Church Rescue

Help struggling churches before they die

Ken Davis March 1, 2012




Church planting seems to be in vogue today, attracting hundreds of young seminarians and Bible college students. This resurgence has resulted in an estimated 4,000 new churches being planted in North America every year. That is a trend for which all Bible-believers should be grateful.

Yet research also indicates that about 3,700 churches in America dissolve every year. Many others struggle with declining attendance and inadequate leadership. Some Christian leaders argue that revitalizing unhealthy churches is as vital for the advance of the gospel as starting new ones.

Having been a church planter for over 35 years, I admit I’m a little biased. For years I have advocated conventional church-growth wisdom: “It is easier to have babies than raise the dead.” Yet in recent years I’ve become convinced that we often quit too soon in our attempts to revive churches in decline. In some cases, it may be more strategic for healthy churches and church planters to invest their time, energy, and resources in revitalizing struggling congregations rather than starting new works.

Pastors, planters, and church leaders need wisdom. Some churches are so far gone they should be “put down.” These churches need to acknowledge that spiritually they are already dead—no one has been saved or baptized for years, sin may be rampant, and worship is lifeless. They should formally close their doors, sell the property, and quit dishonoring the name of Jesus in their communities. Yet I strongly believe that God’s heart is for the revival of many of His churches. Though turning dying congregations around may be difficult, many could be successfully salvaged.

Thus church revitalization—bringing life to dying churches by dealing with the causes of decline and building toward renewed fruitfulness and faithfulness—is a worthwhile pursuit.

The Case for Church Revitalization

Why might we invest in rescuing failing congregations? I see several Biblical and practical reasons. First, church revitalization is a Biblical burden. Both Jesus and Paul made this a priority. In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus Himself sought to set right what was broken and give new life to what was dying. Addressing each church, He placed the spotlight on the particular reasons for their failing community testimony: lackluster love (Ephesus—2:2-7), false teaching (Pergamum and Thyatira—2:13–17; 20–23), lukewarm devotion (Laodicia—3:15–19). To the church at Sardis, Jesus said, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (3:1–3, ESV).

Some see Revelation 3:2 as a proof text for church revitalization: “Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (ESV). Shouldn’t we be as concerned for congregations today with little or no gospel witness as Christ was for Sardis?

The apostle Paul seemed to demonstrate an equal concern for the health of churches he planted as for evangelizing yet unreached regions. The New Testament indicates he often returned to cities and regions where he had previously labored in order to “strengthen” newly planted churches (Acts 15:36, 41). At other times he delayed his aggressive church-planting work to write young churches with pressing problems. His first letter to the Corinthians is a case in point. Beset with divisions and factions (1:10–17), sexual immorality (5:1–13), lawsuits among members (6:1-8), confusion over marriage and sexuality (ch. 7), and worship wars (chaps. 11—14), the apostle boldly rebuked the Corinthian believers, seeking to reform and restore the church to health.

Second, church revitalization enables us to reclaim valuable resources for gospel purposes. Millions of dollars have been invested in land, buildings, and equipment as faithful believers have given over many decades. In dying churches these resources are being little utilized. Church planters are often desperate for property and facilities of their own; often their best people must set up for weekly services in rented schools or hotel ballrooms. Rescuing aging churches on life support may, in some cases, be good stewardship. If believers don’t revitalize those that are recoverable, many of these valuable properties may be lost to liberal churches, Muslim mosques, or condominium developers.

Third, church revitalizations avoid logistical challenges commonly found in new church starts. In the 9Marks eJournal article “The Pros and Cons of Planting and Revitalizing,” Michael McKinley, who replanted Guilford Baptist Church, Sterling, Va., points out that “most church planting models require the planter to coordinate a lot of logistics with relatively little man-power” (Nov./Dec. 2011). Planters often struggle to find suitable and affordable places to meet. Providing a quality children’s ministry, welcoming guests, and getting volunteers to set up and tear down each Sunday can become a huge burden for a newly birthed congregation.

Finally, revitalizing unhealthy existing churches can be a two-for-the-price-of-one investment. Not only do we reclaim a vibrant testimony for the gospel, but we also remove the poor witness that was there previously. Pastor Mark Dever of 9Marks advocates this model because he believes that sickly churches are “terribly effective anti-missionary forces” (“What Makes a Church Reform Possible?” 9Marks eJournal, Nov./Dec. 2011). Sickly churches malign the gospel and defame God’s name with false advertising of what Christianity is about. When a dying church is rescued the community is once again “confronted with a genuine corporate witness for Christ.”

The Challenges of Church Revitalization

Though church rescues do have advantages, there are two significant challenges, as McKinley points out. First, older, dying congregations often have a terrible community reputation. A past moral scandal, corporate unfriendliness, longstanding isolationism, or even racism may be harming the church’s witness. Thus pastors seeking to revive these churches will need to labor patiently to rebuild a positive image in the community.

Second, stagnant churches may not desire to change and grow. There are usually painful reasons why these churches are dying. Years of poor leadership and past traumatic events within the church body have caused significant attendance and financial decline. Entrenched leaders, carrying lots of personal baggage, will oppose reformist pastors with fresh ideas. Aside from the congregation’s poor spiritual state, facilities and programs may be in ruins. It may take years for a congregational turnaround.

Starting a new church from scratch normally avoids these issues. Church planters rarely hear, “Pastor, we’ve never done it that way before.” Planters can focus on reaching lost people and new community residents rather than be distracted by carnal, inwardly focused Christians who don’t want to change and evangelize their community.

Third, a new phenomenon has added to these challenges: stagnant churches may become the victims of unethical assistance. For example, a large ministry organization may convince a struggling congregation to turn over its property to a well-funded rescue team—as long as the church votes on new bylaws and a new doctrinal statement. The new bylaws may strip away congregational authority. The “rescuing” ministry is able to harvest the assets of the struggling Baptist church, but turns it into something entirely different. Ideally, rescued congregations need to aim for enhancing their community gospel witness while preserving a strong Biblical foundation that is true to the Word.

Guidelines for Successful Church Renewal

What can we do to help churches accomplish a genuine turnaround? Planters and healthy churches have two viable options for helping unhealthy churches: restarting or replanting. A restart is birthing a brand-new church out of a practically dead or dying one. Sometimes a stalled church plant that is only a few years old, prematurely launched without proper understanding and much prayerful preplanning, must be relaunched, this time utilizing proven missiological principles and better planting methodologies. In contrast, a replant revitalizes and refocuses a declining church that still has potential.

In the restart approach, the congregation usually agrees to stop public services in their church building for at least three to six months, meeting only for home Bible studies and prayer, before relaunching public ministries. For a successful restart to take place, says J. David Jackson in PlantLIFE: Principles and Practices in Church Planting (Missional Press, 2008), six conditions should be met:

  1. The original church body must be willing to die, dissolving its bylaws and legal status.
  2. The restart must have new leadership, both pastoral and lay; often a church planter becomes the restart pastor.
  3. The new church relaunches with a new name to give it a new identity and reputation.
    It relocates, at least temporarily, to a new site for its meetings.
  4. It must develop new statements of mission, vision, and core values to guide its future.
  5. It must normally refocus on a different ministry group. Based on a renewed understanding of the demographics and dynamics of the community, the new church reaches out to a different slice of the local population.

A complete change of leadership and direction are musts for this model to be successful, and the new leader must have abundant energy and faith. “Restarting a church takes mountains of energy and the faith in God’s power necessary to ward off discouragement,” says Dr. Ralph F. Wilson in his article “Restarting a Dead Church.” Along with energy and faith should come fresh vision. Dying churches can celebrate their past victories and then mentally move on to a vision focused on outreach and growth. “Remember,” Dr. Wilson says, “[the church is] there to make a new beginning.”

When a church in the thriving San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles had dwindled to just a handful of members, notes Dr. Wilson, it decided to die, deeding the property to a local association of Baptist churches and relinquishing control. Later the association’s church-planting steering team called a planter to be the restart pastor. Since then, the church has grown in Sunday morning attendance.

If a church is considering a vote to dissolve its bylaws, with the intention of restarting a new church, it must remember it has no legal status after it dissolves. The “restart” or “relaunch” must be carefully planned and timed so that a smooth transition can take place between the old organization and the new. The church may need a local lawyer who has successful experience working with churches and nonprofit organizations.

In the replant approach, the emphasis is on turning the ship around and giving it new direction. This type of total church transformation happens only if God is at work. Ultimately moribund churches will be reformed and enlivened only through solid Biblical preaching, fervent prayer, and subsequent corporate repentance. A refocused gospel-centered ministry should bring a renewed concern for evangelism and the lost.

Dan Reiland in The Pastor’s Coach e-newsletter article “Turning Around a Congregation” (Oct. 2002) proposes an eight-step plan for corporate revitalization. First, core leaders need to be convinced of the crisis. “If your leaders don’t believe that the church will die without change, you will not turn it around.” Second, the specific reason(s) for the crisis must be identified. Reiland lists common reasons for church demise: the church doesn’t accept newcomers; doesn’t demonstrate reliance upon God; isn’t making disciples; has no heart for lost people; doesn’t confront sin; is mired in church “traditions, bureaucracy, committees and red tape”; and has a pastor unwilling or unable to lead. Third, a new corporate dream and a compelling vision must be cast and caught by the people. Fourth, a leadership team committed to congregational turnaround must be recruited to lead the process. Fifth, the church must stay focused on the significant changes that will make a difference. Sixth, it is imperative to “honor the [church’s] history and lift up what is not going to be changed.” Seventh, leaders must help the church distinguish between core Biblical values and current ministry methodologies. Finally, leaders must always offer “generous amounts of hope and encouragement,” realizing that church turnarounds are never easy or accomplished overnight.

While there is no guaranteed formula for success, these guidelines—combined with much prayer, passion, and persistence—can lead to congregational turnarounds.

With both the restarting and replanting approaches to corporate revitalization, one item is essential: partnership. Church restoration can be a grueling, lengthy process, with inevitable setbacks. It helps to have sister churches and praying friends encourage the church along the way. Wise restart and replant leaders will not attempt to revitalize a church alone. They will make it a priority to disciple and mentor promising leaders in the congregation who can one day be supportive partners in the renewal ministry. Seeking the aid of a pastoral coach or church consultant would also provide great benefit. A consultation team could help the church’s leaders assess corporate spiritual vitality and develop a strategic recovery plan with a strong ministry vision for the future.

One such proven consultative team is ChristWay Ministries, led by Drs. Milo Thompson and Howard Bixby. Several mission agencies, such as Baptist Mid-Missions, Continental Baptist Missions, and Baptist Church Planters, offer similar services (see sidebar). Likewise, state associations, such as the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches, have a formal program for church revitalization (see sidebar). The GARBC, too, offers a consulting team for struggling churches (see sidebar).

The Last Resort: Death with Dignity

At times a thorough evaluation of a church body, kept lingering on life support for years, reveals that its vital signs have gone flat. Possibly its survival has depended on massive infusions of money and effort from outside the congregation, but all to no avail. In the past, dying congregations have been advised to relocate or merge with healthier ones (both not normally too successful). Many other seriously ailing churches have disbanded, scattering their parishioners to various community churches.

Recently a few historic congregations have begun to see the death of their churches as a way to plant new ones. Like Sarah, Abraham’s wife, aged churches—and even some on their deathbeds—can produce new life. These dying churches are selling their properties and assets and giving the funds to agencies to start new congregations. Project Jerusalem, the church-planting and training ministry that I direct out of Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa., has been a beneficiary of a dissolving church in New York State. Donated assets were used to plant Living Hope Baptist, a vibrant multiethnic church in Mount Pocono, Pa.

For dying churches, leaving such a legacy is to pass on to future generations something of great significance. If a closing congregation can give birth to a new church, it can carry forward their values and beliefs, continuing to fulfill the Great Commission in a nearby community. The dying church has a moral and ethical responsibility to distribute its remaining assets to ministry organizations that share its doctrine, polity, and values. (For more information on dying with dignity, see Legacy Churches by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond [ChurchSmart, 2009].)

Final Applications

Rescuing struggling congregations should be seen as a viable option to give them a future and a hope. The question should never be which strategy—whether planting a new church or revitalizing a dying one—is better. It is both/and, not either/or. Both the church-planting and church-revitalizing strategies carry unique opportunities and challenges. Both approaches share the same overall objective: to see a God-honoring congregation established in a community with insufficient gospel witness. The decision depends to some extent on the church planter’s gifts, leadership style, personality temperament, and opportunities.

Church revitalization should be a ministry that healthy, established churches seriously and prayerfully consider. Could your church use its resources and manpower to assist a nearby congregation in decline? Biblical churches that are passionate about spreading the gospel should be concerned, as both Jesus and Paul were, to strengthen and restore the witness of sister congregations. We should desire to see His name and fame no longer dishonored by nominally Christian churches that misrepresent Christ to a watching lost world. Ultimately we should be motivated by a jealous concern for the glory of our God to be magnified in our community.

Ken Davis (DMin candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is on the faculty of Baptist Bible Seminary, where he also serves as director of church planting.

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