Evangelicalism’s major turn: the need for ‘generation replant’
One stunning building in Manchester, England, is now a climbing center. In Bristol, one is now a circus school, with trapezes hanging from the rafters. Others are now grocery stores, car dealerships, libraries and pubs. All over England, many are now Islamic mosques.
What do these venerable buildings have in common? Until recently, all formerly housed Church of England congregations. The secularization of Britain is not a new development, with church attendance falling for decades. But a new tipping point has been reached: the Church of England now has an official “Closed Churches Team” that makes decisions about what to do with abandoned church buildings.
Between 1969 and 2011, the Church of England knocked down 500 churches and “deconsecrated” another 1,000. That pace is set to increase dramatically, and England is not alone. The Montreal Gazette recently reported that 340 church buildings are now seeking “new vocations,” with that Canadian city now representing one of the most secularized metropolitan areas in North America. Neighbors did not even notice that one Methodist building no longer housed a congregation. They found out when the large stone building collapsed and no one seemed to care.
The same will soon happen in the United States of America. In downtown Louisville, Ky., former church buildings now house doctors’ offices and other businesses — but the problem is no longer limited to the inner cities. Churches are closing in the suburbs as well.
According to a report from the Assemblies of God, 4,000 congregations close their doors in the United States every year, while only about 1,000 evangelical churches are planted. We are falling further behind.
Add to this the fact that between 80 and 90 percent of all evangelical churches in the United States are not growing, and a significant percentage are in outright decline. We face a major turning point in the history of evangelical Christianity in America, and the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches are at the center of a great and unavoidable question: “Do we have the courage and conviction necessary to replant churches?”
For the past 30 years, evangelicals have been learning anew the importance of church planting. Excitement and passion for church planting come right from the New Testament, which is a manifesto for planting rightly ordered churches. A generation of young evangelical pastors have been righteously infected with the vision for church planting. Their heroes are church planters, their inspiration is church planting and their missiology is directed toward the birth of new churches. That must continue. Church planting must remain at the forefront of our mission efforts. The only documentable evangelistic and congregational growth experienced by evangelicals within America’s major urban areas directly traces back to newly planted churches — and replanted churches.
The idea of church replanting may be new, but this pattern is also as old as the New Testament.
In Revelation 2:1-7, Christ warns the Ephesian church that they have “left [their] first love” and grown spiritually cold and ineffective in ministry. Jesus told the church to “repent and do the deeds [they] did at first.” In other words, that congregation needed a reformation. At some point, declining churches actually need to be replanted.
In one sense, this is just a matter of stewardship. All around us are churches falling into patterns of decline and decay. Most of these churches started with a gospel vision and a “first love” for Christ that propelled them into existence. For some time, most of these churches experienced years of effective ministry, reaching their communities and reaching out to the world. Somehow, at some time, for some reason or combination of reasons, they lost that first love and the ministry was endangered.
Practical realities also play a role in understanding this stewardship. All over New York City, for example, young evangelical church plants are looking for places to meet. A hostile city government threatens to evict all churches from meeting in public school auditoriums and many will be homeless. At the same time, vacant or near-vacant church buildings dot the horizon.
There is also the fact that millions of Christians remain in these declining and decaying congregations. These Christians represent a wealth of experience and an army of workers. In many cases, what they most lack is visionary, courageous and convictional pastors and leaders.
Then there is this obvious fact: if existing congregations do not thrive, there will be no one to plant, sustain, support and lead church planting. We cannot have one without the other.
Consider also that many of the most exciting church ministry stories of this generation have come from replanted churches. We can look around the country and quickly find church buildings, once empty, now filled with young families and students, senior adults and business executives.
We need to tell the stories of these churches, even as we continue to tell the stories of newly planted churches. Both contexts of ministry require courage. Both require vision and conviction. Neither is the answer in itself, and both should be celebrated together.
But one of our central tasks in the present generation is to be bold in our vision of replanting churches — helping existing churches to find new vision, new strategic focus, new passion for the gospel, new hunger for the preaching of the Word, new love for their communities and new excitement about seeing people come to faith in Jesus.
Replanting churches requires both courage and leadership skills. A passion for replanting a church must be matched by skills in ministry and a heart for helping a church to regain a vision. Church replanting and church planting are both frontlines of ministry and mission. And I am excited to see what God will do in this age with a generation of young pastors ready to plant and replant gospel churches with unbridled passion.
Of course, this will also require that churches in decline recognize the need for radical change and reorientation in ministry. No young pastor worthy of his call will be excited to assume the pastorate of a church that simply wants to stem the losses or slow the decline by doing slightly better than the congregation at present. Sadly, many of these churches will die by congregational suicide. Unwilling to be replanted, they simply want a slower decline. This is disobedience to Christ.
Given the scale of our need, this rising generation needs to be known as “Generation Replant.” If it is not, it might not be long before the Southern Baptist Convention needs a “Closed Churches Team.” May that day never come. Instead, may all of our churches, new and old and in between, follow the promise of 1 Corinthians 3:6 — Paul “planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.