Pastors across the room typed on their laptops and filled notepads with pithy one-liners and helpful tips as North Carolina native Johnny Hunt encouraged and challenged them to lead, empower, train up – and basically do “whatever it takes” –to save or strengthen their churches.
Nearly 300 church leaders gathered April 25 for the Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conference, sponsored by the North American Mission Board and the Baptist State Convention of N.C. The event, which was held at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Raleigh, is part of a series of revitalization-focused conferences. Other conferences will be held later this year in Alabama, South Carolina and Texas.
“People follow vision,” said Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “… Whatever is important to you as a leader is what’s important to your people.”
“Everything rises and falls on leadership,” he said. “You want a giving church? Start giving. You want a witnessing church? Start witnessing. You want a mission church? Do missions. … Sometimes [pastors] say, ‘Our people, they just don’t get this.’ … Well, maybe it’s because you’ve never gotten it.”
BR photo by Shawn Hendricks
Johnny Hunt led the Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conference April 25 at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Raleigh.
Hunt is no stranger to revitalizing churches. In addition to his years as a successful pastor in N.C., he led Woodstock from 250 people in 1986 to more than 6,500 in attendance today. But Woodstock is in the minority of churches across the Southern Baptist Convention. According to the latest available figures, he added, 73 percent of all SBC churches are declining or plateaued.
Every year 10,000 churches from all denominations shut down, said Hunt. Of those churches, 900 of them are Southern Baptist congregations.
Hunt shared with the crowd how Woodstock is helping relaunch dying churches – such as Vinings Lake Church in Mableton, Ga. – so they can reach their communities for Christ.
“In 30 days … I had four churches call me,” said Hunt. He said one church went from a handful of discouraged people, who were about to close their church, to those in need of every room in their building to fit the crowd during their opening relaunch day. “That could be happening all over the country.”
“[And] we’ve got all these guys that want to plant churches,” Hunt said. “You know what I found out about you church planters? You all could use a building. There’s 900 out there if we can find out how we can get them.”
Pastors need to be willing to go wherever God calls them. If a church is struggling and failing to reach out to its community, allow God to help you rebuild it, Hunt said.
“Guys say to me. ‘I’m not going there, they don’t even have an outreach program,’” he said. “That’s why they need you. … It’s leadership. Go lead. … Go somewhere and build something. … Go do a great work like Nehemiah. There’s a bunch of walls down in the Southern Baptist Convention, so we need to go, and we need to build.”
Pastors must also train up new leaders around them.
“A ministry cannot grow without developing more leaders,” he said.
“You go to make all of the hospital visits. You go see all of the sick. You do all of the witnessing. Everybody that’s baptized, you win them,” he added. “… If you will do it alone, they will let you.”
Finding new leaders can be as simple as setting up a meeting with other leaders.
“Leaders know leaders,” Hunt said. “Recently, I met with a good number of leaders and I said, ‘I’m really looking for some more leaders,’ and before we left the room that day … I had 80 names.”
Pastors also need to be willing to take two weeks or longer off to rest.
“Sometimes the reason you won’t, … you feel the church can’t do without you, which speaks of an unhealthy mindset to begin with,” Hunt said. “And I think if it’s just two weeks to a month, and it can save your ministry, [that’s] not a bad exchange.”
Many times getting a church back on the right track involves making subtle changes, not big ones. “It normally doesn’t take a major adjustment,” said Hunt, comparing some churches to a high-performance vehicle that simply needs “a small tweak.”
No church is beyond hope, said Michael Lewis, who spoke later that afternoon. Lewis directs church revitalization and pastoral relations for NAMB.
“I’ve talked to probably 10 pastors this week who … just feel hopeless,” he said. “If revitalization is ever going to occur, it must first occur in the heart of the pastor.”
Lewis, who has pastored churches in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, shared how he saw God heal wounds at the first church he pastored many years ago in Lancaster, S.C.
“The pastor that was there before me left in adultery, … two of the church leaders had committed suicide,” he said. “I walked in that church. It was 60 people, and it seemed there was no recovery. … We just felt hopeless.”
But after more than 7 years of serving there, Lewis said the congregation went from nearly shutting down to planting five Spanish-speaking churches in the community.
“God can do a mighty work,” he said. “We have to believe that. If we really believe the Lord is the Lord of the resurrection then it will lead us to obey Him by preaching His Word by prayer, which are key components of revitalization.”
After Lewis spoke, Baptist State Convention of N.C. (BSC) staff also encouraged pastors in attendance to contact them for more information on how they can help through various discipleship, evangelism and church growth initiatives.
For revitalization to take hold, it starts with the church’s culture, said Brian Upshaw, church ministry team leader for the BSC. To achieve a disciple-making strategy, he said, a disciple-making culture must be established.
“We believe that happens as we order our lives, our everyday lives, around this call … to love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Upshaw said. “Everyone of us is called to make disciples.”
Seeing transformational change takes a lot of work and time, said Hunt during the closing session that afternoon.
“There is no such thing as a great work without longevity,” he said. “No one ever built a great work without years. … Don’t ever go somewhere for a good start.”
“If you go serve … [tell yourself] ‘Come hell or high water I’m called to be there.’”
Find out more about creating a disciple-making culture by contacting Brian Upshaw at (800) 395-5102, ext. 5632. For more information about future revitalization conferences go to http://www.namb.net/revitalization/. Or contact NAMB at [email protected] or call (770) 410-6388.