Church revitalization is possible but it’s not easy, say pastors

February 20, 2017


Immanuel Baptist Church, Salisbury sent a 20-person mission team to minister at the Ocean City Resort Ministry’s international dinners feeding 400 students.

Andrew Morgan, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Salisbury, was called to the church in January 2011. He said the church was not healthy, but was aware of their need for change.

“They had come to the point of knowing that if they didn’t change, they would die,” Morgan said.

The church participated in LifeWay’s Transformational Church strategy with the help of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network/BCMD. It was a great decision that became the catalyst for the church’s turning around journey.

Morgan, who was one of several pastors who contributed input to the Network’s “Turning Around Journey,” said for any church ready to embark on change they must realize that patience is necessary.

“You can’t rip out the pews and put in cafe tables or fire the music minister and bring in a rock band and expect change. You can create a crowd, but that’s not the same as growing,” he said.

Morgan said the process for Immanuel’s change began with looking at themselves. “We had to identify and appreciate who we were,” he said, adding “we also had to identify who we were not.”

As part of that discovery process, Morgan said the church had to look inward before looking outward. That didn’t mean we stopped missional outreach, he stressed, but they had to say no to projects the church wasn’t ready for or that they felt were not what God had for them at that time.

Morgan likened it to a person who has a 104 fever. A sick person can’t go out and get the job done. He doesn’t have the strength and may get a lot of others sick.

The church, Morgan said, began its change with a real “unity around the gospel of Christ.”  While that was always the church’s goal, it needed to be expressed in their purpose and action, he explained.

As the church is progressing, it is growing slightly in attendance, but the real change is at a deeper level. Instead of the same small group of people doing ministry, the majority of the church is involved. In addition, weekly offerings have increased. People want to support the ministries.

Thomas Winborn was called to Welsh Baptist Church in Frostburg in 1999. The historic church was started in 1868 by a group of Welsh settlers. It, like many churches, was declining. Winborn said the church had maintained its funds but was spiraling downwards quickly in attendance and effectiveness. The average age was 65, and there were no children and one youth.

Winborn said pastors are taught at seminary to steer clear of making too many changes the first year. That wasn’t going to work at Welsh, he said. He, and the church leadership knew, they had to move fast.

Winborn said he put a vision team of leaders together to work on the constitution and bylaws, and changed the music to a more contemporary version including older hymns reworked to fit a modern band style of music. But the primary change was leading the church to be gospel-centered and missionally engaged.

“A church is either going forward or backwards,” Winborn states. Welsh, he said, was willing to acknowledge they were dying and had to begin again. “We were really like a ‘replant,’” he explained.

He led the church in “seeing through the lens of the gospel” in everyday life, using that lens in job, family and other decisions. “It’s saying, ‘How can I live out the gospel in this moment?’”

“Everything is driven to, and seen in light of, the cross of Jesus,” he said.

The church now has 80 on Sundays, ten children and a small youth group. The average age is now 45. “We’re reaching the people other churches aren’t reaching in our area. We’ve been intentional about that from the beginning,” Winborn said.

“Missional alignment is what we’re doing,” he said. The church’s mission is to “glorify God by making disciples.” If a ministry does not line up with that mission then it is only draining funds, time, talent and people.

“We say ‘no’ more than ‘yes,’” he said. The church ministers at nursing homes to senior adults. They are very active on the Frostburg State University campus through Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade). They recently started a clothes closet and a parents’ night out ministry.

Not everyone approved of the quick changes. “Some jumped ship,” Winborn said. But the church moved forward.

Winborn provided vision team members each a copy of the book “Seven Practices for Effective Ministry” by Andy Stanley and gave each church member copies of “Who Stole My Church,” by Gordon MacDonald.

“It’s a growing process. Pastors must be patient and willing to allow themselves to change in the transformation,” Winborn said.

Robert Parsley, has served as pastor of First Baptist Church, Crofton for 15 years. He led the church out of their decline through a process of streamlining and simplifying. It has since doubled under his leadership.

Parsley streamlined the church’s organizational structure, narrowing over a dozen committees down to three working groups with ten members each: ministry, missions and external outreach.

“We did away with standing committees,” he said, though they do form “ad-hoc” committees for particular needs. The groups are open and the congregation is welcome to attend, but not vote. Church members with ideas and concerns are welcome to share. Business meetings were held less often but the church body votes when substantial amounts of money is used, such as buying a piano, but the administrative group determines the best deal.

Did everyone like the idea? Not at all.

“If you’re expecting everyone to like it, you’re in fantasy land,” Parsley said. “Expect to lose a few and to gain a lot more.”

Change did not happen overnight, Parsley said, but the conflict and tension reduced dramatically.

“This has been a real blessing,” Parsley said, adding that other churches have replicated the organizational strategy. Parsley said the church recently narrowed the three teams to just two: administrative and ministry/missions. Each team now has 12 representatives. They also try very hard to keep the teams well represented with young adults actively participating in leadership.

Now the church focuses on outreach. “It’s putting full energy into serving instead of business and committee meetings,” Parsley said.

“When churches are declining and arguing, the unimportant matters. They don’t lift up the main thing, they don’t focus on serving. When they do, it’s like working on the farm all day. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you don’t have time to fuss,” he said.