When churches die, can they live again?
Jim White, Associated Baptist Press
March 23, 2010

When churches die, can they live again?

When churches die, can they live again?
Jim White, Associated Baptist Press
March 23, 2010

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

to adapt.

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

inglorious end.

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

    something new.

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

income levels.

  • 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.

  • Refocus.

Exercising invention and

adaptability, some churches change the type of ministry they offer — shifting

from a neighborhood church to a specialized ministry, for example.

  • Relocate.

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


  • ‘Re-church.’

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

new church.

  • 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.


is editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)

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