Most Southern Baptists meet the denominational declines reported in the Annual Church Profile with a grimace and the thought that perhaps they, or surely their churches, and absolutely their pastors and church staff, should be doing a better job of sharing Christ.
But for the 15 church health and revitalization specialists from 10 state conventions and the North American Mission Board who met in Grapevine in April, the annually reported trends of stagnant or dying churches bring more than a yearly twinge of the conscience.
Declining numbers represent shuttered church buildings and lost opportunities for evangelism and discipleship. The state conventions are working strategically to motivate and train pastors, church staff and also laypeople to be Spirit-led catalysts who will help keep a church healthy or reverse its decline.
Kenneth Priest, director of convention strategies for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, knew with LifeWay Research showing 72.8 percent of SBC churches plateaued or declining, and 71.9 percent of SBTC churches falling into that category, the numbers for other state conventions were probably similar. He thought the time was right for state convention leaders with this challenging ministry focus to meet in order to encourage each other and compare notes.
The result: state conventions are facing the challenges of church revitalization with increased staffing, enthusiasm and hearts for pastors and churches.
Priest says the SBTC’s Ezekiel Project debuted in 2007 and was one of the earliest state convention programs to directly address the renewal of plateaued or declining churches. “The project includes five tracks” that vary depending on the stage the church is in, he explained, citing renewal, revitalization, re-engineering and re-starting as the tracks. There is also a resource track for churches that want to partner with the convention to offer assistance to other churches.
“The SBTC also offers a sermon-based approach that helps pastors discover and adjust their leadership style as well as online courses in leadership development, a strategic growth forum that includes an orientation to our revitalization methodology and an annual revitalization retreat.”
The Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Stephen Rice is leader of the 21-member church consulting and revitalization team and notes the KBC has restructured a large segment of the convention staff to that end. They are engaged with several hundred churches and are beginning to see pockets of renewal.
“Recently, a small church of about 40 in attendance held a special event around the Easter holiday after being coached to do so. The congregation felt defeated because of their size, and they weren’t sure if anyone would come. They set a goal of 75, worked hard, prayed asking God for success. God blessed their efforts and 210 people attended. The gospel was presented at the event and several prayed to receive Christ. Their Sunday morning attendance spiked significantly after the event, and they are working toward their next effort.”
Joe Youngblood, church health group director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, says the SCBC devotes one-third of its staff to the work and four years ago moved away from the term “church revitalization” to focus on “church health” and “church strengthening.”
The SCBC’s associate director of church health, Jerry Sosebee, notes, “About one-third of the churches make significant steps in leadership. They clarify their vision, set goals and strategies and develop ministries outside their four walls but in their communities. These range from new church starts to equestrian ministries.
“Another third show significant increases in measurable data—baptisms, attendance, multiplication of small groups, etc. The last third don’t get very far because the pastor simply is not a leader. We are developing a leadership pipeline to help these pastors develop the skills needed to lead a turnaround church.”
Gary Mathes, pastoral ministries specialist with the Missouri Baptist Convention’s church strengthening team, says the focus on “church revitalization” has brought new attention to the reality of plateaued or declining churches. Mathes says the MBC is currently sponsoring conferences and working with churches on assessment and strategic planning. They are using the SBTC’s Ezekiel Project model but hope to have their own materials in place by 2015.
“Churches must find the balance between correcting internal problems and focusing on the needs and opportunities in their communities,” said Keith Manuel, evangelism associate with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
“Don’t become a ‘Field of Dreams’ church, thinking, ‘We’ve built it, now they will come.’ We must go into the fields and offer the hope of Jesus to people with real hurts and needs. Then we need to walk alongside the new believers and help them become committed followers of Christ who look for others who are hurting and offer the same hope they found. For many churches in decline, 5-10 new families could reenergize the congregation to start moving in the right direction again.”
Priest added: “Ultimately revitalization is about leadership. A pastor must take risks to see the turnaround that will breathe new life into what was once dying. And church revitalization takes time. The decline didn’t happen overnight, and it is unrealistic to think growth will.”
For more information on SBTC church revitalization, including an orientation planned for Aug. 14, visit sbtexas.com/leadership.