By Brian Croft
The numbers are staggering. Experts estimate that approximately 1,000 local churches close their doors every year. What is even more disheartening about this statistic is that number only reflects Southern Baptist Churches—my denomination. Imagine how that number grows if you added the number of closing local churches from other established denominations, which some assert is between 3,500 and 4,000 churches annually. Needless to say, we have an epidemic on our hands. Although God continues in part to build his church through church planting, churches are not being planted and lasting near the rate of those that permanently shut their doors each year.
It is good and right to be burdened by the reality of the extinguishing of once thriving local churches that previously were gospel lights in their communities. Pastors are quitting. Beautiful, historic church buildings are being auctioned to the highest bidder. No doubt, the burden that many who love Christ’s bride feel is a burden we too should feel. The weight of this burden has resulted in an unprecedented movement to do something about these dying churches. Emerging in a variety of denominations, it has been labeled, “Church Revitalization” and/or “Church Replanting.”
Having engaged in my own pastoral work of church revitalization prior to the inception of this movement and having observed this movement during that time, I have noticed two commonly unhelpful approaches to this undertaking: the Pragmatist and the Purist.
The pragmatist seeks to revive and grow a dying church through clever gimmicks and appealing programs that work to bring about specific, desired results. These results usually are numerically based, driven by robust evangelistic efforts that rely heavily on man’s abilities and gifts. Although the Bible and God’s Spirit are often given verbal acknowledgement and have a place in the mix, the desired physical and numeric results become the chief end and driving purpose of the work and the power of revitalization ultimately is found in the cleverness of man. Consequently, results and broad appeal become more important than faithfulness to a specific design God may have for his church that might not produce the same numeric results.
To the pragmatist, the desired numeric result becomes the end that justifies embracing whatever means are necessary to accomplish it.
The purist approaches the task of church revitalization from a strict adherence to biblical principles based on the centrality to God’s word. This frequently manifests itself in ways such as an unwavering commitment to biblical forms of worship. While there is much to commend this approach, there is also a very subtle danger lurking in the background of this approach that can become a major pitfall, and it hides in the heart motives of the revitalizing pastor. If not careful, the pastor’s convictions can almost imperceptibly shift from being a conviction about the centrality of God’s word to become a conviction not to be like the pragmatist. Consequently, the purist celebrates being anti-appeal and anti-creative, and pridefully shuns anything that might appear as entertainment, or consumeristic and worldly. The purist perceives himself as firmly standing on the promises of the power of the word of God to breathe revitalizing life into a congregation.
But in reality the purist is merely squatting on a rigid legalism, intentionally making the church somewhat unappealing in order to discern who indeed is committed to God, his word, his people, and his church.
A Biblical Approach
There is a balanced, biblical approach to the work of revitalization that is both more effective as well as more faithful to God’s design for the local church. This method rests its full weight on the truth that God’s spirit working through his word is the only way to bring true lasting spiritual life to a local church. And yet it also values the truth that it is good and right for the bride of Christ to look beautiful and appealing to God’s people and even intrigue those who are hostile to Christ in the world.
This approach incorporates both the deep conviction that God’s power by his spirit and word does the work and the fact that God also uses creativity, passion, unique gifts, and the zeal of his leaders and people to breathe life and build his church.
This biblical approach advocates that the local church should be appealing, but for specific scriptural reasons: passionate biblical preaching, loving sacrificial fellowship, practical gospel application, zealous soul care, intentional evangelism, and authentic Christ-likeness—to name a few. This method’s goal is to see new life and growth come to a local church, but not at the expense of a faithful pursuit of God’s design for the local church. Church health according to God’s biblical design becomes the ultimate goal, not numbers. God’s power is found in him building his church the way he wants to build his church; it is not defined by any worldly success.
It is this more biblical approach that I wish to advocate. This defines the vision for how we seek to train men at the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization as well as our own local church. Those called to this work enter a noble work that glorifies God. There is a unique and special power and testimony in not just a vibrant local church full of life, but an old historic one that had lost its way, was on life support, and God saw fit to breathe life into it once again. What better testimony that God is a God who raises the dead than watching it happen to dead churches all around the world? But make no mistake. God is the one who must do it. Only God’s power is sufficient to accomplish it. Therefore, it must be approached the way God has designed his church to be built if true, lasting spiritual life is to be brought back into these struggling churches.
Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for dying and divided churches by Brian Croft (Foreword by Harry Reeder) will be released July 2016. This book expands the focus of this article.
Brian Croft is Senior Pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church and the founder of Practical Shepherding. He is also the Senior Fellow of the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian is married to Cara and they have four children.