By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JACKSON — Leaders who recognize the need and are willing to be involved are critical to church revitalization, speakers agreed at a church revitalization conference held at Union University here last week.
The conference, which was sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention and Union, addressed the issue of “Fanning the Flame of Christian Leadership.”
Tennessee native Jim Henry, former pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church, Nashville, and First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., spoke twice during the opening session on March 14.
A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Henry has a unique perspective on church revitalization.
When he went to FBC, Orlando, in the late 1970s the church was located downtown. As the church grew it needed more property but none was available in the area at the time so the church purchased 150 acres and relocated.
He noted there were some members who did not want to relocate so a good number of them remained at the downtown facility and renamed it Downtown Baptist Church.
Through the years membership dwindled and the church began to deteriorate, Henry observed.
Two years ago Downtown Church contacted Henry, who had long since retired from First Baptist and was serving in interim pastorates, and asked if he would become their pastor. Henry declined. About six months later he received another call with the same request, asking him to help “restart” the church.
After considerable prayer Henry accepted the challenge and returned to the location where he had incredible success decades ago. When he got there the church was down to about 60 in worship. Henry recruited a team comprised of primarily former staff members and volunteers to join him as part-time staff members of Downtown Church.
After a year or so the church has climbed to 300 in worship and saw 10-12 baptisms last year with about 150 additions to the church membership.
Noting that when he returned nearly everyone in the congregation was over 70, now younger people are coming in and there are babies in the church.
Henry related that he is currently in the process of praying for a younger man to come along and walk with him in the revitalization effort. “Gradually, I will back off and let him take it,” he said.
Henry is convinced that it was God’s providence that Baptists still own property in the downtown area as it is now booming. He noted in the next two years several large condominium complexes will be built within walking distance of the church.
The potential will be there for a tremendous ministry at Downtown Baptist in the future, Henry said.
As he has led in the revitalization of Downtown Baptist, Henry noted there are five basic things required to do it effectively: teach your people to witness, disciple your members, build a sense of community, minister to the community where you are located, and worship. “In the Bible, worship is critical. It is critical today,” he said.
In his second message, Henry emphasized leadership. He noted he has had nine interim pastorates since retiring from FBC in 2006. In talking with search teams, regardless of the size of the congregation, they all say they want “someone to love us, someone to preach the Word, and someone to lead.”
Churches are looking for leadership, Henry said. “A leader doesn’t give them what they want, but what they need. If you’re revitalizing a church, you have to get the congregation to where they need to be,” he stressed.
Henry related the story of Caleb and Joshua in the Old Testament, describing them as “mountain climbing” people. “You have to have a mountain climbing heart in revitalizing churches,” he observed. “You have to struggle to get to the top of the mountain, but it’s great when you get there.”
Mountain climbing leaders need to stand on convictions and biblical standards, Henry said, challenging pastors to preach on important issues of the day. “We are living in a time that if we don’t address issues and deal with them biblically, we aren’t doing our people a favor.”
Mountain climbing leaders also need to lead on God’s promises and by example. “There are times when you have to lead by example. People are going to watch you when things are tough and how you handle it makes a difference.”
Finally, he said, a mountain climbing leader must follow the example of Caleb and not quit. Caleb waited 45 years to take his mountain, Henry observed. “We have to dream and help our people see the dream. Stay with it and help our people stay with it,” he encouraged those in attendance.
“If God gives you a vision and direction, don’t quit on Him.”
“For the sake of souls”
TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis studied the state’s churches shortly after taking the position in 2010. He concluded that between 450-550 Tennessee Baptist churches would eventually close their doors if they continued on the track they were going.
“In Tennessee, if things don’t radically change our state and others in the Deep South will start looking more like New England with antique stores, restaurants, and bars housed in former churches or empty church buildings with grass growing through the roof.”
That realization is why church revitalization is one of the Five Objectives the TBC has adopted as long-range goals of the convention. The goal for church revitalization is to have at least 500 Tennessee Baptist churches revitalized by 2024.
Davis said the first step in revitalization is for churches “to be willing to make an honest evaluation of where they are.”
Then, citing the example of Paul partnering with Silas in the New Testament, Davis encouraged churches to seek help. “Church revitalization will happen most effectively when there are partners involved in it,” he observed.
Potential partners include the TBC, the local Baptist association, and other churches, he suggested. “A lot of these churches just want to know that they are not alone,” Davis added.
“We don’t want to see another church in the Tennessee Baptist Convention close,” Davis observed. “For the sake of souls, we want to see churches revitalized so they will impact their communities and see more people come to Jesus.”
A discussion about church revitalization needs to start with the revitalization of the pastor because healthy pastors lead healthy churches, said Mark Dance, associate vice president for pastoral leadership at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville.
“In almost 30 years of pastoring, when I was healthy, my church was healthy. When I was unhealthy, my church was unhealthy,” Dance observed.
“A healthy pastor is a Great Commandment pastor whose first priority is Jesus,” Dance said.
Union staffers speak
Ernest Easley, professor of evangelism at Union University, said church revitalization will not take place apart from intentional evangelistic efforts.
Using Psalm 126:5 as his text, Easley said liberal sowing of the gospel seed was the key to effective evangelism. Sowing the gospel seed was Jesus’ priority, he added, pointing to the example of Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem because of their helplessness and lostness.
“We have stopped seeing people like Jesus sees people,” Easley said. “Where are the tears for the souls of people across Tennessee?”
If churches will be faithful in sowing, Easley said the Bible promises a reaping of souls.
Nathan Finn, dean of Union’s School of Theology and Missions, encouraged pastors in their pursuit of personal holiness. Speaking from 1 Peter 1:13-25, Finn said God’s call upon pastors is to be holy and reflect His perfect character.
While believers were once enslaved to the futile ways of the world, Finn said the gospel has freed them from that slavery and liberated them to be what they were originally created to be as God’s holy image bearers.
“Your holiness is inevitable,” Finn said. “So don’t despair that you are not as holy as you ought to be.”
Instead, Finn said pastors need to own God’s promise that they will be holy and blameless before Him and then pursue that holiness. Since churches will seldom outpace their pastors in personal holiness, Finn said church revitalization is dependent upon how closely pastors imitate the example of Christ.