Daniel Edmonds said he hopes that the good things happening at Chisholm Baptist Church, Montgomery, can “paint a picture of what other churches can do in the future.”
Churches that are facing decline “can still be churches that have an impact toward the future,” said Edmonds, Chisholm’s pastor and director of the office of Sunday School and discipleship for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM). “They can still take care of those people God has given them and also reach the neighborhood around them. We as state leaders want to ask — can we intercept a church that’s in decline before the doors are closed and allow God to do a new work in that church?”
How do you know your church is in decline? A few things to consider are your numbers — have you plateaued, or are you losing membership? Have you closed off a wing or a building at your church because it’s not in use anymore? Is your membership struggling to hold the budget up?
Neal Hughes, associational missionary/director of missions for Montgomery Baptist Association (MBA), says that a church in decline doesn’t have to end as a tragedy — it can turn into something that’s celebration worthy, with the right partnerships.
“When churches think of ‘closing,’ they go through so much guilt,” he said. “We need to rethink our theology of life cycles of churches. As one season fades, with the right stewardship, it can be the start of something new. Instead of an ‘oh’ story, it can be a ‘wow’ story.”
You don’t have to wait until your church is nearing a critical point before you reach out to see what your resources are, Hughes said. He and others offered some steps church leaders can take if they see their congregation beginning a decline.
1. Touch base with your association and the SBOM.
Edmonds said that when he and the members of Chisholm Baptist realized they needed partners to help them move into the future, MBA was the most logical place to start.
Variety of possibilities
The church — a once-thriving congregation now shrinking in size — had never heard of Dewayne Rembert and the work he was doing in their area through his Flatline Movement. Hughes was able to make that connection for them and get the ball rolling.
“Neal was able to say, ‘Here’s a variety of possibilities,’” Edmonds said. “Then God opened some doors of opportunity for us to work together toward replanting a new church with Dewayne at Chisholm Baptist.”
It’s hard to know how you might partner with someone else when you don’t know who’s there, Edmonds said. Your association can help with that broad perspective, and so can Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the SBOM.
“Sometimes there is a fear of self-evaluation or of bringing someone in to help you evaluate, but that’s what Nehemiah did in his approach — he prayed and surveyed the situation,” Barnhart said. “Just because we need to adjust our trajectory doesn’t mean we’ve failed — we’ve just moved to another era of opportunities.”
Many churches in transition desperately want revival but are asking the wrong questions for the resources they have, he said. “For instance, so many are asking, ‘How do we reach millennials?’ when what they should be asking is, ‘How do we reach our community for Christ with the resources available to us?’”
Edmonds agreed. “So often churches think their future is dictated by the resources they have within their four walls. They forget that they are part of the body of Christ and there are many more resources available to them.”
Barnhart and your local Baptist association can come in and help you know what those resources are.
And if you can, contact them before you’re nearing the point where you have to make a decision based on cost — that will give you more options and a longer runway for a transition, Edmonds said. “Too many of our churches wait until they have to make a quick decision. If you’re already there or close to that point, you need to reach out quickly.”
2. See what your best option is.
For some churches, they may be nearing the point where they are ready to hand over the keys to a new work. But for others, they may just need a high-capacity leader to come in as a transitional pastor and give the church some momentum, Hughes said.
“Bringing in some legacy pastors could help give them some good, new direction, and all of a sudden the story changes,” he said.
For other churches who are in the middle like Chisholm — in need of a new season for the church but also carrying on as an existing, faithful congregation — they can be a part of something that’s a blend of both church planting and church revitalization.
That can be a big blessing for new congregations who don’t have the means to buy or rent a building and could get their start under the roof of your church, sharing space with your congregation, Barnhart said.
“Typically when we think of church planting, we’re thinking of a large launch-type thing with a self-sustaining church. But with our new work — especially in ethnic communities — we’re finding you’re not going to get them self-sustaining within the first couple of years,” Barnhart.
That’s why it’s a huge win for existing churches to take new congregations under their wings, like Highland Gardens Baptist Church, Montgomery, is doing with a new congregation growing up among the Mixtec people in the area, in partnership with MBA and First Baptist Church, Montgomery.
“Churches have the opportunity to teach the community to steward the property and their resources as they become new churches under their roof,” Barnhart said.
But if your church does feel it’s getting close to closing its doors, Hughes said he can’t stress enough the importance of letting your associational and state leaders help you broker the process of turning over the building.
“We’ve got a lot of churches that are in a Chisholm moment right now, and just remember that you don’t stand in isolation,” he said. “You have brothers and sisters in Christ who can help you make that transition to someone who will continue the vision of your church in your neighborhood.”
He said he’s seen churches sometimes turn the keys over to other ministries or businesses thinking that what they were doing was their best option, and then when the keys were turned over the next time, the buildings ended up being used for something far from the original purpose.
“I know a church whose building, in the third generation, was turned into a pornography store,” Hughes said. “We want to prevent church members from having to go through that kind of pain and also keep the resources of those buildings in the family of God if at all possible.”
3. Move to action — in the right timing.
Timing is everything when it comes to church revitalization. As Edmonds said, it’s important that you call as soon as possible, just so you can properly prepare for your church’s future.
Getting on the same page
Barnhart agreed. “Don’t wait until you’re at the point where you can’t take care of your building anymore,” he said. “Don’t let your facilities go to the point that they would need to be torn down. Fix the things that need to be fixed. Keep things at a point where your church buildings are retrievable and usable.”
But at the same time, give your congregation time as you move through the process.
Edmonds said for Chisholm, it was important to move forward in consensus and unity. It wasn’t just a majority vote — it was taking the time for everyone to pray and get on the same page about what God was doing.
“Pray until God brings you together,” he said. “Get together and consider your buildings that aren’t being used and what you can do to make sure they’re being used after you’re gone. Consider how you might fill them with people again for the glory of God.”