Bringing life back into a congregation can mean making difficult changes to worship style, culture and identity, experts acknowledge. However, they disagree on how many churches are willing to take those steps. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)
Bringing life back into a congregation can mean making difficult changes to worship style, culture and identity, experts acknowledge. However, they disagree on how many churches are willing to take those steps. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)

Experts seek balance between optimism and pessimism in future of congregations

Church revitalization is increasing, but is there enough interest to spark change?

By Jeff Brumley

LifeWay President and CEO Thom Rainer has declared himself an “obnoxious optimist” about the state of American churches despite years of declines and closures in a post-Christian, post-church culture.

In a July 11 column in The Christian Post, Rainer said he’s hearing, mostly anecdotally, of a growing commitment among Millennials and Boomers to revive struggling congregations.

thom Rainer mug

The resulting revitalizations are occurring either through internal changes, church relocations, new leadership or merging with other congregations, he wrote.

“While I am encouraged to see the continued interest in church planting, I am also heartened to learn of an apparent upsurge in interest — even passion for — revitalizing churches.”

‘Incredible leadership’

Other Baptists who work with struggling congregations aren’t willing to go that far, saying most congregations in decline are either unaware of their predicaments or unwilling to take the drastic actions needed to reverse course.

Some say a touch of pessimism may be in order.

“It may get worse before it gets better,” said Robert Creech, professor of pastoral leadership and director of pastoral ministries at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. “Churches have to get really desperate to make those changes and I haven’t heard that much desperation.”

Creech said he is optimistic about the young men and women entering the ministry because they are so passionate about their callings. But he’s seen nothing to suggest churches have turned a corner in their attitudes toward change.

Robert Creech mug

Rainer is correct in observing the main ways in which some churches are revitalizing — through organic, internal efforts, relocation, leadership changes or being acquired by another church. Creech said he observed all four occur over the years when he pastored University Baptist Church in Houston and taught at Houston Baptist University.

But few pulled it off, he added.

“All of these things take incredible leadership and perseverance,” Creech said. “Just because some churches pull this off, doesn’t mean anyone who wants to can pull it off.”

‘Profound struggle and angst’

And that in part is due to the traumatic nature of the changes often required to turn around congregational decline, said Bill Wilson, founder of the North Carolina-based Center for Healthy Churches.

“I think for many congregations the future is grim if they aren’t willing to make some fairly substantial shifts in how they do business and how they see themselves,” said Wilson, a former pastor and president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

The least painful shift, Wilson said, is what Rainer described as “organic revitalization.” It’s where a church uses existing resources and staff to accomplish a turn-around.

However, “relocational,” “leadershift” and “acquisitional” are much more difficult — but usually more effective.

Bill Wilson

“Those are tough and tend to reshape and reframe how people see their church — and that’s the point.”

Wilson also agreed that all four approaches are being used across the church, and added he’s seen many of them abandon the process at the very last moment.

“Congregations talk a better game than they deliver when it comes to bettering themselves,” he said.

Fear of change is one of the reasons one in four congregations will close during the next 15 years, he added.

“I’m not as optimistic about the average congregation being able to pull it off without a lot of deep, profound struggle and angst,” Wilson said.

Optimistic and cautious

The lack of motivation explains why less than 20 percent of all congregations who need to revitalize are making attempts to do so, said George Bullard, a church consultant and strategic coordinator of the South Carolina-based Columbia Partnership.

Bullard noted Rainer’s own observation that his optimism is based on anecdotal evidence more than statistics.

BullardMug

Rainer conceded that the research on church health isn’t pretty.

“And though I’ve been a purveyor of pretty dismal information about the state of our churches, I am seeing more reasons to be optimistic,” he said in the Christian Post column.

One of those reasons is that the number of churches addressing the issue of revitalization seems to be increasing.

Bullard agreed.

“There does seem to be an increase in activity focused on congregational revitalization,” Bullard said.

But he added that doesn’t translate for him into the optimism Rainer is experiencing.

“I am optimistic it is needed,” Bullard said. “I am cautious that many churches actually want to change bad enough to do it.”

Rainer told APBnews/Herald via e-mail that he cannot defend his sense of optimism given current data and trends. Estimates are 70,000 of the nation's 350,000 Protestant churches will close in the next two decades, he said.

Yet he does remain hopeful.

"My optimism is based on a growing interest in church revitalization across multiple generations," Rainer said. "Such information is anecdotal at this point, but it does give me hope. Only time will tell if my optimism was based on reality or wishful thinking."