Harold stood up, paused for a moment, and began to speak softly, "We don't want our church to die. We'll do what it takes." That was when I first knew the church could make it. The well-respected deacon and pillar of the church spoke from his heart. He really meant it — and he spoke for the church. They were ready to make the big changes needed to rescue their church from decline and eventual death.
Like many Southern Baptist churches, this church had its heyday in the 50s and 60s. Decline had been slow but steady. A church that once served hundreds (and had the building to prove it) now averaged thirty-five on a Sunday morning. Now they wanted to reach young families, a difficult task since their median age was in the 60s.
Over time, most churches plateau and most eventually decline. Typically they start strong or experience periods of growth, but then they stagnate. Patterns and traditions that once seemed special eventually lose their meaning. Churches that were once outwardly-focused eventually become worried about the wrong things. They become more concerned about a well-used policy manual than a well-used baptistry.
In the 1980s, Ross Perot spoke about the national budget deficit as "the crazy aunt living in the basement that nobody wanted to talk about." We have our own "crazy aunt" — tens of thousands of dead or dying churches. Like that "crazy aunt," we love her. We want to treat her with dignity. But, ultimately, we think she is hopeless and best ignored.
Most of us know the statistics but few of us care enough to engage these churches. Churches need to change to reach their communities, and denominations need to help them do that. As Southern Baptists, we must engage dying churches not out of guilt, but because of their potential — to be used of God again in a powerful way.
Not every church will need the radical transformation that Harold's church required. In the following months, Harold's church changed its worship style (from traditional to blended/contemporary), its constitution (the former constitution required a church-wide vote for any expenditure over $100), and its outreach strategy (from none to an active one).
The degree of change that is needed is determined in large manner by the condition of the church. Chart A describes the actions needed based on the condition of the church.1
Revitalizing a stagnant church is not easy. If it were easy, 80 percent of North American churches would not be stagnant or declining. If it were effortless, 3,500-4,000 U.S. churches would not close each year.2 If every church did it, there would not be 8,000 SBC churches in the U.S. that baptized no one last year.3
Dead and dying churches should concern us all. Millions of Southern Baptists attend churches that demonstrate little concern for the lost around them. Billions of dollars of church property sit idle and unused. This fact makes church revitalization also a stewardship issue. God has provided many stagnant churches with people, resources, and buildings. God has also given them a calling. They must be more than museums of past glory days.
Chart B helps us see the problem in our Southern Baptist context. Each year fewer churches baptize large numbers and more churches baptize no one. These trends are alarming, yet few churches are addressing their own decline.
Many pastors are reading this right now and saying, "That's us." What can we do? Making a transition requires making change. No one would argue that doing the same thing the same way will never produce different results. Yet, many are unable or afraid to face change. They need a plan. Here are three steps that will help you make a transition.
1. Determine your current condition. Planning for the future requires you to know the present. A graph of attendance over ten, twenty, even fifty years can help churches see long-term trends and recognize the future the church may be facing.
2. Discuss, discuss, discuss. The entire church, not just the leadership, needs to understand and discuss the situation. Most churches that want to change fail to navigate the change because not everyone agrees on the need. The entire church needs to understand the situation and embrace the need for the change if it is to be effective. Sometimes an outsider, a denominational leader, or consultant is needed to help the church see its real situation.
3. Decide on a course of action. Choosing a plan sounds simple. It's not. The plan might require a change of style, location, leadership, or strategy. But if the church does not corporately agree on the need for change it will continue its downward slide.
Two years after Harold spoke for the church, it averaged over 150 per week and the median age was now in the 30s. Many new members (and even some old members) had committed their lives to Christ and had been baptized.
Harold had spoken a hard truth and worked hard to transition. I remember his words to me when I asked something like "How do you think it worked?" He said, "Preacher, a lot has changed. Not all of it to the way I expected. But the church is full today. The church is the church I always wanted. The work and changes were worth it."
May thousands of SBC deacons, members, and pastors say the same — it was worth it.
1 Ed Stetzer, "Turning Stats on Their Head," On-Mission Magazine, November 2003.
2 Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), p. 10.
3 Richie Stanley, North American Mission Board study based on the Annual Church Profile.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., author of Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, directs the Nehemiah Project of the North American Mission Board.
To learn more about church revitalization and organizations helping churches to transition, go to www.comebackchurches.com and visit the "required reading" section. If your church has experienced a revitalization, please fill out the survey there.