A Church in Transition

A phone call last night from an old friend delivered news about a church I served more than a decade ago.  Every now and then I see a facebook post or some other social media notification from someone connected to that particular church.  I can’t say I’ve really kept in touch, though I have talked to a few members from there on occasion.  But last night’s conversation was about what was happening in the church.  Unfortunately, the news wasn’t good.

It was a neighborhood church in a large, southern city, like so many other Southern Baptist churches, started in a booming, growing neighborhood following World War 2.  Actually, this church’s roots went back to before the war, which actually interrupted construction of its first permanent building, but it experienced its “heyday” during the post war baby boom.  It grew by the standard methods of church growth in those days:  a strong Sunday School, long-term pastorates, a big choir program, lots of things for children and youth to be involved and a family atmosphere.  It eventually built a sprawling campus that included a gymnasium,  lots of classroom space and a large fellowship hall with a commercial kitchen because fellowship meant families.  Attendance reached a peak average of over 900 in worship in the early 1970’s.

When I was called to serve on staff, back in 2002, the church was in “transition.”  A series of changes had occurred which caused a slow, steady decline in membership and attendance, from 900 down to 130 by the end of the 1980’s, leaving a core group of members mostly past 60 years of age.  There was transition of the surrounding neighborhood, though not in a way you’d think would adversely affect the church.  The area around it saw a major bump in property values starting in the 80’s, and as original homeowners aged, retired, passed away and their heirs sold the property, the deed-restricted, well-kept homes in the area soared in value, as did those in two adjoining historic districts.  But the more affluent population that purchased the property was made up of a diverse ethnic and cultural background not native to the South, nor familiar with its Southern Baptist house church.  Traditional Tuesday night visitation and a twice-yearly series of revival meetings didn’t work well as outreach tools.

There were several events beyond the congregation’s control which contributed to the declining membership and attendance:

  • The tenure of a long-term, well-loved pastor ended with his termination due to an affair with a staff members wife.  The staff member, a long-term and well loved worship leader, also left.
  • Within a five year period, two of the well-established, very traditional downtown Southern Baptist churches purchased pieces of property within a five mile radius of the church and relocated their campuses, along with their wide variety of ministries and programs and the ability to offer multiple worship style options, including contemporary services.  Within a five year period, the record shows more than 350 members left, with over 250 of them moving to the closest of the two megachurches.
  • The decline created internal conflict over ways and means of handling it and attempts to reverse it.  The church fought over everything from the cost of building renovations to the possibility of relocating.  Fights are costly when it comes to relationships and membership.  It became difficult to find qualified pastors and hold on to them.  After a couple of particular difficult pastoral tenures, the church found itself pastorless and having dwindled down to 130 faithful people.

That’s when the transition began.

They decided to take a chance on a younger pastor with three children, the youngest in first grade, who had only one other church experience since seminary and without the formerly required Doctorate-in-something.  He didn’t promise to go back to the glory days but he did promise that if the church would be faithful to God and willing to listen to what he had to say about how to grow a church in a new day and time, they would grow and become what God expected of them again.  They muttered and grumbled, there was some resistance and a few more departures, but ultimately, the leadership decided that it might be worth it to listen than to simply plan for the best way to close the church and dispose of the property.

In spite of the muttering and the grumbling, those who did listen and subsequently implemented the suggestions made by the pastor saw the church begin to grow.  Baptisms, which had sunk to an all time low of zero for almost a four year period, began to pick up, slowly, but people were coming to know the Lord.  Over a 16 year period of time, the church averaged 20 baptisms per year.

Most of the new members came into the church via its home groups ministry.  At one point, as many as seven home groups were meeting actively each week and the groups involved over 100 people, of whom half were connected to the church only through the small group in which they were involved and weren’t seen in worship or at church activities.  Few of the people who began attending, became Christians and joined the church during this period of time came from a traditional “church” background.  What was really taking place was the growth of a new church, using the same facility as an old one.

This church was never going to go back to its “glory days” in terms of the way they did church before the decline and it was also not likely to see the kind of attendance numbers that it once did.  But during the time I spent there as associate pastor, the goal was to continue to reach into the unchurched community and make disciples.  By the time I arrived, 14 years into the pastor’s tenure and at least a full decade into the transition, they had determined that assimilation into the existing congregation was happening on a very limited basis.

The two groups attended separate worship services, the older congregation at an 8:30 service with traditional hymns, piano and organ and choir, the newer group at 11:00 in a more contemporary style worship with a praise band and no coats and ties.  By the time I had arrived, attendance in the 11:00 service had surpassed that of the 8:30 service, and the Bible study groups that met on Sunday morning made up of newer members included as many as 60 children and youth, and over 100 adults, including a thriving singles group.  I’d guess that about 80% of the adults had come into the church through their original connection with a home group and then eventually through the baptistry.

The pastor who had led this transition felt called to a new church plant and after sixteen years, he resigned.  It was unfortunate that, in order to get much of what was done accomplished, he had to use up his reservoir of “good will” with the older remnant of church members who originally called him.  His departure wasn’t an amicable one from the perspective of the group of original members.  There was very little understanding on their part of the way the church was reaching out and doing ministry and evangelism.  They couldn’t understand why we just didn’t have Tuesday visitation and a fall and spring revival.  They didn’t understand why people were comfortable in a home group setting, but wouldn’t come to church on Sunday.  Their pre-school, children’s and youth Sunday school departments had been non-existent when they called the pastor 16 years before, now they were bursting at the seams, and there were four young adult Bible study groups on Sunday that also hadn’t existed.  But that somehow didn’t weight in their perspective or opinion.  They were becoming a 21st century church but that wasn’t a vision they could understand or accept.

There were a few individuals from the “new” group of church members on key committees, including a few Deacons, to prevent the dismantling of the ministries that were facilitating the growth.  The “cost” of the contemporary worship service, mainly a $500 weekly payroll for the praise band, had always been an issue, but the offering in the late service, made up mostly of working professionals, was much larger than that in the early service, made up mostly of social security recipients and pensioners.  Another benefit we enjoyed was securing the services of an interim pastor who was a seminary professor and who saw the value of the way the church was doing evangelism and ministry.  He had a reservoir of respect due to his position and to his success in pastoring the same church for over 35 years.  Between the two of us and our part-time youth and children’s ministers, we succeeded in keeping things in place.

Attendance actually increased during the interim period.  The search committee was inexperienced, not having called a pastor in 16 years, so they took things slow and listened to advice.  We had great preaching and the day to day operations of the church were stable.  So there was no pressure to move quickly.  The 11:00 service continued to increase in attendance.  We started a new “home group” in a cute little neighborhood coffeehouse that had been converted from an old gas station.  It attracted a very diverse group of mostly 20 somethings, mostly what I would call “counter-cultural” people involved in the large fine arts community in the historic district adjacent to the church’s neighborhood.

On a personal note, after almost a year had gone by, I determined that I would depart from the staff once a pastor was called and had time to settle in.  During the 26 months that the church was pastorless, the day to day operations were mostly my responsibility.  The interim pastor did the preaching on Sunday, I led the Wednesday night services and took care of funerals.  We had 54 of them during the interim period.  The church had a large list of “shut-ins,” and I devoted one day a week to visiting nursing homes and rehab centers.  That helped earn some good will to keep things in place at the church.  I also took over teaching the group of oldest adults in Sunday School.  In that venue, I was able to gain support to continue the ministries and outreach that was causing slow but steady growth in the church.

When I left, the church had a pastor in place for about two months.  He was an older, more traditional type preacher but he’d just come from five years of church planting and seemed like a good fit.  There was a competent youth minister in place and a dedicated, committed children’s minister.  We had just hired a licensed, experienced early learning center director.  I felt confident that the church had been left in good hands and that it had a good future.

So last night, I was saddened and grieved by the report that I got, telling me that the church attendance had dropped below 100.  Most of my Sunday school class has passed away, since they were in their eighties and nineties when I left.  But most of the younger people who were there are gone as well.

What happened?

Ministry is hard.  Commitment is hard to come by and expertise and knowledge, which are gifts of God but also require human effort, is not always in abundant supply.  Neither is vision.  Churches no longer grow like they did three or four generations ago.  A majority of the church was made up of people inexperienced in how a traditional church operated.  A group of individuals who did not share the previous pastor’s vision were eventually able to make several attempts to try and re-create the church that had existed when they were younger.

Specifically, the decision to push the church’s vision backward instead of forward was made when the church selected the search committee to find their next pastor.  The nominations and election of each member was arranged to represent a cross section of the church’s generational makeup, but the members elected from the younger generation turned out to be children of the older generation rather than those who had been reached by the church’s ministry in recent years.  They were less progressive and much more traditional in their perspective of church and after a long, two year search, they settled on a traditional pastor in his mid-fifties.  He had tried his hand at a church plant that had failed and wanted to get back into a traditional church setting.

Apparently, it did not take long for the church’s younger members to catch the change in vision.  The contemporary service was the first casualty, replaced with a “blended” service that was really more of a traditional service with hymns, though they kept the projection screens.  The praise band was replaced by a traditional “Minister of Music” approach who led singing with a piano and organ, helped by the choir.  The home groups were the second casualty.  They were left in place, re-named “life groups” but their autonomy was taken away and they became more of a fellowship and promotion group than a group that had functions related to worship, evangelism and outreach and discipleship.  They came under direct supervision of the pastor.

According to our recent conversation, the decline in attendance was relatively quick, taking place over a period of about 18 months.  The relocation of a popular, Gen-X/Millenial church with a very contemporary worship and progressive approach to ministry to a disbanded SBC church facility about two miles away attracted most of the younger families and members who left.  The nearby megachurch that had been a factor in the initial decline picked up a few others.  The remnant, about a hundred members, are mostly past 65, with a big group in their late 70’s and early 80’s.  There are a few families left, mostly children of older church members.  The youth and children’s leadership are now volunteers.  They’ve been pastorless going on two years now.  They are trying an “intentional interim” program to prepare for the transition.

So, in the middle of a booming neighborhood full of 30 and 40 somethings attracted by the proximity to downtown and an easy commute, the high property values of the very attractive cottages and bungalows that form a unique, picturesque neighborhood and affluence capable of sustaining several private schools in the area, a church with a sprawling facility, a gym and high visibility sits mostly empty.  It will be there for a while since a recent sale of property generated enough funds for a maintenance mode to last for quite a while.  It’s status quo in the denomination to which it continues to belong.  There are literally thousands of churches just like it, in cities all across the south.

Ministry is hard.