By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Interest in the topic of church revitalization is gaining momentum across Tennessee — and with good reason.
Statistics reveal that 90 percent of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are plateaued or declining.
John Mark Clifton, church revitalization team leader for the North American Mission Board, notes that on any given Sunday, Southern Baptists will start 20 churches.
On the other end of the spectrum however, 17 Southern Baptist churches will close their doors for good on that same Sunday, Clifton said.
Clifton was one of two speakers at a church revitalization conference sponsored by the North American Mission Board and the Tennessee Baptist Convention at Sevier Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville.
The conference, held April 20, drew about 250 participants to hear Clifton and former Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga. In addition, there were breakout conferences on church revitalization led primarily by TBC staff and pastors.
“I was extremely pleased with the response of Tennessee Baptists toward the conference,” said Bob Brown, church revitalization team leader for the TBC. “It shows at least in part the growing passion for church revitalization across the state. There has been an ever increasing awareness that something must change — that we must return to our first love of missions and evangelism,” he said.
Church revitalization is one of the 5 Objectives that began as a vision of TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis and later were approved by the TBC Executive Board and adopted last November by messengers as the convention’s primary goals for the next 10 years.
“Objective 2 of the 5 Objectives lays out our desire to see 500 churches revitalized by 2024,” Brown said.
“This will never happen apart from a revitalization movement,” he continued. “My prayer is that the 250 conference participants will spark such a movement by returning to their churches with a renewed commitment to do whatever it takes to see their churches impact their communities for the cause of Christ.”
In addition to the Knoxville conference, Brown has been attending meetings across the state with church leaders and directors of missions seeking their input on how to address church revitalization.
“One of the continuing requests coming out of the meetings we have been holding is to define what is meant by church revitalization,” Brown said.
“To be truthful, I have resisted answering this request as I fear nothing we come up with will satisfy a majority,” he observed.
But after continuing to hear concerns about the need to define what church revitalization entails, Brown said he now sees “the benefit of agreeing on working toward a definition to direct the work while providing some accountability.”
During the conference in Knoxville, Hunt observed that the desire to change is essential before a church can be revitalized.
“A lot of churches would rather die than change,” Hunt observed.
Clifton shared some things that the North American Mission Board has learned about churches that are dying.
• They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
• They value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.
• They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
• They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
• They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
• They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and in time grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
• They anesthetize the pain of death with over abundance of activity and maintaining outdated structure.
• They confuse caring for the “building” as caring for the church.
Clifton told conference participants that a church that is not producing fruit is dying.
He encouraged them to ask this question: “Is your community better because your church is there?”
“If your church closed today and the community didn’t notice, you have a problem,” said Clifton, who lives in Kansas City and has “restarted” a dying church.
Clifton, too, stressed that the remaining members of a dying church must be willing to change and sometimes that involves giving up their leadership roles.
The end result should be to lead the church to “its first and foremost goal to glorify God by once again seeing the church as a place that contextually makes disciples who make disciples that result in community transformation,” Clifton said.
Brown observed that church revitalization is possible.
“We serve a God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us,” Brown said.” I can imagine 500 churches revitalized in Tennessee. He is able to do immeasurably more than that!”
The Tennessee Baptist Convention will sponsor, in partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources, a two-day Church Revitalization Conference Aug. 31 – Sept. 1 at Hermitage Hills Baptist Church, Hermitage. Details will be announced later.