Four years ago Oakhurst Baptist Church was prepared to close its doors. Located just a few miles southeast of Charlotte’s city center, the once-thriving congregation had weathered a changing demographic and economic climate but retained only a few dozen members.
Worship at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Charlotte is no longer a picture of a declining church. The church was “replanted” in 2015 and has been growing ever since.
However, today it is showing signs of new growth, the fruits of an effort rooted in local church partnerships and denominational cooperation.
“We wanted God’s kingdom, not Oakhurst’s kingdom,” said Wayne Deffinger, the church’s former pastor.
Deffinger, now serving as pastor of Flint Hill Baptist Church in Fort Mill, S.C., came to Oakhurst in 2012. He told the Biblical Recorder in a phone interview the church had “lost connection” with the surrounding community and was in decline. In his first two years, nearly two-dozen of the aging congregation’s core members died.
Bob Lowman, executive director of the Metrolina Baptist Association, said a significant number of area churches are in “serious decline,” meaning worship attendance has decreased more than 50 percent in the last 10 years.
Deffinger began to help Oakhurst explore its options, hoping to find a solution that could revive a vibrant ministry. The church considered putting its building up for sale and looking for a more affordable meeting space, becoming a campus of a larger church or merging with another ministry.
An area pastor connected church leaders with David Russell. At the time, Russell was an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He was searching for a church revitalization opportunity.
“We didn’t want to see churches become coffee shops and condos in neighborhoods that are now booming with population growth,” Russell said.
Capitol Hill underwent a long-term revitalization in the 1990s under the leadership of pastor Mark Dever, and that story inspired Russell to invest in a declining church, rather than plant a new congregation.
“It gave me a picture of the power behind helping revive an old, historic gospel witness,” he said.
Russell and Oakhurst’s church leaders began a series of meetings in 2014. They eventually decided to “replant” the church – a term used to describe the process of restarting a church while keeping significant aspects of the ministry, such as the name or location.
The replanting process often includes bringing in a number of new church members and leaders from a “sending” church or churches to unite with legacy members of the existing church. A handful of people, including one staff member from Capitol Hill, moved from Washington, D.C., to join the ministry at Oakhurst.
In consultation with Oakhurst’s deacons and Russell, Deffinger decided to bow out of the process and pursue other ministry opportunities.
Dave Russell, second from left, pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church, stands with “three of the many who have been baptized at [Oakhurst] since it was replanted” in 2015.
Russell called it a “powerful example of humility that helped moved things forward.”
Lowman said the whole transition was “one of the most positive experiences, in terms of things going smoothly, that I have seen.”
A neighboring Charlotte congregation, Carmel Baptist Church, provided financial support and “sweat equity” for the replant, Russell said. They sent teams to help make needed repairs and upgrades to Oakhurst’s facility.
“The revitalization of Oakhurst has been a joy to be a part of,” said Carmel’s senior pastor, Alex Kennedy. “The gospel is bearing fruit in that part of Charlotte because of the willingness of brothers and sisters in Christ to partner together. We are hopeful to see this replicated again and again in the Queen City.”
The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina also provided financial support to aid the replanting effort. Pastors at both Capitol Hill and Carmel have mentored and stayed in regular contact with Russell.
Russell told Oakhurst’s leaders at the time, “If this church has had a good witness – it’s been faithful to the gospel and has a good reputation in the community – we don’t see any need to rebrand the church or shut it down and start something new.”
Oakhurst welcomed new leadership and expressed their support for the replant, Russell said. Their biggest concern, however, was whether they would continue to feel welcomed after the transition.
“Our response to that was, ‘We’re Christians. We don’t want to run you out of your church. If you want to remain here, we want you here,’” Russell said.
Everyone involved in the replant went through a new membership process and joined the church in September 2015. The church now averages nearly 300 in Sunday worship, which includes “generational diversity” that likely would not have been present in a new church plant, Russell said.
When asked for advice to churches that are considering a replant, Russell gave three tips:
Be sure expectations are clearly stated by everyone involved. “We called it purchasing peace on the front end,” Russell said, “so that once we got into the work there could be unity.”
Have a group of lay leaders committed to give time and energy. “Without them,” said Russell, “it just would not have been as fruitful.”
Legacy members must support new leadership. “The freedom [Oakhurst’s legacy members] gave us allowed us to feel confident to come in and make the necessary changes,” Russell said. “The existing church trusted us enough to let us lead the way.”
Both Deffinger and Lowman encouraged declining churches to work closely with local associational leaders as they weigh options for the future. Lowman added that an interim period, such as a pastoral transition, is a good time to ask trusted leaders for help evaluating a church’s condition.
“The bottom line of all this isn’t, ‘Can we survive as a church?’” Lowman said. “It is, ‘Can we be the church Jesus created us to be to reach the community around us?’”