Church Revitalization: Keep the Doors of Your Church Open

fallen church

**Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger**

“The doors of the church are open.”

On any given Sunday, this is how myriad pastors in traditional African American Baptist congregations invite the unconverted to Christian discipleship and the unchurched to membership. Tragically, tens of thousands of churches across denominational and racial lines are closing their doors, never to open them again.

According to some estimates, anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 local congregations die each year. Leadership Journal maintains that 340,000 churches in America have plateaued, are declining or are on the verge of death. When Jesus said that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church, he was not talking about local congregations, per se. Since New Testament times, churches have been plagued with serious existential threats, and many have come and gone. Great cathedrals in Europe are now museums, and even grand church buildings in America have been converted into clubs. It may seem improbable that such is the case in Mississippi; if the South is the Bible Belt, then surely our state is the belt buckle. But even in church-saturated Mississippi, the writing is on the wall.

Churches don’t just die. They get sick and remain so for a considerable length of time. In “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” Thom Rainer identifies 10 contributing symptoms. These include rapid pastoral turnover, the lack of evangelistic enthusiasm, nostalgia for a bygone era and a refusal to be community-minded. Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson point out even more reasons for church decline in their book “Comeback Churches.” What all of these churches have in common is that at some point they ceased to be missionary, Christ-centered, and biblically relevant to their ministry context. In such churches, pastors are becoming pallbearers, and the members are becoming mourners. This should not be.

But changing such places of worship is difficult. If it wasn’t, so many of them wouldn’t be dying. But there is hope. With God, revitalization is possible. Harry Reeder, author of “From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church,” succinctly defines church revitalization as “a commitment by the church leadership to biblically lead the church back to spiritual health and vitality.” This differs from revival, which alone is the Lord’s work. We can pray for and preach about revival, but God alone sends it according to God’s sovereign timing. But revitalization is the intentional stewardship and responsibility of Spirit-filled leaders in dying churches who take the risks to please and glorify God anew. There must be positive change and the acceptance of God’s preferred future. Denial or resistance will only lead to certain demise. But pastoral and lay leaders can bring about transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Reeder is again helpful in showing us a biblical model for this work. Using the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:5) as a model, he points out that any church today wanting to come alive again must remember, repent, and recover the things you did at first. Remembering our past trains us to glorify God for the great things he once did through a dying church; this inspires leaders and members to trust God to do such wonderful things again. This is especially vital for established churches with older members. It reminds them of better days and hopefully encourages them to imagine how they may do similar good works now.

Though there is much in your church’s past worth celebrating, there are yet many things to lament about. A church wouldn’t be dying if everything in the past was glorious. Repentance acknowledges that the primary reason most churches are declining is because of institutionalized sin. Too many leaders want to create more programs or add a new service to avoid dealing with the serpent in the sanctuary. But this will only lead to more stagnation or unhealthy numerical growth. The intention of revitalization is to get better, not just bigger. Thus Reeder says churches must move from covered-up sin to confessed sin. I believe this is the hardest but greatest element in making dying churches healthy again. At some point God’s people must resolve to fix what’s broken by telling the truth and making things right. I read about one church who addressed its horrible reputation by committing to holiness. A tangible example of this was their publishing a letter of apology in the local paper that detailed their faults and invited the community to forgive them for not being a loving, welcoming faith community. Something like this is painful but can stimulate a renewed sense of God’s grace and reconciliation. Jesus Christ — who is full of grace and truth — honors our humility. God’s grace is sufficient for our weaknesses.

Lastly, the church that remembers and repents is ready to recover the things that matter most about being the church. Recovering first things means again to make Christ preeminent in our worship and ministry, pray fervently, live out the Gospel before each other and in the community, and so on. Said differently, it means that we move from being a social club to being a church. When we remember that we exist for the glory of God alone, we can submit our wills to the lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church, his body. The church is healthier when it seeks God’s best and not our preferences.

If you know that your church is dying, I invite you to do something about it. Pray for direction. Tell the truth. Seek God’s wisdom. Assemble a revitalization team. And then get to work, knowing that the journey to wholeness is long but rewarding. Our communities need vibrant, healthy churches. May your doors remain opened to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit as you determine to live out the Gospel as

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Dr. Jerry Young: Envisioning the Future Exceptionally

Courtesy National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. website

Courtesy National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. website

September 7-11 marked the 135th Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. (NBCUSA), the nation’s largest African American Christian denomination. It was expected that 50,000 National Baptists gathered last week in Memphis, TN, for Kingdom business and Christian fellowship, while also enjoying the recreation offered by the Bluff City.

Dr. Jerry Young, Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church (Watkins Drive) and the NBCUSA’s 18th President, led the stalwart Convention in envisioning its future exceptionally through an array of seminars, meetings, and initiatives that seek to reform the organization for 21st century ministry. Last September Dr. Young became the first native Mississippian still residing in the Magnolia State to serve at the helm of the NBCUSA. Having served fifteen years as Vice-President-at-Large with previous Presidents Julius Scruggs and William J. Shaw, Dr. Young was favored to see the grand old movement from an informed vantage. He ascertained its organizational strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and has therefore purposed, with God’s help, to guide the NBCUSA on a course toward renewal. His election symbolized a sacred embrace of both the storied past and hopeful future of 7.5 million Christians of African descent trusting that God’s power is still working through them.

But difficult days are ahead.

At the risk of the mislabeling Dr. Young, I imagine him to be a progressive conservative, a principled pragmatist, and a Spirit-led reformer. He is a progressive conservative in that he is future-oriented while deeply rooted in biblical Christianity and moral absolutism. He is a principled pragmatist in that he knows that courageous decisions must be made but that such righteous acts must be calculated in order to be successful. And he is a Spirit-led reformer in that he is led by the Holy Spirit through prayer and God-given visions so that he can lead biblically faithful reforms of the NBCUSA and Black Baptist identity altogether. I believe these elements shape the lens through which he envisions the future exceptionally. Dr. Young is aware of the persistent secular threats to moral truth and Christian values, the lingering realities of racialized injustice, and the steady decline of church health and holiness. These and other factors aggressively confront the NBCUSA and simply having three large (and expensive) meetings every year will not faithfully and fruitfully address these challenges in meaningful and lasting ways. A new way of being the National Baptist Convention USA must emerge, if the Convention is to survive another fifty—or five!—years.

Dr. Young’s annual sermonic address, given the Thursday morning of the session, inspired the delegates to envision with him in spite of these difficult days. He was clear that dying churches, doctrinal drift, community disintegration, and rapidly shifting moral sensibilities require a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit and a revived commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ in order for the NBCUSA to be a continued force for the Gospel. This is true. Leaders must cast a compelling vision that distinguishes itself from where the people are at a given moment; they must be convinced that what is presented is better than what is present. Dr. Young urged the Convention to accept that the times have changed and simply meeting, greeting, and eating was insufficient for our times and seasons. His push has been for the Convention to function more denominationally, meaning that it is do sustained work through ongoing missions and financial solvency such that the NBCUSA could retain and create new institutions able to help local churches and provide hope to desperate communities. Think, if you will, of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). United in doctrine and mission, the SBC has hospitals, colleges, seminaries, and research agencies that are healing, educating, and edifying millions of their members and persons not affiliated with them. Every time a National Baptist or Pentecostal walks into LifeWay to purchase a Bible, a book, or a CD, we are supporting a SBC entity with our dollars. Sadly, the NBCUSA model hasn’t afforded us anything comparable to what the SBC has institutionally.

Under Dr. Young’s visionary leadership, we will strive for a national credit union and the development of businesses and educational agencies that can bless our people spiritually, culturally, and economically. His passion for a social justice and economic development and empowerment is nevertheless rooted in what he calls Christ-centered evangelism and comprehensive Christian education. We must reach the lost and hurting with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and teach them biblically and train them intellectually to be culturally competent disciples of Christ who will in turn be good and do good in their neighborhoods and in other nations. Christ exalting, Holy Ghost filled, baptized believers can make world-changing differences and together as a Convention the magnitude of those differences will be felt thousands of miles away. It will take time, resources, and prayerful engagement. But all things are possible with God.

I look forward to the continued progress of Dr. Young’s visionary presidency and remain thankful to witness as an unashamedly black, Baptist, but most importantly biblical, brother in Christ from and within Mississippi attempts to make the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. viable for this present age. Godspeed to Dr. Young. I too am envisioning the future exceptionally in Christ Jesus.

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