How can we proclaim to a neighborhood that the gospel has the power to defeat death and hell—but it couldn’t keep our church from closing?
By Mark Clifton
Each year hundreds of churches in North America cease to exist. Churches that at one time impacted their communities with the gospel and could only see a bright and growing future now have closed their doors forever.
It’s a tragic number.
The loss of that many churches is confounding because as Christ followers, we have an unwavering trust in the atoning gospel. We acknowledge that as Christians we have the Holy Spirit to empower us and the inspired Scriptures to equip us. We agree Jesus is the head of the church and He will build it.
Surprisingly, the vast majority of those that closed their doors were in communities that actually grew in population. These are communities teeming with people who have never responded in faith to Jesus, and they won’t spend eternity in the unimaginable pleasure of the glory of God but rather as objects of His eternal wrath. Yes, this is a serious matter.
Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, was on the fast track to joining that list when God placed me there in 2006 to serve as its pastor.
At our first gathering, 18 faithful saints attended our worship service—in a sanctuary that once held more than 600. Most of those remaining members were over 70 years of age.
It was hardly the kind of church most pastors are eager to lead.
I had spent most of my ministry career in a very different setting. As a church planter for more than two decades, I was more familiar with birthing new congregations than helping old ones die.
As a child of the church growth movement, it seemed to me that dying churches should just be left to die. Dying churches are like an old stump—“just plow around them” I used to say. After all, it’s easier to start a new church than resurrect an old one (which is true, by the way).
But my overly pragmatic approach changed when I thought about the pending death of Wornall Road Baptist Church. The Holy Spirit pierced my pragmatic heart with one single question.
What about a dying church brings glory to God?
Frankly, that question forever changed the trajectory of my ministry. Strategically, it made sense to abandon a dying church and start something new down the street. But what does it say about God’s glory when a church closes its doors and leaves the neighborhood.
How can we proclaim to that neighborhood that the gospel has the power to defeat death and hell—but it couldn’t keep our church from closing?
For the next few years, I leaned heavily on the missionary principles I had used as a church planter. The saints who were still at Wornall Road were ready to embrace Jesus’ plan for their church rather than their plan for their church.
Without this change, there can be no replanting of a church. Over the next 10 years, we set out to replant the church from within. Here are the steps we took resuscitate this dying church.
1. First and foremost, I committed myself to loving the remaining members God had given me.
Instead of loving the church I wished I had, I had to love the church that was actually there. Those remaining members weren’t an obstacle to my ministry. They were my ministry! I loved them, nurtured them, and gently shepherded them toward one single outcome. I desired to see their hearts warm to the gospel.
You see, Satan had performed a common and devious transaction on them. He had encouraged them to trade in their love of Jesus and His plan for the church for their own comfort and familiarity. In a chaotic world that often seemed to be spinning out of control to them, these senior saints could walk back into their church and find great comfort in its sameness.
An idol is something we run to for purpose, comfort, and meaning. For many older saints in a dying church, the sameness of that church—which began as comfort—became an idol. You know an idol is false if you fear losing it. They live in fear someone will change something in their church. A redeemed child of God need never fear losing Jesus.
My job, as their pastor, was to lovingly help these members realize they didn’t need the idol. They needed Jesus. To do that, I sought to warm their hearts to the gospel by engaging them in frequent gospel conversations and simply preaching Jesus in every sermon.
2. Our church had to learn to love and serve the neighborhood.
That church of 18 people didn’t have much to offer the community, but we did have a building. We opened up that building to serve the community. We let other Southern Baptist church plants use it. We let it become a hub of activity for the neighborhood.
We served our schools. We served the at-risk neighborhood around us. We did everything we could to make sure our church left a ministry footprint on the community around us. Wornall Road had lost that over time, and it took time to knit it back together again.
The truth is, you don’t change the image of your church by changing its name, its logo, or its website. You change the image of the church in the community when you love your neighborhood sacrificially—not once a year but each and every day.
We said all of the time at Wornall Road, “Those who had been most generously dealt with, should be the most generous people in the neighborhood.” No one has been dealt with more generously than those who have been redeemed by Christ.
We needed to be generous with our time, our love, our affection, and our attention to the community—and even with the resources we had left, even as meager as they were.
We had to live with an open hand to share whatever we had. If we were going to close as a church, we didn’t want to do so by holding on tightly to our last nickel. Instead, we knew we had to give everything away.
A dying church can change its image in the community by loving the people with total abandon and serving the community. If a community sees the church caring for them, the community will respond.
3. We focused on a new generation of leaders.
We didn’t just make an effort to attract younger people to the church. We worked diligently to give a younger generation opportunities to come and serve in our church—and to lead it.
Granted, this wasn’t easy for the older members of our church. Though these young families were committed to the gospel, were grounded in the Scriptures, and were faithful to Jesus and His mission, their views of how to do church differed greatly from the remaining older members of Wornall Road.
Yet despite their different views, these older saints yielded for the glory of God. They didn’t just make room in their pews for the younger people to attend; they made room for them to lead as well.
Young families didn’t come to our church because we had a cool website or a great worship band. Over time, our love of the gospel, our service to the community, and our commitment to a generationally diverse family of God drew them to the church. When those young families arrived, we handed over the leadership of the church and the ownership of its direction.
God used all of this to develop a church that would house and or plant nine new church plants in 10 years. It raised a number of pastoral interns who are now serving churches across North America.
Wornall Road never became the large regional church it once had been. Instead it became something we greatly need today—a loving, serving, disciple-making, and multiplying neighborhood church.
In the decade I served as its pastor, the church grew from 18 to over 100. Many of those in gathered worship could walk to church because they came from the surrounding neighborhood.
God worked a miracle in our church and in our neighborhood.
Your church doesn’t have to die. I believe there’s hope for every church, but it requires real work.
Revitalization usually doesn’t happen quickly and requires tough decisions. But I can think of no better activity to be involved than the work of revitalizing a dying church so God can miraculously bring it back to life.