In the coming weeks pastors in North Carolina will have an opportunity to learn how they can revitalize their churches and help other struggling congregations experience new life.
While church planting continues to be a hot topic among Southern Baptists and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) today, many of its leaders recognize that revitalization is also a critical element in creating disciples. On April 25, N.C. native Johnny Hunt will lead the North American Mission Board’s Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conference at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Raleigh.
Today 73 percent of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or dying.
“We lost 900 Southern Baptist churches last year,” said Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “When you realize we started 1,000 churches [last year] and only gained 100 … we need to gain 1,000 a year to start seeing a change in the cultural trend.”
Using biblical models and principles in leadership, Hunt said, pastors of declining or plateaued churches can make some “minor, not major, adjustments” that can help their congregations.
Most churches simply need a “tune up,” said Hunt, who encourages pastors to bring their lay staff to the conference: “Number one, to stop bleeding and losing and start gaining ground again and help them to realize that most of them don’t have to gain a lot of ground to become healthy again.”
Too many churches have quit developing leaders, and many churches are asking the wrong questions.
Hunt knows personally the challenges that come with navigating a church through difficult times.
Throughout his career, Hunt has pastored four churches – three of which were in North Carolina – that were plateaued or declining when he arrived. All of them went on to thrive under his leadership. When he became pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, the church averaged 200 people in worship and was healing from a split. Since then, they have grown to more than 6,500 in attendance.
Most recently, Woodstock helped revive Vinings Lake Church in Mableton, Ga. With just 17 people – and the average age being 74 – the few remaining members sought help from Hunt and First Baptist Church. Together First Baptist and Vinings Lake relaunched with a new pastor, Peter Hixson, (Hunt’s son-in-law) and now is up to around 650 people.
“They became totally self supporting in one year,” Hunt said. “That’s a vibrant church, giving to missions.”
For those church members who are resistant to merging or making adjustments because they are afraid of change, Hunt urges them to consider their legacy.
“What if your last days … can become your best days because you’re going to invest the rest of your life helping your church … reach[ing] your children and grandchildren,” he said. “So when you’re gone this church can continue on.”
Hunt and Neal Eller, team leader of church health for the Baptist State Convention of N.C., cautioned that merging with another church isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.
Merging with another church can work, but it has to be about more than bringing people to a location, Eller said. The pastor and church leadership have to be focused on the right things.
“It’s all about the motive of the heart,” he said. “If it’s about saving the institution then no, forget it.”
“Many of our leaders are looking for the silver bullet, the right here, right now. … [And] just a conference will not do it.” he said. “There’s no silver bullet.”
“Revitalization [must] start with the gospel,” Eller added. Many churches have “drifted from biblical principals, biblical authority, Christlike character, Christ’s commands and Christ’s commission.”
Instead of making disciples, churches are often times more concerned with looking like other ministries and end up producing “deformed Christians,” who look too much like the world and not enough like Jesus Christ.
“We have created competition within the kingdom, which does not make sense to me,” he said.
“And we’re competing for the same people,” said Eller, who contended that most churches end up attracting people from other churches or those who haven’t attended in a while.
“We need new blood,” said Eller.
True revitalization also requires repentance, Eller said. “Repentance and confession is the beginning of revitalization,” he said. “But nobody wants to do that. … That’s hard. That’s not easy.”
Ultimately, revitalization takes time and steady growth. Eller said one pastor and church many could learn from is Russ Evans and Peace Baptist Church in Calypso, N.C. About three years ago the church had dwindled to about 25 members – all over the age of 50 – after the remaining teenagers left for college.
When the church hired Evans, a jewelry store owner with no seminary training and little ministry or preaching experience, some might have thought the church’s future didn’t look much brighter.
And the fact that the bivocational pastor and his wife, Ann, live about 20 minutes from the church doesn’t make his job easier.
But despite all of that, today the congregation has more than doubled in size, and on a recent Sunday about a dozen children attended.
While Peace Baptist Church doesn’t appear to be headed for megachurch fame anytime soon, the church appears to be showing signs of healthy growth.
Evans is quick to give God, a lot of prayer and a committed congregation the credit.
“This is a praying church,” he said. “It’s a gradual process of daily surrendering, total commitment.”
“I’m having the best time of my life pastoring that church … nothing like it.”
For more information about the conference go to http://www.namb.net/revitalization/North_Carolina/.