By Mike Hess
A discouraging list came across my desk recently. It was a 2019 list of churches that have closed their doors, never to open them again. Some of these churches were familiar to me. They played a significant role in our association’s early development and growth. They were once bastions of solid doctrine and disciple-making. It was heart-wrenching to see their names on this list.
But this also forced me to ask several hard questions: Why are most churches declining or plateauing? Why have so many churches in our own association seen better days? Why are so many churches that were once vibrant and healthy now closing their doors? Does it really have to be this way? How can we as a fellowship of churches help prevent this from happening?
Churches in serious decline also need to wrestle with some questions. For example, What kind of church do we want to leave for our children and grandchildren? Healthy churches are forward-thinking churches. Their strategic decisions are not based on just the past or on only immediate needs, but on laying the groundwork for thriving ministry in the future.
Here’s the good news: God has blessed the GARBC in such a way that we are well-positioned to help churches that need revitalization. But we can’t do this without pastors and churches first recognizing the need for help. In my experience, the main barrier standing in the way of churches getting help with revitalization is not a lack of resources. Rather, it’s a willingness to ask for help. Three common fears will eventually lead a church down the road to closure instead of revitalization.
- Fear of Change—For a church to experience a change of direction, it first needs a change of culture. Over the years and decades many churchgoers become comfortable with their church’s culture. It gives them a sense of control and predictability. Much of that culture is good and healthy. But in other ways it has acted as a barrier to needed change that points to the future instead of clinging to the past. Revitalization happens when churches make the uncomfortable yet necessary choices. Revitalization has nothing to do with doctrinal change. Rather, the focus and challenge is to reconsider some methodological paradigms. The common denominator that I have seen among revitalized churches has been the willingness to maintain doctrinal integrity (orthodoxy) while becoming more flexible with methodology (orthopraxy).
- Fear of Perception—Perhaps the dirtiest word in ecclesiastical language is failure. Being successful in the eyes of ministry peers has become an idol in many a pastor’s heart. A number of men long to be admired for a growing and influential ministry. Admitting that your church is on the decline and in serious need of new life is a humbling reality to come to grips with. Yet if a church is to be revitalized, it must confront this reality. Healthy churches have a keen awareness of the stewardship God has entrusted to them. Faithfulness to that stewardship entails an unwavering desire to glorify and please God as a church. It also recognizes Christ’s ultimate and absolute ownership of the church. How God sees your church is far more important than the perceptions of others. The real failure is to not ask for help.
- Fear of the Future—When evaluating your church’s health, ask this question: If we continue this trajectory for the next 10 to 20 years, what will this church eventually look like? How optimistic are you about your church’s future? How often do you pray and plan for the future of your church? Faithful disciple-making involves laying a solid foundation for those who will follow in your steps (2 Tim. 2:2). Revitalization means that while you appreciate the past, you don’t live in it. This involves taking concrete steps to ensure the health of your church in years to come. Churches must spend more time planning and preparing for the future than they do dwelling on the so-called glory days. If God has graciously blessed your church in the past, give Him sincere praise. Yet at the same time, vigorously plan for church health in the future.
Jesus told a church, which by all accounts had much going for it, to “repent” (Rev. 2:5). The church in Ephesus had solid doctrine. The believers there stood against heresy. I could make a case that the church in Ephesus was one of the apostle Paul’s favorite churches. Yet Jesus told them in so many words, “You don’t love Me like you used to.” Even a church with great doctrine that hates heresy (like the Ephesian church) can find itself dead in the water. Revitalization is about a local church getting the wind back in its sails so it can be a vessel for effective disciple-making ministry.
Over the past year God has graciously used the Regular Baptist Builders Club to help several churches by providing substantial financial help and Biblical consultation, pointing churches back to vitality and health. Under the leadership of Clare Jewell and the Regular Baptist Builders Club board of directors, literally tens of thousands of dollars have been given to churches that need revitalization. Please don’t allow the three fears mentioned in this article to stand in the way of your church reaching out for help. It would be a privilege for the GARBC to come alongside your local church, stewarding God’s resources to point your church to revitalization.
Mike Hess is national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.