By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — Nearly one year ago Bob Brown was contemplating leaving the pastorate of First Baptist Church, Dandridge, to join the staff of the Tennessee Baptist Convention as church revitalization specialist.
Church revitalization is one of the 5 Objectives adopted by messengers at The Summit held last November at Brentwood Baptist Church.
Brown accepted the position and came into his new role with the idea and perception that he would be a resource and an encourager for church revitalization across Tennessee.
That has proven to be the case though he admits church revitalization is much more involved than just “nickels and noses.”
Numbers are still part of the equation, but the definition is much broader and complex, he said.
There are aspects of church revitalization that are difficult to define such as the attitudes of the congregation and leadership, whether or not they are missional, and various other intangibles,” Brown said.
“In the end it is the movement of the Holy Spirit that determines the success of any church revitalization effort.”
One thing that has surprised him during his first year is “the breadth and depth” of the problem.
Statistics reveal that 80-90 percent of Tennessee Baptist churches are either stagnant or in decline. “It is greater than I realized.”
Brown has learned at least one thing. More people are willing to admit that their church needs to be revitalized than the number who are actually willing to make the changes needed to accomplish the task.
“One of the frustrations I have had is that everyone is excited about church revitalization. It is a hot topic.”
It is easier to talk about than it is to accomplish, Brown observed.
“Church revitalization means sacrifice, dying to self, and to long held traditions,” he said.
Giving up “sacred cows” is more than people bargain for, he acknowledged. “A lot of times people want a magic pill for church revitalization. That’s not going to happen.”
Brown said that too many church members refer to “my church. It’s His church.”
Church revitalization is not easy and everyone involved needs to understand that up front, Brown said.
“I ask pastors, ‘Are you ready to lay your job on the line?’ Church revitalization involves hard work, a tremendous amount of sacrifice, and a willingness to change.”
Church revitalization means “rocking the boat. It’s not always pleasant,” he noted.
Brown acknowledged there is no one answer or formula for revitalizing churches.
Three primary methods have evolved, he noted.
The first is internal. A church does it from within, Brown said. The success rate for that approach is about 30-40 percent, he noted. It really depends where a church is in the process.
If the church has lost a large percentage of its members it may have debt and a large building to maintain, Brown said. “They might not have the financial and leadership resources to turn it around.”
The second method is a replant. A church “dies” and turns its facilities over to another church or the association and a new church begins, Brown said.
The North American Mission Board has termed this method a “legacy” strategy and it appears to be successful in many cases, he said.
The third method is a merger in which a struggling church merges with a more stable congregation. The success rate of a merger is usually between 80-90 percent, Brown said. “The process to get there is long and laborious but it allows them to work out all the bugs before the merger comes together,” he observed.
He noted that the TBC’s strategy is to help churches do any of the above methods.
Church revitalization does not occur overnight, Brown warned. “It’s a process. At a minimum you’re talking three to four years for a revitalization to show any success or progress,” he said.
“Our (the convention’s) desire is to come alongside churches in a variety of ways,” Brown continued, noting they will help the church do an assessment of their needs and the community.
“We (the convention) are never going to revitalize any churches. What we are going to do is to be encouragers, to sound the alarm, and to keep church revitalization in the forefront of discussions,” Brown said.
“I hold on to the promise of Jesus that ‘on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ I am optimistic that God wants to revitalize churches across the convention.”