impacted our organizational structure and how we define our mission, and how we develop leaders.”

Through the process, he grasped that the root struggle was that his church’s love for the Lord had grown cold: “Revelation 5:2 says, ‘You have lost your first love,’” said Kenny. “That’s the start, the middle, and the end of it. Without love, nothing else matters. It is the substance of a relationship with Christ that ultimately directs the course of ministry, not the form in which it is done.”

He adds that leaders, and pastors in particular, carry much of the weight of the revitalization process. “It’s hard — we have to own up to shortcomings and be willing to make changes. It must begin with a pastor’s own spiritual renewal, and flow down to other church leaders and the rest of the congregation.”

When people think of revitalization, they typically think about programs. But it’s instead a process of each person falling more in love with the Lord, says Kenny. And as that happens, through prayer and time in the Word, a church is revitalized.

Creating a Vision for Church Revitalization

Though denominations typically have clearly defined strategies for planting new churches, Reeder suggests that they also earmark resources and leadership for the important work of revitalizing existing churches.
When asked for a rationale for revitalization, Reeder has a simple suggestion. “Just ride through Europe,” he says, describing a bleak landscape of shuttered churches — some now used as restaurants or hotels or bowling alleys. “We’re only 20 years behind the trends seen there.”

Instead of following in Europe’s footsteps, Reeder suggests that we take seriously the need for revitalization and prepare accordingly. “The answer is not to ‘pedal faster’ in church planting, but also to put leadership and resources toward reviving dying churches.”

Church revitalization should be included in the strategy of growth for the PCA, he says, noting that over the past 20 years, the evangelical church in North America has experienced a net loss of 3,500 closed churches each year. “We train pastors to plant churches; why not also train pastors to revitalize churches? We, with the Lord’s blessing, could close fewer churches, and then church plants would add to the denomination’s growth rather than continuing the futile attempt to replace dying churches. My real hope is that the PCA would become a resource in this area to many other denominations.”

Embers to a Flame’s ultimate goal is to give away its church revitalization materials to other denominations who could apply the principles in their contexts. Embers to a Flame is already doing just that, working with Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations nationally and internationally in locales as diverse as South Africa, Ireland, Japan, and other nations. Reeder’s vision is that the PCA may become a blessing to many nations and denominations in this way.

Case Study: Leading a Church Through Transition

One benefit of Embers to a Flame’s teaching is its transferability — its biblical basis allows it to be applied in many settings and contexts. “It works from Kenya to Kansas,” Reeder says.

When Rev. Rob Looper of McIlwain Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pensacola, Florida, first mentioned the idea of using Embers to a Flame, some in the church felt it was an admission of defeat. Though McIlwain was not a dying church, it was nonetheless a church in transition.

McIlwain Presbyterian had been instrumental in promoting evangelical and Reformed teaching in the 1950s and 1960s through its annual Pensacola Theological Institute (PTI), but by the time PTI folded in 2001, the church was struggling with its sense of vision and purpose.

Going through the Embers to a Flame teaching helped the church identify the things that had made it an influential church and determine how to pursue that for the next generation, said Looper. “We were reminded that we are a particular church planted in a particular place for a particular purpose. And Embers helped us create strategies and task forces to implement our new plan.”

At times, the church’s faith was stretched. When the elders considered using Fanning the Flame, the coaching service that helps implement Embers to a Flame teaching, many asked whether the church could afford the cost. But one elder spoke up and said, “We can’t afford not to. We have to move forward and trust God to provide.” The next day, an estate check arrived in the mail for twice the cost of the coaching.
This story illustrates Embers’ teaching on humility and dependence, says Looper. “Times of uncertainty remind us of our appropriate weakness. Spiritual maturity is realizing we need to be more and more dependent on God, not independent.”

He notes that his church now has a renewed focus and dependence on prayer. “Church revitalization invigorates the church with the life of the gospel so that the church fully functions as a body, so it can do the work it’s called to do. It can only do that if it’s piped into the source — and prayer is the way to do that.”
He describes Embers as a tool to prioritize prayer, noting that his church has changed the way they do session meetings. “We used to have long monthly meetings, but we weren’t focusing enough on shepherding and prayer,” said Looper. “So now we have two meetings each month. One for church business and one for prayer. Our meetings are shorter and more fruitful — it’s made a huge difference in how we relate to each other as elders.”

Looper offers gratitude for the revitalization his church has experienced through Embers to a Flame, and yet he affirms that “there’s no magic Embers dust.” Instead, he said, Embers offers the means of focus and accountability to help churches make systemic change when necessary. It requires the church to stay on its spiritual toes — praying, staying connected, and worshiping.

“The test of whether this is a success will come five or six or seven years down the road,” Looper said. “If you’re looking for immediate change, keep looking. But if you’re looking for gospel revitalization, this is for you.”

To learn more about Embers to a Flame, or to register for the April 27-29 conference in Huntersville, North Carolina, visit www.emberstoaflame.org.