When Churches Close: A Journey of Hope and Revival for Southern Baptists

If you lived somewhere in the path of the total eclipse on April 8, you’ll likely never forget it. My grandson and I drove to southeast Missouri just to see it. The eclipse didn’t disappoint.

Gradually, our world grew darker and darker until eventually the moon blocked the sun completely. For a few minutes, darkness ruled the daytime.

For us Southern Baptists, that’s a bit of how we felt when we read LifeWay Research’s recent article highlighting a loss of 1,200 SBC churches from 2021 to 2022.

While some of those churches simply disaffiliated with the convention, the vast majority closed their doors. According to the same LifeWay Research article, 2 percent of the convention’s 50,423 churches in 2021 closed their doors in 2022, and 0.5 percent disaffiliated with the convention.

The Alarming Decline

It’s easy to look at those numbers and think the gospel light is gone forever from our land. But just like with the eclipse, the darkness isn’t the whole story.

No doubt about it, losing 1,200 churches across North America is a reason to grieve. God grieves their loss. Nothing about dying churches gives glory to God.

I’ll never forget when I returned to the Kansas City area in 2003 after years of planting churches in Canada. I moved from a community that desperately needed new churches to one with quite a few dying churches. I saw them on every corner of inner-city Kansas City.

Those dying churches haunted me. Two decades later, they still do. Many of those 1,200 Southern Baptist churches that closed their doors between 2021 and 2022 represent communities left without a gospel witness and people who will spend eternity without God because they never heard the good news.

This new data confirms what I thought possible back in 2021. I anticipated that a great number of at-risk churches simply would not be able to fully recover after COVID.

They were already in a weakened condition and unable to endure the strain the pandemic placed onto churches. Many of them would’ve closed in the next five to 10 years anyway but, because of Covid, they’re closing much sooner.

Dying churches matter to God, and they matter to Southern Baptists. Dying churches rob God of glory; resurrected churches bring him glory.

That’s why, at the North American Mission Board, we’re doing whatever it takes to help dying churches find new life. Over the past decade, we’ve seen God do the impossible in many of these dead and dying Southern Baptist churches. We’ve walked beside more than 700 replanting teams as they’ve partnered with God to bring churches back to life in communities that desperately need them.

A Beacon of Hope in Russell, Kansas

One of those dead SBC churches that has come back to life is in Russell, Kansas. A small town of 3,000 in the western part of the state, Russell is like many small towns in the country’s heartland. It’s a largely blue-collar town, where most people work on the farm and in the oil fields.

For decades, First Southern Baptist Church of Russell faithfully shared the gospel with the community. But by 2020, First Baptist was dying. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down churches across the country, the country church had begun thinking about closing down the church. When the pandemic came, the church had no choice but to close the doors for good.

For a year, the church sat empty. But God wasn’t through with that building—or with Russell, Kansas.

About 75 minutes away, a young man who grew up with only scant engagement in a local church (he had visited one with his grandma as a kid) had come to Christ, attended Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was looking for an opportunity to replant a dying church.

Through the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, Chris Powell learned about the closure of First SBC of Russell. Although he didn’t recognize it as the church he attended with his grandma, he had spent the first 12 years of his life in the town.

Shawn, now connected with Crosspoint Church—a church with locations all across Kansas—saw an opportunity not just to reopen a church but to see the gospel planted in the community.

Shawn and his team from Crosspoint Church spent the next 15 months sprucing up the building, transforming it into a vibrant place of worship again.

When Crosspoint Russell first opened in September 2023, Shawn hoped 15 people might show up for the first service. Instead, Crosspoint Russell had 70 in attendance that first week. On Easter 2024, the new congregation had 82 people—nearly filling its 92-seat sanctuary.

Despite what God has done in Russell in recent months, First Southern Baptist will still show up on any list of SBC churches that have died in the past few years. Because the revived congregation is now a part of Crosspoint, it doesn’t count as a new SBC church. So next year we’ll be down another lost church.

A little over 40 percent of the nearly 700 churches, like Crosspoint Russell, our team has helped are classified as mergers or adoptions. In either case, those churches still count as dead ones, even though they are quite alive today.

Gospel Hope for the Future

There’s still no way to sugar-coat the loss of 1,200 churches. The rate of church closures is climbing much faster than anyone expected a decade ago when our team got started. An aging population and enormous social changes are wreaking havoc on many of our Southern Baptist churches.

But the story of FSBC Russell reminds us that even when everything grows dark in our community, the light of the gospel is still shining.

Our replanting team connects dying churches with gospel replanters every week. God isn’t through with struggling SBC churches. As Southern Baptists partner together for the sake of the gospel, we’ll see these churches find new life.

We may not see the sun during an eclipse, but it’s there. We just need to look for it.

Published April 23, 2024

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