Revitalization, Redevelopment, Restart

Recently a colleague asked if there is a resource that deals with the topics of church redevelopment, church revitalization, and church restart. I’m not aware of any that bring all of these interventions together in one place, so here is my attempt at a (very) quick summary with references for further reading.

1. Church revitalization, church redevelopment, turnaround are all terms used for interventions with congregations on the decline side of the congregational life-cycle. The level of intervention depends upon how far along the decline path the congregation is. As the congregation moves further along the decline path the options for shifting to a growth trajectory become fewer and more dramatic. The lesson: don’t wait to make the changes needed for growth. The avoidance of a little discomfort now only means you’re compounding pain in the future. For more details on these dynamics see:

Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline by Alice Mann

Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Congregation Around by Todd Grant Yonkman

2. Church Restart. At a certain point on the decline-side of the church lifecycle a congregation reaches a “point of no return” where the financial and human resources are depleted to the point that turning the church around is no longer possible. The good news is that resurrection is still possible. Death is inevitable, but depending on local circumstances and how the dying process is managed, a range of rebirth possibilities is available. For more details on different models of church restart see:

Dying to Restart by Weins and Turner

Spiritual Goal–Sermon for 7/28/19

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Granby

Sermon Series: Favorite Scripture

28 July 2019

Text: Rev. 22:16-20 

Spiritual Goal

        What’s our purpose as Christians? As a church? That’s the question behind today’s favorite Scripture. It comes to us from Nancy Dow. When Nancy told me that her favorite Scripture is Revelation 22:16-20, she said, “I think it’s important that we focus on the end.” What I understood her to be saying is that we as Christians should not lose focus our purpose. What is our goal? What are we working toward? It reminds me of the sacred conversation Ann and I had last week in which she explained that when you’re plowing a field, you can’t look back. You need to keep your eyes on the horizon. Revelation 22:16-20 is very much focused on the horizon. This text contains the last words of the last chapter of the last book of the Bible. Last words carry special power. When someone dies, we often give their last words special significance. When I write a sermon I put a lot of focus on the end, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, because that’s what people are most likely to remember. 

In today’s Scripture the most repeated word is “come.”

         The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

         And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

         And let everyone who is thirsty come.

         Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. 

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming


          Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 

The word that rings through this passage is “come.” It’s not a “come if you’d like to” invitation. It’s a “get over here. We want you. We need you” invitation. At the center is the water of life. The image I see is a gathering at a well or maybe at the beach. There’s an old folk song that goes, “I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old day and who shall wear the robe and crown, dear Lord, show me the way. O brothers let’s go down. Let’s go down. Come on down. O brothers let’s go down, down in the river to pray.” When we look to the horizon, what do we see? An invitation. “Come.”

The whole of our purpose is invitation. It’s helping people, help each other connect to God. Martin Luther famously said that Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And there are a lot of hungry people out there. Our own Rebecca Brown has proven that. She came here four years ago as a lay minister for children and youth. When she arrived there were eight people in the youth group. Now there are over forty. How did she do that? Invitation.

Some of you may think that means Rebecca did all the inviting. That’s not the case at all. She engaged step by step in a very methodical process. The first thing she did was tell the group that their job was to grow. This message was met with resistance. There were some in the group who did not want to grow. They didn’t want “outsiders” messing things up. This was their group made up of people they were comfortable with. What if they didn’t like the new people? Rebecca held her ground, and the people who didn’t want to grow left the group. Now she was down to four kids.

Rebecca took those four kids and poured everything she had into them. She went to every event, every game, every concert, every party. Every opportunity she had to embed herself in the lives of the youth of this town, she took. She didn’t sit in the church and wait for youth to come to her, she went to them. She met youth on their terms, in their space. She made herself the guest. Instead of setting herself up as someone with the answers, she made herself a student of youth culture. She invited them to teach her. She showed up for them. Then they started showing up for her.

According to Rebecca, it only took about a year of networking and showing up before word about the youth group at FCC Granby started to spread. In other words, the youth themselves became the inviters. There wasn’t any fancy advertising. There weren’t any splashy events. It was all word of mouth. The reason I mention this is that this is consistent with other stories I’ve heard about church growth. My office manager in Stamford was a member of Grace Church in New Canaan for many years. Today Grace Church has thousands of members in a multi-million dollar campus that was featured in the New York Times because of its award-winning architecture. She told me she remembered the church went it was a group of people meeting in the pastor’s back yard. I asked her what was the secret to their growth. She said, “It was all word of mouth.” In terms of our FCC youth group, the eight that then became four has increased 10-fold to a group of over 40 kids. What if our church membership increased 10-fold? We would have a whole new set of problems. Good problems. Let everyone who hears, say, “Come.” Let everyone who is thirsty come.

The other thing that’s significant about our youth group is that it focuses on the spiritual needs of youth. The numbers only tell part of the story. Rebecca calls it “breaking into the hearts of our kids.” She describes her program as “No fun. No games. No food.” It’s the real stuff: honest, spiritual conversations about things that have direct relevance to their lives as teenagers, conversations, friendships, experiences that they can get nowhere else. If they could have these conversations elsewhere, they probably would. Rebecca sees her task as creating a safe container where young people can let down their pretenses, open their hearts, and be vulnerable. In other words, youth group is about getting real. It’s about authenticity. And, yes, sometimes they have food, fun, and games. Granby youth have spiritual lives and spiritual needs that aren’t being met anywhere else. I wonder if this is also the case for Granby adults?

Every one of us is here because someone else brought us whether it was a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or friend. Maybe it wasn’t to this particular church. Maybe you were one of the increasingly rare types who will just show up at church because it’s something you already value. But how did you come to value it? Because at some point somehow somewhere down the line someone said, “Come.” 

Jesus didn’t wait for us to come to him. Scripture says, “5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited, 

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

The world is hurting. How can we be satisfied huddling together inside these enjoying each other’s company when there are so many longing for a heart connection? The goal of the spiritual life is the joy of extending oneself to welcome the other. How do you expect to grow if you won’t stretch? And stepping out beyond our familiar and comfortable walls into the world to engage people where they are is an endless opportunity to stretch. The Spirit says, “Come.” And if we indeed are the spiritual people we imagine ourselves to be, we say with every fiber of our being, “Come. We want you here. Let’s learn together how to heal this world.” 

Total Praise–Sermon 7-14-19

“You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you.”

Note: As always, this is a working text, not a transcription of the sermon as preached in the context of a worship service.

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Granby

Sermon Series: My Favorite Scripture

14 July 2019

Text: Psalm 121

Total Praise

This summer we’re doing a sermon series called “My Favorite Scripture.” Today’s favorite Scripture comes from Nancy Rodney. She chose Psalm 121. Nancy first learned Psalm 121 as a student at Northfield-Mount Hermon School, where she met Rob, the man who would later become her husband. She learned to read the Psalm as I did when I was a child.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—

from where will my help come? 

2 My help comes from the LORD,

who made heaven and earth.”

The Psalmist is in a valley. Maybe it’s literal. Maybe it’s emotional or financial or political. Certainly it’s spiritual. She is surrounded on all sides, boxed in. Can’t move forward. Can’t move back. How many of you have been in this place? What does it feel like? How did you respond? 

The Psalmist responds by asking a powerful question: “From where will my help come?” This is a deeply spiritual question. It’s a soul searching question. It’s a question that arises from the gut when life lays you flat. It’s a humbling, maybe even humiliating question. I can’t get myself out of this mess. I don’t know about you, but I was taught from a young age that grown up solves his own problems. He doesn’t ask for help. It’s embarrassing. It shows you’re not self-sufficient. It shows you’re human. 

So I tried to fix myself. And you know what? It didn’t work. The more I struggled, the deeper into the valley I sunk. If you’re like me, you may have had a number of peaks and valleys in your life. I won’t tell you about all of mine. We don’t have the time. But I do remember the time my dad came out to the family. I was 21-years-old at the time and home from college for the summer. We were sitting at the table having Sunday afternoon dinner following church, which was our custom. Dad was drunk. He told my brother and me to stop horsing around. He had something to say. Then he said it. “I have AIDS. I’m bisexual. I have been all my life.” It felt like a meteor dropped from the sky and crushed me. My vision went blurry. My had ringing in my ears. I remember us kids getting up from our chairs to hug dad. The rest of the story I’ve had to piece together over many years. But that moment sent me into a valley that I would never have found my way out of without friends, family, mentors, and a lot of therapy. That’s the thing about the valley: you can’t pull yourself out. Someone has to reach down and rescue you.

But the world tells us to be self-sufficient, to put on a brave face, to pull it together, and when the pain and lonliness get too much, the world is more than happy to sell us a limitless variety of ways to numb out. Nancy tells me that when she was older, she gained a new, perhaps deeper, understanding of this text. This deeper understanding came when she made a group pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. During Nancy’s tour one of the pastor-guides explained that in ancient times locals would set up shrines to their gods on the tops of the hills. So that when the Psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” what she is seeing is all of these little shrines to the little gods with their little spheres of influence and their little areas of concern: the fertility god and the rain god and the river god and the sun god and the moon god and the star god and the god of this tribe and the god of that clan and the god of this king and the god of that city, each one shouting: “I will save you. I will make you feel good. I will satisfy you.” Or maybe they’re mocking you: “You’ll never make it. You’re stuck forever. You’re my prisoner now. Try harder! Run faster. Work longer.” When you imagine this text, what idols do you see dancing on the hills?

But then another voice breaks through the cacaphony: “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth.” The valley didn’t break the Psalmist. It broke her open. Have you known someone broken by suffering? They become bitter and small and angry. They lash out at people or become depressed. It’s an incredibly sad thing to witness. On the other hand, perhaps you’ve known someone who’s gone through suffering, who’s walked through the valley, and come out on the other side kinder, gentler, whose spirit has been expanded. They use that suffering to connect with other people, to build up community, to heal others and bless many.

I think for example of Edith Wilhelm, whose ashes we will inter in the Memorial Garden following worship today. Edith and her family were refugees of Nazi Germany. They were immigrants seeking asylum. Edith was just a child. Yet this country welcomed her and her family and aren’t we at First Church of Granby grateful that our forebears welcomed immigrants and refugees because what a blessing Edith and the Wilhelm family was as is to this church. Edith took her childhood experience as a refugee and used it to welcome others. She was one of the founders of the refugee ministry here at this church, which welcomed other families to the U.S. and expressed Jesus’ ministry of compassion in profound, life-changing ways. This country pulled Edith and her family out of a valley. She turned that experience around and made her life about lifting others up.

What is we made that our mission focus at FCC Granby. What if we become the community that extended a hand. Not simply with charity. When my dad came out, I didn’t need charity. I didn’t want charity. I needed support. I needed encouragement. I needed people who would talk less and listen more. Don’t you think there are people in this community going through valley times? What if instead of spending so much time focusing on ourselves and the people in this room, we turned our focus outward, to our neighbors? What if we spend our time getting to know them. What if, instead of expecting them to come to us, we went out to them?

I think this church is going through a valley time. One person who came to worship last week after having been away for a while said to me, “It seems like things at the church are falling apart.” My answer, “Yes, we are!” How we respond will determine whether this time breaks us and turns us into a small, depressed, and resentful social club or whether this time breaks us open. We can use this opportunity to go to our neighbors and say, “We’ve screwed up. We havent’ been there for you. Teach us how to be the church you need.” And see what happens. Like all declining churches, we can’t climb out of this valley ourselves. We need someone to reach in and lift us out. And those someones are the people who are not yet members of this church. From where will our help come? The LORD. Where will we meet our God? In our neighbor.

Stewardship and Restart

Pastor’s Page October 2018

October brings us deeper into fall. It’s a season of turning, falling, and raking leaves. It’s the season of Halloween, pumpkins, costumes, and trick-or-treat. It’s also Season of Stewardship at FCC. As we think about church restart, it’s important for us to consider once again our stewardship practices as individuals and as a church.

Ministry requires resources. There are no two ways about it. As a church we count on gifts of time, gifts of service, and gifts of financial resources to make our organization go. In the context of church restart, those gifts become even more critical.

It takes a lot of time, talent, and treasure for the things we are considering: relocating, rebranding, reaching new people, building relationships, clarifying vision, growing, and developing ministries that truly reflect the needs of Stamford rather than the sorts of things we would prefer to do. Restart is demanding, so not only do we need to continue to grow in our giving, we need to focus the resources we have for the greatest impact for growth. This means letting go of everything that isn’t essential to the heart of our mission.

The saying is that money follows mission. The good news is that restart offers us the opportunity to refocus the bulk of our resources on mission. We are anticipating shifting a large piece of the time, talent, and treasure we have spent on our building to focusing on people: building up people, loving people, reaching people, helping people connect to God. A church is first of all people, and restart creates the opportunity to invest in people in new and significant ways. So I’m hopeful that even as our financial picture continues to evolve, every one of us will deepen our stewardship practice. Now is the time to invest in our future.


Pet Blessing at Bark in the Park

What a fun event this past Sunday! I’m grateful to Sandy Goldstein and Lynn Colatrella from the Stamford Downtown Special Services District for working with us on a last minute community partnership with the Bark in the Park event. We teamed up to offer a pet blessing to the folks gathered for a celebration of our canine family members.

The point of these kinds of events is for us as a congregation to get beyond our walls and make contact with people in the community who are not yet members of our church. As Mr. Rogers sang, “There are many ways to say I love you.” Offer to bless people’s pets is saying “I love you” to our neighbors. It’s fun. It’s easy. And, as you saw, people will line up to make that connection with us if we are willing to put ourselves out there to meet them.

Making these kinds of connections cannot be only the work of the pastor and staff. We had several congregation members who took advantage of this opportunity to offer blessings. Some folks handed out the treat bags we had prepared. But my intention in this was to give you, dear congregation member, the easiest, most convenient opportunity for you personally to reach out and make your own connections. This is how we share our faith. This is how we grow. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have said these things that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Complete joy is complete giving, complete offering of your heart to your neighbor. There’s no other way that I know of to do this than just to throw yourself into the experience, to step into the crowd, to say “Hello,” to smile. “Would your dog like a treat bag?” “What’s your dog’s name?” “Tell me about your pet.” “Does your pet have any needs I can pray for?” Every one of us can do this. Every one of us needs to learn to get comfortable with this sort of personal engagement because this is a big part of the work of church restart. As I’ve said before, our future is in the people who are not yet members of our church.