At death’s door: Is the Church ready to grow?

“As a leader, I knew that it could not be a pastor focused leadership or even a board centered leadership, it had to be all of us praying, seeking, and wanting to move forward to allow God to lead us into the next season of the church’s life.” – Dr. Desmond Barrett

I stood in the small foyer of my first ministry assignment, praying, ‘Lord send us someone new.’ Each week the same eight to thirteen people walked into that tiny church, sat in the same pew, and spoke to the same handful of people content in where they found themselves. I was filled with much hope and promise, but it seemed that week after week, only the same people showed up. I questioned, doubted, and cried to myself, praying that God would turn around this church that was at death’s door. That first year of my active ministry would be transformational in my thinking by helping the church shift its vision and mission to be a church that cared about ‘others’ rather than ‘self.’ To open doors to the community rather than wall themselves off from what was happening around them.

Death had not come to this once vibrant church overnight, but gradually and it snuck up on them through deaths, families moving away, and a series of pastors over twenty years. A new young pastoral family with children was not going to change the trajectory of the church without the church willing to transform. The church was at death’s door, but were they willing to do what it would take for them to grow again?

Three overarching questions challenged us that first year; 

  1. Are we willing to change?
  2. Are we willing to adapt our practices to prepare for the future and move out of the past?
  3. Are we willing to adapt to the needs of the neighborhood?

Leaders who have led their churches regardless of size through renewal have faced difficult moments, challenging times, and excitement as they began to see progress in their efforts. As a leader, I knew that it could not be a pastor focused leadership or even a board centered leadership, it had to be all of us praying, seeking, and wanting to move forward to allow God to lead us into the next season of the church’s life. Twelve months and three questions helped spark renewal that is still happening today.

  1. Are we willing to change?

Embracing change is challenging, but embracing change when everything around the church is changing is difficult. The church has to be willing to change not only in words but deeds. It’s easy to say; yes, we need to change, but it’s quite another to be a part of the progress of change. If a church is to change, you need change agents who are willing to adapt to the circumstances of the moment while projecting a forward image of the future. In this small church, the church leadership had to agree to take on the vision, a journey of a thousand days, and be willing to stretch themselves to prepare for the future blessing that was to come. It was easy for some but very difficult for most. Prayer and petitioning the Lord became our focus. Praying for wisdom, praying for the release of individual self-will for the Saviors-will, and petitioning God to provide a way forward became our focus.

  1. Are we willing to adapt our practices to prepare for the future and move out of the past?

This is the most challenging question for any church that is considering rebooting their spiritual and physical space to prepare for future guests. In an age when everything around a senior saint (historians) is changing, holding on to what is familiar becomes more critical than ever. This is also a space that can become the devil’s playground. Where change agents bump up against the historians of the church. Many pastors and change agents are slain in this space, which enables historians to keep everything frozen in time, a time capsule to yesteryear.

As we embarked on the journey of a thousand days, the church leaders had to embrace the broader vision that the physical inside of the church needed to be prepared for future guests. While we did not have a lot of money, we did have willing individuals that provided elbow grease to our efforts. The church had many stained yellowing ceiling tiles, which were taken down and painted ultra-bright white, cleaned out classrooms which had become closets, to become classrooms again, and darkened light bulbs were changed out and or repaired. 

While these were simple acts, they were transformative for a church that had not updated anything in over a decade. It provided hope, optimism, and pride for what had been accomplished. It challenged the historians to an inch of their comfort zone and gave early wins to the change agents, thus enabling the church to progress forward.

  1. Are we willing to adapt to the needs of the neighborhood?

As churches begin to die, they focus more and more on themselves and forget the neighborhood around them. This causes resentment from the historians that have sheltered in place, feeling like the community should want to walk into the church and worship with them. Maybe that happened in the past, but in the present, people don’t usually show up on the church’s doorstep with their offering in hand. 

What we learned together at the small church was to connect with the neighbors not from the vantage point; ‘what can you do for us, but what can we do for you.’ When you reach out through community block parties, Serve Days, where you go into the neighborhood to paint, mow lawns, trim bushes, you begin to develop relationships that allow you to share your faith. Once the neighbors realize you are there for them, in most cases, they will reciprocate and be there for the church. This step is long and slow but well worth the community investment. 

The first year was challenging, but we began to grow again. What started as eight people ended as eighteen after year one and it placed in the hearts of the church members, that God was still at work in that tiny forgotten church. What we all learned together that first year was death may come knocking at the church door, but we did not have to answer because God would if we trusted him.

Let me encourage you by saying, that change will not come overnight, but change will come if you are willing to lead the church forward to her growth years by enabling God to take hold of the church in a radical way.

Desmond Barrett

Dr. Desmond Barrett is lead pastor at Summit Church of the Nazarene in Ashland, Kentucky.

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