By Dustin Walters
We recently discussed the state of the church on the podcast. If you have not done so already, give this brief episode a listen, which is a more developed version of what Ben and I discussed.
It is no secret that baptisms are declining, and churches seem to be closing at an alarming rate. The 2020 digest of reports produced for the National Association of Free Will Baptists revealed several key insights about the state of our churches. Churches were invited to describe themselves. Approximately 36% of interviewed churches said they were neither declining nor growing; 22% of churches stated that they were declining; 42% described themselves as growing, while only two percent described themselves as exploding. Furthermore, approximately 40 affiliated churches close their doors each year.
Statistics like these are startling, even depressing. It must be considered how we came to this place and what we can do to transform declining churches into thriving churches of health and vitality. However, before we can adequately address challenges pastors and churches face today, we must understand this cultural moment in which God has called us to minister. It is no accident that He has called us to minister in this post everything world. He has appointed us for such a time as this.
It is important to consider that American evangelical churches were facing decline well before the COVID-19 pandemic made its ugly presence known. Thom Rainer suggests that the pandemic expedited local church decline about 5-6 years ahead of where it would have been without the pandemic. The pandemic certainly opened our eyes to the ways in which we do ministry, yet the average attendance of most families in any given church is 1/3 Sundays. But even in the midst of turmoil, it is encouraging to hear reports of people finally returning to in-person worship,
We must understand that our culture was shifting in a post-Christian direction well before the pandemic. While there was no specific moment that led to the sexual revolution, rampant postmodernism, denial of objective truth and morality – times have changed, even in my young life. The late F. Leroy Forlines describes the transition from modernism to postmodernism as a gradual rejection of truth and ultimately a rejection of God. He says,
“By leaving God, Jesus Christ, and divine revelation out of the picture, modernism put itself at cross purposes with the image of God. It led to pessimism and despair. It created an empty and troubled society…Postmodernism recognizes the problem but offers no solution.” (The Quest for Truth, 23)
What is the place of the church – the bride, the community of the redeemed – in a world like ours? Brothers and sisters, we are called, even commanded to be salt and light (Matthew 5:16). While there is nothing new under the sun and while the fundamental problem is human sin and our separation from God, we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in these days in which we live and minister because we now live in a unique cultural moment.
Ministry on the other side of the pandemic will look a lot different than it did before. It will be very relational, organic, and also strategic in what it does outside of the Sunday worship gathering, especially in the areas of evangelism and discipleship. Perhaps what our declining churches need is to experience renewal by retrieving their past. We must not look merely to the past of our specific congregations, but must look back to our New Testament foundation. We must renew our commitment to a ministry that is rooted in the Gospel and Jesus’ power to transform individuals and communities.
Becoming a Relational Church
People are fundamentally disconnected from God and each other because of the Fall. The inception of human sin created brokenness, shame, and separation in the relationship between God and His creation. It also created a great chasm between other image bearers. The only reconciling act bringing us back to God is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinful humanity. Receiving Christ’s gift of salvation not only renews us and washes us, it puts us into the family of God.
The local church is the visible depiction of Christ’s kingdom on earth and it is through the church that we are reconnected to God and each other. Sadly, many in our churches do not really know each other outside of the corporate worship gathering. This is a failure of discipleship and the resulting fellowship of believers. Discipleship happens best in relationships.
For our churches to experience new life in this post-Christian world, we must provide opportunities for people to experience a meaningful connection with God and others, through the ordinary means of grace. People are lonelier than ever, even though they are more “connected” through social media. The church should be the first place to find relational healing. As Rosaria Butterfield teaches, our goal should be to “See strangers as neighbors and neighbors as the family of God.” (The Gospel Comes with a House Key).
Pursuing Authenticity in the Ordinary
Not only must our churches prioritizes real relationships in the strange ministry climate we’re in, but we must also pursue authenticity in the ordinary. As we go about the schedules of our lives, we must seek to implement our faith into our grocery shopping, budget planning, and laundry washing. Millennials and those from Generation Z will see right through “fakeness.” They want something real and abiding. The most real and abiding thing in this world is the Gospel hope we have, even in the ordinary and chaotic things of everyday life.
Developing a Plan
Our churches must rely on the ordinary means of grace to see Gospel-centered transformation take root. We did not get to this place of church decline overnight and we will not get out of it overnight either. God is a planner – nothing He does is accidental. Pastors and ministry leaders, develop a plan to revitalize your church. If you are stuck in a ministry rut, get away to be with God. Take a day off. Start planning more intentionally, brothers. (In the future, I want to lead church leadership retreats every year where we plan strategically for the months and years ahead. Failing to plan is planning to fail.)
The best news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Other qualified people have embarked on the church revitalization journey and have provided us with resources to help us bring our churches back to life, relying on the power of the Spirit to work through us. I have listed some of my favorite resources on church revitalization at the end of this post.
Three Important Priorities for Pastors and Ministry Leaders
- Renew your commitment to an ordinary means of grace approach to ministry. Put the Bible back in center focus. It is through the word that lives are transformed. The Word should be at the center of our praying, singing, and communal life together. Stop trying to be the most amazing or cool church in the town. Love God. Be devoted to Him and one another. Allow His Spirit to work in your church by trusting the ordinary means of grace rather than your own creativity.
- Saturate your church and community in prayer. Every revival or Great Awakening has always been the fruit of much intentional, intercessory, and confessional prayer. Pastors, we must lead our people in private and public prayer. I love the prayer of Habakkuk, when the prophet says, “I have heard the report about you from long ago. Do it in the midst of these years.” (Habakkuk 3:2)
- Develop an authentic community of love and hospitality. For the church to grow today, we must think about our communal life together outside of the Sunday gathering. People are starving for real relationships, not just mock relationships on social media. We need to reclaim the communal life of the local church. In another post, we can reflect on ways to increase the quality of our fellowship and discipleship.
I believe if we commit ourselves to an ordinary means of grace approach to ministry, which prioritizes the Bible and authentic community then our churches are poised to make a real impact for generations to come. We are on the precipice of a Great Awakening. Let’s prepare our hearts, minds, and congregations now!
Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches
Andrew M. Davis, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again
Bill Hennard, Can These Bones Live?
Harry Reeder, From Embers to a Flame