NEW ORLEANS – Each year, hundreds of churches disappear from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church database. While it’s not always immediately clear what’s happened to those churches, many are congregations that are dissolving and closing the doors to their buildings for good.
At the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming the efforts of “church revitalization and replanting as an important component of fulfilling the Great Commission and advancing the kingdom of God.”
Such a significant statement gives great encouragement to those engaged in the difficult work of revitalization and replanting. Mark Clifton, executive director of replant at the North American Mission Board (NAMB), has made changing “the narrative” around church revitalization and replanting one of his top goals.
“It’s very encouraging to me that revitalization and replanting is not a shameful topic anymore, for the most part, that it’s okay to say, ‘We need help,” Clifton said. “Ten years ago, fifteen years ago, it maybe wasn’t quite like that.”
Clifton leads the team at NAMB that focuses on seeing struggling churches come back to life by creating resources, providing avenues for networking and training along with supporting the efforts of local associations and state conventions as they come alongside churches in need of assistance.
“Dying churches are a place where the bride of Christ still exists, and we have an obligation to love her, care for her and bring her back to health,” said Clifton. “We have a New Testament model where Paul didn’t ignore and kick churches like Corinth to the side of the road. Jesus, when he met with John on the Isle of Patmos, had a message for each of the churches, and five of them were in deep trouble. So, our New Testament model makes [the need to care for these churches] clear.”
Luke Holmes, pastor of First Baptist Church of Tishomingo, Okla., submitted the resolution, which ended up being the first one passed in New Orleans.
“Revitalization is important to me. My masters had a focus in that. I’m getting a doctorate in that from Southwestern,” Holmes said on the Replant Bootcamp podcast, hosted by two members of NAMB’s replant team.
“Revitalization is so contextual and so varied from place to place,” Holmes said. “I just think it’s important.”
What is important for Holmes is top priority for NAMB’s replant team, and the need for varying approaches has spurred the replant team to cast a wide net as they have created resources, like Clifton’s Revitalize and Replant podcast, and launched events, all of which help meet the needs of churches in rural, suburban as well as urban settings.
As the SBC affirmed revitalization and replanting, there is a need for more individuals and churches to engage in the work of coming alongside dying churches.
“A large majority of these churches are dying in areas where the population is actually growing,” said NAMB replant specialist, James “JimBo” Stewart. “They’re in areas that really need a strong gospel presence, and so the idea of replanting is about saying, ‘Let’s not let this die. Let’s not let the gospel presence in this community go away and make sure that there’s always a light for the gospel in this community.’”
Two events in particular—the Replant Summit in August and the Revive Summit in September—will provided training and opportunities for vocational and spiritual growth to those leading churches through trying circumstances.
The replant team also hosts regular replant training for associational missions strategists and their churches since they are routinely on the front lines of helping churches in need.
“We could not do what we do without the local partner, be it an association or a state convention,” said associate director of replant, Bob Bickford. “They serve as the initiator and then the support for ministry. We are so thankful to cooperate with them and coordinate with them. So, the associations and the state conventions have been a blessing to us in terms of being able to partner with them to minister to the people who are seeking to renew churches.”
Much of the work and resources NAMB provides for revitalization and replanting have come from the grassroots efforts of Southern Baptists as practitioners, like Bickford, have helped several churches through the process.
Lifeway Research reports that nearly 90 percent of churches run 250 or less, with 40 percent of churches made up of 50 or less, and it’s those churches that run less than 250 that have taken serious hits through the recent decades of cultural and socioeconomic change.
“It’s so important that we try to bring back the viable neighborhood church,” Clifton said. “We’ve lost that in North America. You talk to any Southern Baptist leader in state conventions or associations, and they’ll tell you, for the most part, we now have two kinds of churches. We have the big ones that are really growing and doing well, and then we have everyone else. We don’t have very many of those churches that used to be our meat, our bread and butter—those strong, neighborhood churches.”
For the replant team, success would be for more of these local, community churches to realize their value to the kingdom of God and begin ministering to their neighbors again. In New Orleans, Southern Baptists recognized the need for churches and leaders within the convention, across all levels, to engage those efforts with intentionality.
Published July 10, 2023