LOUISVILLE—There's an abundance of talk today about church health—the discussion focusing on the declining health of some churches and what can be done to address those situations. One Kentucky Baptist Association is making revitalization a major initiative, admittedly "searching for a new beginning."
Those are the words of Todd Robertson, associational mission strategist for the Louisville Regional Baptist Association (LRBA), which is comprised of 163 churches and missions. "We are rethinking, redefining and re-energizing because churches are in a different place and the community is different."
Surveying the churches in the LRBA, Robertson said it was determined that 79% were in the plateaued or declining stage. Of that total, around 25% are declining and about 5% which are facing the prospect of closing their doors.
"When we talk about church revitalization, we talk about wanting to see a church regain that vital strength that it has to have to impact the community," said Robertson, who has been in his current position for 2 1/2 years. "We want to try to help encourage churches to be healthy and to be engaging their community."
The idea that a church would close its doors and die causes great angst for Robertson. Some suggest that churches are organisms, and just like some organisms die, we should let some churches die, he says. He doesn't believe this should be the case.
"Churches shouldn't die," said Robertson. "I've been influenced by guys like Mark Clifton in his book Reclaiming Glory. Mark has really helped me to think through the question: do churches have to die? When we look at the scriptures, we recognize that churches can have times of serious health issues, but we see Paul going back and visiting those churches and re-engaging those churches."
He believes we also hear this thought directly from Jesus. "We see John writing the words of Jesus to churches in Revelation that were sick, but that He desires them to be healthy again," he said.
Robertson believes the planting of a church is a significant statement to a community, not only about the mission of the congregation, but the glory of Christ.
"The glory of Christ is displayed in a local church in a local community and that's significant. When people came together and gathered to start that church they were saying: 'We're here to proclaim Jesus; we're here to declare the glory of Christ.' And that's significant."
"When we say, 'Well, it just didn't really work out. So we're just going to pack up shop … bust it down and we'll just put up a parking lot or a used car lot or something like that.' That says something to the community and I think it reflects on the glory of Christ.
"When we plant a church in a community it's like having an embassy in another country. We place that embassy there and that's sovereign soil—that embassy represents the United States in that place. It represents what the values of the United States are about. That embassy means something. When an embassy is closed, the last thing that happens is the Marines go up on the roof and they pull down that flag and they fold it carefully. They get on the helicopter and they fly away. I don't think that's the kind of message that we want to send to our communities."
Tony Evans has also spoken on the embassy analysis. "If you get into trouble in a foreign land, make your way to the American Embassy, because once you cross the gate and enter the realm of its dominion, you are in America again. You are where American law is the rule.
"Likewise, the church is supposed to be a little bit of heaven a long way from home … a place where weary people can go to find truth, acceptance, equality, freedom, safety, joy, justice and hope."
And the abandonment of a church is noticed by the world.
"It says something if we are content to go into churches that are struggling and just pull down the flag of Christ, fold it up neatly, get on our helicopters and fly away and leave communities with the impression that maybe Jesus isn't that great after all, that maybe the gospel isn't that powerful after all," Robertson said. "That's not the message that we want to send. So we want to come alongside churches to try to help them.
"Maybe that's going to mean a radical transition to something else; maybe that's going to mean a replay or a different kind of church emerging in that space. And I'm not arguing that the church is the building because we know the church is the people. But that building—that place that's been staked out for the gospel in that community—is important and is significant. We want to try to keep as much of that territory as we can and see healthy vibrant churches.
"Maybe it's that same group of people that are just doing things in a different way. Maybe it's a different group of people that are worshipping there and proclaiming Christ there in a way that connects with that community. But we want to see those places remain as an outpost and as places where the glory of Christ is flying proudly over them."
Awareness of church health
The LRBA is committed to raising awareness on the issues of church health, revitalization, church replanting. "We recognize churches have to be ready for that process—they have to be ready to have conversations. We've had a number of churches contact us to say 'we know we need to do something; we're not sure what that is.'
"We've been trying to step in when churches are in pastoral transition to begin those conversations, beginning to think about transitional pastors—and in particular revitalization transitional pastors—pastors who will come in and during that time of the interim be able to really help churches to begin to engage some of this conversation." Robertson said the first task in helping to improve church health is to talk to its members.
"We don't want to presume that somehow we're experts—that are going to come in and fix everything. We want to have a healthy conversation. We want to be able to really step into the relationship and hear and see where they are."
In order to be effective, the association is beginning an initiative that it calls the "associational response team."
That team would represent someone from the association's mercy ministry team, a person from church revitalization and someone from church planting and replanting. Those individuals would meet with key leaders in the local church, hear the church's story and ask questions (see questions below).
Robertson said that factors outside of the church can play a significant role in the health of a church.
"We know that our community is changing," he said. "When we look at the demographics of the Louisville region, we know that we have a very slight growth pattern—a little less than 1 percent growth pattern. Currently the majority of our growth is in foreign born population refugees. We know that ethnically we're changing. We know that we've got different areas of the city that are changing in terms of socioeconomics."
Robertson said there is population growth in some areas. Meanwhile, there are deteriorating areas where homes are repaired or rebuilt and businesses locate, resulting in an influx of middle class or affluent people. That results in displacing lower-income residents, changing the nature and makeup of the neighborhood.
Needs and assets
"The reality is that the church has to be aware (of these changes) if we're going to have an impact on the people that are in our community. We have to know who those people are. We have to know what's happening. We're not changing our gospel message, but we do have to think about how we're delivering that message to the people that are actually there—not the people who were there 30, 40 or 50 years ago."
"We've got some churches who have just taken some very simple steps, and the most important first step is that they've listened to their community to say: 'this is what we need.' But not only 'this is what we need, but this is what we have to offer.'
"I think it'd be foolish for us as churches to assume that our communities only have needs. We have incredible assets scattered throughout our communities. We have good work that's already being done by different organizations."
Secular institutions and organizations can partner with churches to meet community needs. "We're building relationships. We're serving and loving people in the name of Christ. We're building the kind of respect and rapport that we need to be able to accurately and effectively share the gospel so that people can come to know Christ."
While there's consensus that there's no quick fix to improving church health, resources and advisors are available to help churches who find their survival in jeopardy.
4 Primary Questions in a Church Health Evaluation:
• What is a grace that you have in the history of the church; what things do you celebrate?
• What words and phrases would you use to describe where the church is at the present time?
• How did you get to the point where you are now?
• What would the church look like if it was vital and healthy and having an impact on the community?