By Joy Allmond
Pastors Bobby Owings and Brian Moss share a penchant for going to places no one else wants to go.
For them, it meant being called to lead dying churches—congregations in steep decline, or even on the brink of shutting down.
When Owings came to Surf City Baptist Church (SCBC), located in a resort town near a military base on the southern coast of North Carolina in 2009, each Sunday service had around 50 people in attendance—on a good day.
Today, Owings preaches four sermons each Sunday to a total of around 500.
Moss entered the ministry in 1999 after nearly two decades in the information technology industry. His first pastorate—at Oak Ridge Baptist Church in Salisbury, Maryland—brought him to a church that boasted around 30 for a weekend service.
He’s still at Oak Ridge, along with around 1,200 more members than he started with.
Owings and Moss shared a few vital actions churches must take if they want to not only stay alive, but also be effective.
1. Cultivate a hospitable, compassionate congregation
“The biggest one is the simplest one,” says Moss. “Initially what churches think when they hear me talk about change is they think they need to do rock n’ roll on the platform and install lights and video.”
But it’s not complicated, he explains.
“Most churches would double in size if they simply became friendly,” he says. “I do site visits as a ‘secret shopper’ to churches. The number one observation I make over and over is the churches aren’t friendly. They simply don’t seem like a place where they want people to come back.”
Moss says most churches would be revolutionized “practically overnight” if church members would take this simple step.
“This is really about authenticity and love that flows out of your heart,” he says. “When you love Jesus, you have to love what He loves. And if you don’t love people enough to be welcoming and communicate you want them there, then you don’t love Jesus.”
And when people realize the congregation and leaders genuinely care for them, Moss says, they’re generally open to taking the next step into a relationship with the church.
“The people of today are like the ones we read about in the Bible—the human condition transcends culture,” he says.
“A doorway into their lives is often opened through meeting needs compassionately. The culture around us is not the problem; it’s the culture inside the church that’s preventing growth.”
2. Accept—and enact—necessary change
Owings says sometimes an externally visible change is what’s needed to send a welcoming message to those on the outside.
Six months after his pastorate began at SCBC the name of the church was changed to The Gathering.
“People in the community wanted to know if the Baptist church had closed,” Owings quipped. “Legally, we’re still SCBC. But our identity is The Gathering. We still hold to the Baptist Faith and Message, and still adhere to the same constitution. But most people who come here don’t know it was ever SCBC.”
The reason for the change: to communicate the purpose and mission of the congregation.
“When it comes to generations, identity is a big deal,” says Owings. “And to communicate gospel truth to this generation, they have to see past their grandparents’ worship style or identity.
“‘The Gathering’ is an identity everybody can relate to—as in, ‘come gather with us.’ This applies to the surfers down the block, the Marines stationed just a few miles away, or the older adults who’ve retired here.”
And sometimes, Owings says, church leadership should change things from time to time, even if just for a fresh approach.
“If things don’t change from time to time, traditions will take over and ‘shrines’ will be erected,” he says.
“The longer a church has been dead, the more courage it’s going to take to revitalize it,” he says.
But it’s worth the effort. After all, eternity is at stake.
“The United States is one of the largest mission fields in the world. Most of us lose concept of that; we think of missions as something on foreign soil,” Moss says. “But there are radically lost people here. We have the greatest opportunity for the gospel—an unbelievable opportunity, if we’re willing to change.”
3. Operate in light of your primary mission—making disciples
Most church leaders know their top priority is making disciples—but most aren’t doing much about it.
“I’ve never known a pastor who didn’t understand this,” Moss says. “But about 90 percent of them have no strategy for how they will do it.”
Strategy is a missing piece of the puzzle for many churches, according to Moss, and he urges church leaders to resist seeing systems as unspiritual. In fact, he explains, just the opposite is true.
“Think about creation: God created in steps and stages,” he says. “This isn’t a business idea. This isn’t an American idea. God looked into nothingness, and He moved through steps and stages to realize a fully developed creation.”
Just “doing church” from week to week, he says, isn’t fulfilling the Great Commission.
“How can we stand before God and say, ‘I know we’re supposed to do that discipleship thing, but I didn’t know how, so I just did church,” says Moss. “That excuse isn’t going to hold water when we stand at the judgment and say we just did services.”
Hope for dying churches
Regardless of how much a church has declined—whether in attendance or missional zeal, Moss says there’s always hope for dying churches.
“Any church can become more effective,” he says. “Church members and church leaders hold the cards on how effectively they reach their communities. It really comes down to their passion for the gospel.”
Joy is the editorial chief of staff at Christianity Today and former managing editor of Lifeway Research.