RICHMOND, Va. — One sees
them occasionally. Abandoned church buildings in rural areas stand in mute
witness to changing times. In urban areas, big brick structures once crowded
with eager worshipers now house restaurants, community centers or even
Sometimes churches die. Like
individuals, some may reach the end of a long and fruitful life and pass away
with a sense of triumph. Others may die from years of self-destructive choices.
Every denomination in the
United States has scores of churches that expect to die within a decade. No one
can prevent the cultural shifts that leave behind churches unable or unwilling
Weakened, vulnerable and
sometimes paralyzed by uncertainty, membership dwindles until death seems
Some had leaders who failed
to prepare the congregations for the cultural change occurring in their midst.
Other churches lacked the know-how or the resources necessary to change. Some
churches simply refused to change.
Whatever the reasons for
decline, once church members believe they lack the resources and energy
necessary to effect a turnaround, recovery becomes almost impossible and they
focus solely on survival. Unable to accept impending death as an option, church
members sometimes seek someone or something to blame.
Phil Rodgerson, retired from
the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, has identified classic options churches often
consider when facing their own demise. Unfortunately, 58 percent of the time,
the church chooses to do nothing — an approach that almost guarantees an
Experts insist a healthier,
theologically appropriate approach is to celebrate the life the church has
known, consider its options and prepare for a death that honors Christ and
leaves a Kingdom legacy. When a church completes its mission and dies, members
will mourn, but they also will celebrate the church’s ministry successes.
If 42 percent of declining
churches want their ministries to survive, what can they do?
- Let old dreams die and envision
Born in 1907 to reach a
thriving, new community in south Richmond, Va., Weatherford Memorial Baptist
Church had declined terribly. By 2000, the surrounding area had changed, but
the church had not. Finally, the few members who gathered weekly realized they
could not continue.
“We saw what was happening,
but we didn’t want to acknowledge it. We were in denial,” lamented Ruth Guill,
a former member.
In 2005 Pastor Ricky Hurst,
assisted by Glenn Akins, assistant executive director of the Virginia Baptist
Mission Board, led Weatherford to embrace an extraordinary dream. Despite
offers from other churches to buy their property, the congregation voted to
donate its $2 million facility to St. Paul’s Baptist Church, a rapidly growing
African-American congregation in another part of the city. Weatherford’s gift
enabled St. Paul’s to minister at a second site. In the three years since
Weatherford Memorial became St. Paul’s South, Sunday attendance there has grown
to over 500.
The desire for a lasting
legacy also led Weatherford Memorial to establish an endowment for mission
purposes by the Richmond Baptist Association and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
- Remain, but develop a
community consciousness that creates ministry opportunities.
Like many other urban
congregations, First Baptist Church of Clarendon, now called simply The Church at Clarendon, in Arlington, Va., experienced stagnation and decline.
In the past 30 years, resident membership dropped steadily from 871 to 236.
Worship attendance, however, has begun to climb again as the congregation has
embraced a new vision.
Located just across the
Potomac River from the nation’s capital, the Clarendon neighborhood’s property
values soared in the late 1990s and early 2000s, making it nearly impossible
for mid-level professionals to live where they worked. Firefighters, police
officers, teachers and nurses increasingly had to commute long distances to
work because they could not afford nearby housing. Church member Ellen Bartlett
reports The Church at Clarendon decided to leverage the value of its property,
tear down its aging facilities except for its landmark portico and steeple, and
build a 10-story structure. The church will occupy the two bottom floors while
the upper eight stories will provide affordable apartments with rent based on
- Change as the community
Bon Air Baptist Church, a growing congregation in Richmond, chose to use its
size and strength to change as the community changes. Toward that end, Pastor
Travis Collins is leading the congregation to reflect the racial and cultural
makeup of the communities around its primary campus the southwestern part of
the city as well as its three other locations.
- Remain at a central
location while establishing other sites for worship and ministry.
Pastor Bob Sizemore led Fairview Baptist Church, located in an older section of Fredericksburg, Va., to
establish Fairview at River Club. The River Club site, led by Dee Whitten, has grown to an
average attendance of 550.
- Remain, but share the use
of facilities with other churches or organizations.
Akins of the Virginia
Baptist Mission Board points out that although shared use often has a
community-ministry component, the motivation most often is financial. For that
reason, this option postpones rather than prevents further decline.
Exercising invention and
adaptability, some churches change the type of ministry they offer — shifting
from a neighborhood church to a specialized ministry, for example.
Anytime a church moves, it
requires church members to abandon a sacred place. Rarely can churches relocate
without experiencing disunity, Akins noted.
- Merge with another congregation.
Congregational mergers often
create one slightly larger, weak church from two smaller, weak churches, Akins
The established church “goes
out of business” then reopens after reorganizing and retraining. The obvious
difficulty, observes Akins, is that many of the people remain the same, taking
the same assumptions that failed before into the new church.
Fair-Park Baptist Church in
Alexandria, Va., could see the end approaching and chose to become a different
kind of church.
To avoid the attitudes and
practices that led them to decline, the church turned over decision-making to a
group of trustees who brought expertise from outside the congregation. The
trustees constituted the
Convergence Church, specializing in ministry to Alexandria’s sizeable
arts community. Led by Lisa Hawkins and a leadership team she put together, the
new church is gaining numbers and vitality.
Another version of this
option occurs when a church gives itself to a stronger, larger church whose
members fill key leadership positions. This approach can change the DNA of the
- Simply disband.
Akins challenges churches to
engage in ongoing assessment of their success within their cultural settings.
He points out that every church faces many internal and external circumstances
beyond its control. Church members die or move away. Businesses shut down,
neighborhoods change and buildings age.
But churches can control the
way they live out their faith, their worship styles and their responses to
circumstances that lie beyond their control.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — White
is editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)