By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Revitalizing plateaued and declining churches in America takes hard work and requires a willingness to change, agreed speakers at a church revitalization conference held Sept. 1 at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church.
“Churches don’t like change,” observed Tom Cheyney, executive director of missions for the Greater Orlando (Fla.) Baptist Association and founder of the RENOVATE National Church Revitalization Conference.
Churches get locked into things that keep them in a rut and keep them from reaching their communities and people who need to know Christ, he said.
As a result there are church behaviors that must be changed in order to reach those communities, Cheyney continued.
“As church revitalizers, we are called to bring change to the church,” he stressed, adding that only 32 percent of churches that are revitalized are done by the present pastor.
Cheyney was one of several speakers who challenged the more than 200 attendees at the conference in Knoxville sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention to be catalysts to bring about change. The conference focused on the theme, “Rekindle: Fanning the Flames of Christian Leadership.”
Cheyney said some church members are “stuck in the past because it is safer and that’s what they’re used to.” Those members will collide with “new energetic members” who want to see change, he continued. “You must be the agent for revitalization.”
The Florida Baptist leader challenged pastors and lay leaders to “bring about change by bringing people along with you.”
Pastors must be willing to lead the way, he observed. “If you want a church to become healthy, it is your job to bring about change in that local church.”
John Mark Clifton, senior director of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s replant team, reminded conference participants that the “death of a church is not natural. Churches do not have a life cycle. They have a Savior.”
Yet, Clifton said, if current trends continue about 4,500 Southern Baptist churches will close in the next five years (900 churches a year) “unless something is done.”
Clifton noted that “churches that die” tend to rely too much on programs or personalities. Dying churches often resent the community for not responding as they once responded and they value their preferences over the needs of the community, he added.
Clifton observed that if “a community church becomes a commuter church, it has failed.”
Yet, if a church is willing to change with the community, it can still be effective and reach people for Christ, Clifton said.
Clifton noted that a dying church can change its image in the community by “loving the people with total abandon and serving the community. If a community sees the church caring for them, the community will respond,” he said.
Clifton cited four pathways to revitalize a church: Give the building to a partner (another church, local association, or state convention), share the building with a church plant, merge with a new plant, or replant from within.
“In North America, we are seeing God use all four pathways,” Clifton said.
The conference also included several “breakout” sessions addressing a variety of topics.
TBC staff member Steve Holt reminded ministers that the revitalization of a church ultimately “falls on leadership. Are you making decisions based on divine direction or simple desperation?” he asked.
He challenged pastors and lay leaders to appreciate the church’s past/history while appraising current realities and casting a vision for the future that is clear, compelling, and concise.
“There is no one approach to church revitalization,” he stressed.
In another breakout session, former TBC staff member Don Pierson emphasized the importance of prayer and provided pointers on how to lead a solemn assembly in a local church.
He shared how the church where he now serves as pastor (Stewarts Chapel Baptist Church, Flintville) was revitalized after it developed “a prayer culture” (see separate story).
“A prayer culture that is faith-filled and faithful often needs to be established prior to a solemn assembling,” Pierson said.
Pierson also stressed that people must be prepared “months and sometimes even years” prior to a solemn assembly. “Theologies must be shaped and a spirit of repentance created,” he observed.
In addition, teachings on “prayer, sin, repentance, solemn assemblies, fasting, contriteness, and biblical revival often have to be taught and retaught to the point that people understand them,” Pierson said.
Holt, who led the team that planned the conference, was pleased with the outcome.
“I believe God is in the ‘resurrection business’ and He is on the move across Tennessee, bringing hope and renewal to any church that is willing to step out in faith and take the revitalization journey with Him,” Holt said.
“The TBC revitalization team is ready to assist churches who are willing to take that step,” he added. For more information on church revitalization, contact Holt at email@example.com.