A plan to fight NW church decline

By Cameron Crabtree
NW Baptist Convention

Photo Caption: John March Clifton spoke at a series of Legacy Church presentations held around the Northwest Baptist Convention to discuss revitalization efforts for declining churches.

Churches in the Northwest facing serious decline and possible closure may have renewed opportunities for ministry impact through “Legacy Church Planting,” a joint effort of the Northwest Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board.

Legacy church planting is the name given to helping a dying church regain a ministry footing in a community by renewing its commitment to gospel outreach, but it also usually involves new leadership and changes in governance and decision making.

“All these changes and all these things you do in revitalization should be seen as an act of worship,” said John Mark Clifton, NAMB strategist for church revitalization.

Clifton joined Gary Irby, the Northwest Baptist Convention’s director of church planting resources, and various NWBC regional staff members for a series of presentations across the Northwest in February to discuss revitalization options for declining churches.

It’s a timely and necessary initiative, Clifton urged. Even with the high profile emphasis on church planting from the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board – seeking to start more than 1,000 churches annually in North America, primarily in metro areas — the net gain of churches is much lower since about 900 Southern Baptist churches close each year, according to Clifton.

“(That) doesn’t keep up with the growth of the population.” Clifton observed. Most of the churches closing are older than 20 years and in metro areas, he added.

The national revitalization effort – aimed at trying to affect about 250 churches annually, Clifton said — is not aimed at trying to turn so-called “small churches” – Clifton prefers to call them “normative” — into churches with large attendance numbers. Rather, it’s to help them “become healthy and contextual” in their communities, he said.

“A church which attracts fewer than 200 people per weekend is normative in Southern Baptist life,” said Clifton, who is also pastor of Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. The well-known megachurches in North America, those that attract more than 1,500 people per weekend and which garner so much media attention, are the exception. “It’s been that way since the first century and throughout Christian history,” he suggested.

During his series of presentations to Northwest Baptist church leaders, Clifton suggested eight tell-tale signs of a dying church: valuing the process of decision making more than its outcomes, valuing church preferences over needs of unreached people, inability to pass on leadership to the next generation, ceasing – often gradually — to be part of a community’s fabric, growing dependent upon programs and pastoral personalities for growth or stability, blaming the community for lack of response to its ministry efforts, anesthetizing the “pain of death” with activities and maintaining outdated structures, and confusing care of the facility with care for the church.

Part of the solution for overcoming such dire straits is found in the biblical admonition to the church at Ephesus found in Revelation 2, Clifton emphasized.

“Passion for the glory of God motivates our legacy church planting,” he said. “This is not the self-serving nostalgia of remembering the past for the sake of our own edification through control and a desire to return to a ‘better time,’ but a remembering of the legacy of missions and ministry that first birthed this dying church and a brokenness to see that return once again.”

Expectations inherent amid changing cultural forces have been hard on many Southern Baptist churches, Clifton mentioned. “When Southern Baptists were at their strongest, people weren’t asking, ‘How do I do church?’” By the 1980s, reliance on preacher personalities and the program-based “paradigm began not to work,” he added.

Unfortunately, he said, many churches in such situations turn “inward” and, thus, begin a further decline.

“Rather than becoming generous with their resources, churches who are dying have misplaced their joy,” he observed. “They have embraced an idol rather than what they found in the gospel. When a church ceases over a period of time to make disciples who make disciples and realize community transformation, that church will die. You don’t have a right to exist as a church and not produce fruit – disciples who make disciples and better the community as a result.”

The old real estate axiom – “location, location, location” — applies to many revitalization efforts.

“It’s best when the facility is located in a neighborhood that can sustain participation either by walking or easy transportation access,” said Clifton. “You can’t ‘legacy plant’ if there’s no neighborhood to reach. What’s lacking in our cities are strong, vibrant neighborhood churches.

Clifton noted the pace of revitalization efforts is slow, 4-8 years in most cases. “There has to be a relationship that’s built and an ‘on ramp’ that needs to be built and that takes time,” he said. “It’s the opposite of traditional church planting in which a lot has to happen in a short amount of time.”

That will require a greater number of “high capacity leaders” willing to go into harder situations and love people who are already there while establishing a new basis for ministry in  community, he said.

One key to helping pastors in those situations is a network for personal and professional support, Clifton said.

“Pastors and ministry leaders need safe environments for pastors to begin to deal with factors necessary for the personal and professional growth,” said Clifton. “The success rate of church planting goes up immeasurably when they are in a support network. The same is true for guys who are going to do this.”

Typically, legacy church planting means one of five options: closing and giving the property to become the campus of another church, closing and giving the property to a new church, merging with a new church, sharing space with a new church (with a merger as a later possibility) or replanting with remaining members using a replant strategy.

Go to www.nwbaptistplanting.com/legacy to learn more about legacy church planting.

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