By James Pope, Pastor, North Arundel Church
Baptist churches are like cats. In the words of Lyle Schaller, no one owns a cat! There are probably statistical studies somewhere that break down the percentages for each characterization along a spectrum from failure to success when it comes to church revitalization. Here is my unscientific take:
There are some churches that have said, “Over my dead body” so long, that they contribute to self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether this group of churches use their resources to keep the lights on until the last one dies, or waits too long to call for help, the outcome is the same: property that no one can use because it requires too much repair or a corporation without dissolution or any living Trustees. Like the Apostle John’s letter to the church at Sardis, they had a reputation of being alive but were dead.
There are some churches that have been faithful stewards of their property even while suffering from dysfunctional leadership. While they may have staked out the “we shall not be moved” principle of resisting change, they were proud enough of what they had to ensure its upkeep. Whether it is pride or a sense of Kingdom obligation, the thought of “the church” (a.k.a. “building”) falling into disrepair, coupled with the absence of the sound of children’s voices echoing through the hallways, is enough to get their attention. They are at least open to a conversation about the future, the outcome of which is depending on how well that conversation is managed.
The factors influencing the entire spectrum of churches in need of transition are few and certain. It’s doubtful that any are spiritual in nature. Were I to distill these, they might look like this:
1) A sense of loss of importance or value. Someone has said, “When small men cast long shadows, it’s late in the day!” In most cases the conversation is about senior adults. In the last stage of life, with everything else fleeting, so is their sense of having a voice. They lose their keys, hearing, eyesight, Bibles and the places where their opinion used to count. They end up emotionally barricaded inside the walls of a church where they still feel like they are in control. Somehow, that fact has to be dealt with.
2) The nature of change and its assumed implications. This is a principle that stands in the middle of church fights about worship styles as well as about embracing an uncertain future as a church. Failure to admit that change does not imply correcting what is wrong leads to the resistance of opportunity. The generation that is at the heart of the struggle is the one that has witnessed more change than any generation in human history. And while they have embraced changes in transportation and technology because it has improved their lives, they are reluctant to do so in respect to their faith. “The ole’ time religion is good enough for me because it was good for our fathers, mothers, brothers,”etc. How faith was practiced was tied to why. In their minds, if you change how, it is a judgment on why. You are declaring that which they hold dear to has been wrong. Somehow that fact has to be dealt with.
3) The need for a friend who can be trusted. At any given time in any given burger joint on any given evening of any given day in any given community they can be found. There they sit, eating, drinking, killing hours, swapping stories. They are the cohorts of a dying breed, both men and women. Most of the time they have all been around the same area and this is how they spend their days. Interestingly enough, the only thing that it takes to become one of them is to be one of them from somewhere else. If you are old enough and have the time, you can join their ranks because they assume that you can be trusted.Try being a kid and join!
Because of the list of variables that influence how people think, feel and act, the safest way to introduce a previously taboo subject is by a peer. When it comes to a church in its twilight years in need of making inherently difficult decisions regarding its own future, there is no substitute for gray hair! Somehow that fact has to be dealt with.
For another church to be willing to take on the challenge of offering a future, they will not succeed unless they are able to graciously navigate these issues. It will not always work. It can work. It has worked. It can work again.