Breathing new life into dying churches
At the North American Mission Board (NAMB), our mission is to help Southern Baptists push back lostness in North America. Our primary strategy for doing that is called Send North America, and that strategy includes two primary goals. First, we want to help increase the church birth rate by helping Southern Baptists start 15,000 new churches over a 10-year period. Second, we want to help decrease the church death rate.
The reason both of these endeavors are so important is because Southern Baptists have lost significant ground in the church-to-population ratio during the last 100 years. In 1900, there was one Southern Baptist church for every 3,800 people in North America. Today, that number is one for every 6,200. In the south, that ratio is much better (one SBC church for every 2,722 people). But in other regions, we have much work to do: in the west the ratio is 1:15,885; in the northeast it’s 1:36,998 and in Canada it’s 1:117,925.
These widening gaps come from two problems: first, we have not started enough churches — especially in and around cities where 83 percent of North Americans live; second, each year an average of 1,000 SBC churches disappear.
Viewed through the lens of any research you look at, Southern Baptist churches are in the midst of a health crisis and have been for many years.
We analyzed data from the Annual Church Profile (ACP) and found that between 2007 and 2012, only 27 percent of reporting SBC churches experienced growth. Forty-three percent were plateaued and 30 percent declined. But our analysis looked at membership numbers. A study by the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary looked at worship service attendance and found that in 2010 only 6.8 percent of SBC churches were healthy according to that rubric.
These trends should concern everyone. Even if we are successful in starting thousands of new churches over the next few years, if less than 10 percent of established SBC churches are healthy and growing, we cannot hope to keep pace with population growth.
Partnering to help churches at risk
It’s not an easy thing to say, but some of the churches that die each year need to. They have long since outlived their purpose. They have been a hollow, ineffective presence in their communities for years. But many more churches have members with a heart for the gospel who want to reach their communities for Christ. They might have lost touch with their communities’ new demographics or been derailed by poor leadership. If these churches want to be helped, they can be.
NAMB is stepping into this crisis in several ways, and many of our state convention partners are also doing very good work, such as:
In 2011, we began partnering with Johnny Hunt, former president of the SBC and pastor of Woodstock First Baptist Church near Atlanta, to conduct a one-day Church Growth and Revitalization Conference for pastors. Johnny has a heart for encouraging pastors, and his church has helped churches in the Atlanta area regain their spiritual footing and become vibrant gospel proclamation centers again. Our state convention partners make venue arrangements and we take care of the rest. So far we have conducted 15 of these events with several more scheduled during 2014.
Individualized tools and resources
After attending our one-day conference, many pastors and churches start to realize they need outside assistance if they are to put their churches back on a path to growth. That is where our state convention partners step in. They are equipped to work closely with individual churches, and we are making funds available for assistance as they help their churches get on the road to health.
Legacy church planting
Some churches cannot be redirected toward health without some dramatic changes. When a church comes to this point of realization and is willing to ask for help, NAMB can partner with another church, local association or the state Baptist convention to help restart the church. We call this “Legacy Church Planting” because it gives a dying church the opportunity to live on through a new work that starts in their church building.
This is not an easy step for most churches to take. We require that there first be a viability study to determine the likelihood of success a new work would have. A leadership change is also required, and we ask that the church property be turned over to either the partnering church, local association, state convention or NAMB until a new work is up and viable.
Even though the legacy church plant is not an easy road, we are seeing more and more successes with this model. Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City is healthy, growing and has become a vital part of its community after pastor John Mark Clifton arrived to restart a decades-old congregation that dwindled to only a handful of weekly attenders. In New Orleans, a dozen church members in their 70s partnered with church planter James Welch to birth Harbor Community Church from the ashes of their dying church. First Baptist Church in Odessa, Fla., had not seen a baptism in years. They turned to Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., for help and now their baptismal waters are stirring on a regular basis once again.
If we don’t step in to help these dying churches, over the next few decades we will see thousands of properties worth millions of dollars slip through the hands of Southern Baptists. They will become cafes and office space or just abandoned buildings gathering dust. My hope is that more churches and more pastors will turn their focus outward once again and reach out for help in returning their church to health. And I pray that those who need to make the decision to become a legacy church plant will see how they can pass the spiritual baton and see God work powerfully through their churches again.
Kevin Ezell (D. Min., Southern Seminary) is president of the North American Mission Board. More information about NAMB’s church revitalization ministry is available at NAMB.Net/revitalization. This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.