By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HERMITAGE — “Just as it says in Ecclesiastes, there’s a time and a season for everything and that’s true for churches,” said Lewis McMullen, church planting specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “That means replanting or restoring a dying congregation is needed some of the time.”
He was speaking at the Church Revitalization Conference: Giving Hope for Change. The conference was held Aug. 31 – Sept. 1 at Hermitage Hills Baptist Church by the Tennessee Baptist Convention in partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources and Nashville Baptist Association.
Some churches need to ask themselves the question, “What would this neighborhood look like if this church died?” said McMullen. If the neighborhood would not notice and the church “no longer can make an impact on lostness,” the church needs to be replanted.
He presented two approaches to replanting — legacy or complete restart.
Both approaches have many things in common including recommendations that both the old church and the incoming church should be represented by teams of people from outside the groups, all covenants and agreements should be written, and churches choosing to be replanted should be without staff. Also the transition teams should be empowered with no strings and church members allowed to stay if understanding they will not be in the leadership of the new church, said McMullen.
Relying on outside transition teams is necessary to remove emotions which often disable congregations from transitioning, he explained.
Also, in both approaches, assets eventually are given to an entity which will redistribute them as directed, such as the Tennessee Baptist Convention, a Baptist association, another church, or a ministry.
In the legacy approach, the church is allowed to decline “gracefully.”
In one instance, a church which chose a legacy replanting participated by agreeing to continue to pay its mortgage and charge the new group only $1 a year for use of its facility, cited McMullen.
The legacy approach has the highest success rate (about 87-90 percent succeed) but is the most difficult because it involves “the death of a dream” of decision makers who are a part of the declining church, said McMullen. The legacy replant is a new approach in Southern Baptist life, he added.
Other aspects of the legacy replant are that the congregation may remain at its current location, the church may become a church campus or satellite if it is working with another church, and the church name often is changed.
In terms of a family, the church being replanted is like an elderly parent who is being cared for by a child, described McMullen. This takes “a lot of negotiation and patience,” he explained.
The second approach is a complete restart.
In this scenario the changes are more drastic, involving closing the church for 90 days minimum and then relaunching a new congregation with a new name and often in a new location.
One reason for the closing is legal — a 90-day period is required by law for any incorporated entity to allow it to announce it is closing in order for claims and liens against it to be pursued, said McMullen.
Another reason for the closing is to allow for a break with the past and the development of new identity.
The restart approach to replanting usually takes longer than a legacy replant, he added.
He told the story of a church he tried to help restart. The congregation spent about $50,000 as they considered taking the step, said McMullen.
He also noted that churches fear takeovers when it is counterintuitive. Often their facilities are run down and their situation doesn’t even allow them to be properly insured.
McMullen told of seeing abandoned church facilities in a rural area and how sad and wasteful that is. “Don’t allow a church to shut itself down without a game plan,” he added.
A complete restart is needed when a congregation, instead of being proactive, is simply in survival mode, explained McMullen. “Some churches need resources outside of themselves,” he stated.
During the period the church is closed, the new church core group “has got to be working that community.” Also research is needed as to what type of new work is needed in the community, he added.
This new church core group also should plan to protect the closed facility. It should be buy an alarm system and provide a presence in the facility if looting may be a possibility, added McMullen.
The new group also should prepare for the opening by spreading the word of the grand opening and church launch in the community.
McMullen said many spiritual principles can be applied to replanting. One of them is that just like a human, a church which is ill can recover. However, that church will take a long time to recover.
Some churches should choose resurrection, “which is only possible after death,” he stated.
Principles for Replanting
(1) Make sure location of facility, if retained, has growth potential.
(2) Celebrate the past of the existing church.
(3) Consider closing the doors of the church for a time.
(4) Transfer control from local church leaders to a steering committee of mostly outsiders.
(5) Change the church’s name.
(6) Develop a fresh vision for the community.
(7) Place a new church core group and planter with energy and faith to impact lostness in the community.