By Lonnie Wilkey and Connie Bushey
Baptist and Reflector
HERMITAGE — Church revitalization requires change.
Though it was said in different ways, that was the general theme echoed several times last week during the Church Revitalization Conference: Giving Hope for Change, held at Hermitage Hills Baptist Church.
The conference, which included messages and breakout sessions on different aspects of CR was sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention in partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources and Nashville Baptist Association.
Church revitalization is on everybody’s mind, observed Bob Brown, church revitalization specialist for the TBC.
“It’s a hot topic but it’s not new at all,” he continued, referring conference participants to the New Testament.
“Our desire is to fan the flame of revitalization and revival across the state to see a movement begin,” he said.
TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis recalled that after he assumed that role five years ago he did some research. “I came to the conclusion that 450-550 churches in our convention within 10 years would be dead or at death’s door if they continued in the same direction they were going,” he said.
Davis noted that all across New England there are antique malls and other stores in former church buildings. What happened in New England 100 years ago is happening in the South today, he said.
“We need to be broken-hearted about our lostness and our sister churches,” he said.
Davis acknowledged that revitalizing churches is not easy. “It’s like nailing jello to a tree,” he observed.
“It’s hard to define revitalization and what it looks like,” he continued. What he does know, however, is that for revitalization to occur, there needs to be a change or rebirth of the heart resulting in a passion to see churches revitalized.
Church revitalization is one of the Five Objectives adopted by messengers to last year’s annual meeting at Brentwood Baptist Church. “If you look at all of these dramatic goals (to be achieved by 2024) the motivation must be to see lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. See list of all Five Objectives on page 2.
“We must become brokenhearted and passionate about winning the lost. When a church is committed to that, you will see revitalization,” he stressed.
Davis said he does not want to see any church in Tennessee die. “Our God is a specialist in raising the dead. There are churches all over our state that can have new life and an impact in our convention.”
Mark Dance, vice president for pastoral resources at LifeWay, reminded conference participants that healthy churches must have healthy pastors.
Dance, a former Tennessee Baptist pastor at Ridgeview Baptist Church in Church Hill, stressed the need for an intimate walk with God.
“Your ministry is going nowhere until you understand that all your relationships must fall in line behind God,” he said.
Host pastor Poly Rouse led an afternoon session on “Hope for Communities.”
Eight years ago Hermitage Hills Baptist was contacted by Rayon City Baptist Church in Old Hickory, an older congregation with then a membership of about 20 people, Rouse said, adding that they “were thinking about locking the doors and walking away.”
Leaders of both churches agreed to a three-month trial period after which Rayon City merged with Hermitage Hills and their facilities became another campus of Hermitage Hills.
Mark Smith, campus pastor at Rayon City, joined Rouse for their presentation and shared the journey of the Rayon City campus.
Today the church draws about 175-200 people and “is meeting needs and loving people in the community,” Rouse said.
He admitted the journey was not easy. “It took three years to change the mind-set of the community that we were there because we really loved them,” he said.
Rouse encouraged pastors to go into church revitalization “with your eyes open.
You won’t turn something around in a few months,” he cautioned.
Church revitalization requires a lot of work, love, and patience. “It takes a number of years to do that,” he said.
Smith noted that it “takes intentionality” to become a part of the community. “The goal of revitalization is to claim the land around the dead and dying church for Christ,” he said.
Rouse also discussed the revitalization that has been occurring at Hermitage Hills. The church had gotten to the point where 60 percent of the church was age 50 or older, Rouse said.
In recent months the church has undergone a “generational shift” in order to reach young families with children and students, he said.
“We have gone through a revitalization of who we are here so we can reach the next generation,” he said.
He acknowledged that not everyone at the church supported the change in direction. “We lost about 300 people. When you move forward, hopefully everyone will go with you but it probably won’t be the case,” he cautioned.
Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, Nashville, spoke during a main session of the conference. In his message entitled, “Hope for the Church,” he referenced the early church described in Acts 2:41-47, his experiences as pastor of a struggling church in Florida, and LifeWay research studies.
One overarching theme from his study is that churches that are revitalizing are “acting like a newly started church.”
Every church should be either “vitalizing,” which is beginning, or revitalizing, noted Rainer.
From Acts 2:42, he noted that the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching which became the Bible, to fellowship, and to prayer.
From this Scripture, Rainer suggested three steps for church revitalization — leadership moving from distraction to devotion to God’s Word, redirection from being inward-focused to outward-focused, and development of a group of church members who practice powerful prayer rather than perfunctory prayer.
On the first suggestion, Rainer said he has not heard of a long-term revitalization or mid-term revitalization occurring “where the leadership have not been revitalized.”
So often church leadership is caught up in “playing church games” and “needless and silly battles on things that don’t matter.” These things can be good things, but the wrong things, he observed.
“It’s a sin to be good when God has called us to be great,” he stated, referring to his book, Breakout Churches.
Of course, churches go through “blah times,” he described, or experience “slumps” in numbers or unity. Also pastors and ministers have many demands on their time and energy.
One step toward recovery, he said, is for members and at least leaders to try to “absorb” and “devour” the Word of God which will lead to “becoming consumed” with the Word so we can “hear from Him personally.”
On the second suggestion, becoming outward-focused rather than inward-focused, Rainer noted that the church described in Acts 2 not only cared for its own but cared for others.
Finally, serious prayer is needed to revitalize a church. Rainer said that while he was pastor of a struggling church he was challenged by a member about his prayer life and then he learned how to pray “with boldness, pray seriously for the first time.” One result was that God “broke open the gates of revival.” That revival was not a planned series of meetings, he added.
To the ministers in the crowd, he said, “You have been placed by God in the ministry for a reason.”
Consider God’s promises rather than critics, he added.
“Don’t you think that God is through with you or your church,” he stated, adding that “the best years of your ministry and life can be ahead of you.”
Bill Henard, pastor of Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., and author of Can These Bones Live?, spoke on “Hope for Transformation.”
He cited numerous statistics which reveal churches and church membership are declining not just among Southern Baptists but other evangelical congregations as well.
He noted the number of people who do not attend church has doubled in the last 10 years. Yet, there is hope, he stressed.
Referring to Matthew 16, Henard said there is “hope for the church because it is Christ’s church.”
Henard, who teaches church revitalization at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, noted he often hears from pastors in some churches that “there is nothing they can do to bring about revitalization.
That’s not true, said Henard, who served as pastor of three churches in Tennessee.
He challenged pastors to preach the Word, practice personal evangelism, pastor the people, and prioritize congregational prayer.
“There is hope for the church. Pray,” Henard said.
“Realize that God has not given up on you as pastor and He has not given up on your church. Let’s get out there and do what God has called us to do in revitalization,” Henard challenged.