GUEST-POST: Dying Churches Successfully Revitalized
Small churches are using strategies to alter their mission and successfully relaunch.
More Protestant church congregations close than open in a year in America. According to Lifeway Research, in 2019, 4,500 churches closed their doors while only 3,000 new churches were started.
As they face closure, some churches are turning to a strategy found in the 2018 book, “Dying to Restart” by Greg Wiens and Dan Turner, not just to survive, but thrive.
The West Side Church of God in Wichita, Kansas, decided to adopt the strategies in the book.
On March 12, the congregation gathered for its final service. Its attendance had dropped to only 45 people, about one-third the number it had in the early 2000s when Pastor Forest Cornwell arrived.
According to the Faith Communities Today study in 2020, half of all churches in the country have less than 65 people worshiping in services each week.
Cornwell recognized that West Side Church of God was facing closure. “If we keep going like we’re going as a church, we are going to die,” Cornwell told The Wichita Eagle. “That might drag out five or 10 years, but we’re not accomplishing anything the way we are going now.”
Instead, the church’s board relinquished control and will be replaced by pastors and leaders of other churches that are growing. They have agreed to sit on West Side’s board for two to three years and help them succeed in relaunching.
West Side will close for several months and then re-open with a new name and an operational makeover. During those months, the members will attend weekly workshops to learn about changes that need to be made. The church building will be fixed up, painted, and new sound equipment installed.
Church member and music director Tracie Nice has been at West Side for 55 years. She supports the relaunch. “We’re excited, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it will be real, real difficult too,” she said. “We know in our hearts it’s the right thing.”
Eleven other churches have followed the relaunch advice in “Dying to Restart.” Co-author Dan Turner said they’ve been successful with an average growth of about 3 ½ times what it was prior to closing.
In 2004, Turner himself was a pastor who led a small church of only 32 in Washington, D.C. After a year of doing everything he knew to grow the church, nothing changed.
Turner followed advice he learned online from another pastor, and the church relaunched in 2006 as Northwest Community Church. A larger church agreed to help finance outreach efforts, like sending postcards about the relaunch to the community.
In Turner’s opinion, the relaunch effort was successful. Each year the church has grown steadily to a present membership of over 200.
Heritage Free Will Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, had dwindled to an attendance of only 15 members before deciding to relaunch according to the Dying to Restart principles.
Its pastor, Chris Davenport, thought the church had lost its focus. It had a rigid dress code and didn’t care about spiritually lost people, he said.
It sold its building and relaunched in an elementary school in March 2020 as Bridge Church. It has seen an increase in attendance to 175.
Davenport credits Dying to Restart with helping refocus the church on its mission: “[T]his is God’s church, and we need to do whatever we can to get people to know Jesus.”
Turner agrees with Davenport. He believes churches often die because they become insular and lose focus on the greater mission of sharing the Gospel and discipling people.
He doesn’t believe small churches need to grow into large churches in order to survive, adding that relaunch efforts will not look the same for every church.
Turner’s usual consultation fee for helping churches relaunch is $2,200. However, he said he waives the fee for churches who can’t afford it.
The Southern Baptist Convention is also supporting church replants through its North American Mission Board. In 2020, NAMB helped fund 50 replants.
LA City Baptist Church was a successful replant. The small historic Hispanic congregation had dwindled to 12 when Pastor Min Lee arrived in 2018. In 2022, it had grown to about 50.
Lee said replanting is slow and steady work that begins with building trust with older congregation members and moves to changing the church’s approach to ministry.
If not handled correctly, the replanting process can have perils.
In 2020, older church members at Vineyard United Methodist Church felt discarded when their church was restarted.
Mark Hallock, author of “Replant Roadmap” encourages pastors to gain support from existing church members.
“This is not a takeover situation,” he said. “This is a situation where we’re coming in and loving those who are there and inviting them to be part of something together that God could do moving forward.”
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