Jonathan Smith remembers the day he learned his church couldn’t afford a cup of coffee.
He knew the church had struggled. It held plenty of building space but not the people to fill it. An aging membership reflected the difficulties in reaching the next generation. The congregation had been formative in planting other churches – but only because of a couple of splits in the fellowship.
One day his ministry assistant was shopping around for a vendor when she called Smith. “You have to come see this,” she said.
The church’s bank account showed $1.06. On top of that, the large crowds the church had drawn in the 1980s had dwindled to 25. Nevertheless, a process toward prioritizing the right things had been underway and would eventually lead to a $750,000 budget and attendance reaching 450.
“You cannot out-mission the Messiah. We had to get back to the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, loving our community and loving the lost,” Smith, director of Church Health Strategy for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told Baptist Press.
“Over time the Lord just turned it around to becoming a really great, strong church.”
In a culture that demands immediate results, it took about eight years for Smith’s church to experience the turnaround. That time consisted of building trust among members while identifying problems related to leadership development and missions involvement. One of the more difficult steps came through removing ministries serving more as a faded photo from yesteryear than effective outreach of the current day.
“The upside-down church has a very large structure, but a small mission,” he pointed out. “It needs to be the other way around. We fall in love with programs, when we need to fall in love with the lost.”
God began to move after missions and evangelism became a priority. When growth had reached 100 members, 40 of them at any time could be on a mission trip. After returning from Germany one year, Smith asked someone who the person was on stage leading worship for vacation Bible school.
“Who’s Becka?” Smith asked.
“Oh, her family is one of the ones who came here while you were gone.”
Five families had joined the church during Smith’s two-week absence in Germany. “That’s when it hit me that the more mission work we do and engage with the mission of Christ, the more people the Lord brought to us,” he said. “I tell pastors that we tend to focus on growing the church, when we should be focused on growing the kingdom.”
That growth brought the need to develop leaders. It’s an issue churches tend to ignore when experiencing a time of growth, and when it’s not addressed also can hasten a decline, Smith noted.
“Every pastor wants his church to grow until it does. We weren’t ready for growth, so we had to find ways to take care of the people God brought to us. I learned that you always have to be developing new leaders if you want your church to grow.”
In a recent podcast with Church Answers, Smith called the layperson “the greatest untapped resource of the church. Our role as pastors is to develop and equip the saints.”
Revitalization, he added, requires a sense of urgency but also trust. Of course, those are difficult to mix when one works against time constraints and the other requires them. One way to address both is to “problem-cast” continuously – identify an issue and place it before the membership for their input.
While discussing those issues, find ways to celebrate victories. Rather than have designated Baptism Sundays with several individuals, Smith would schedule one for each Sunday. Their story would be thoroughly shared and celebrated with testimonies by friends and family.
As many churches age – both in membership and buildings – many have become more open to the necessary steps of revitalization. In much the same way, pastors and churches adopted online strategies last year when COVID-19 took away in-person gatherings.
Smith maintains that such steps are more obvious than churches want to admit and often need to reach a point – like seeing $1.06 in the bank account – to make the move.
“Every church has a psychology and instinctively knows what they’re supposed to be doing,” he added. “Nothing stirs the heart like three things: baptisms, new members and mission work.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)