The following is a guest post by John Martin, member of Ashland Church in Richmond, KY.
Our church was dying. Our convictions were strong, our doctrine was sound, the preaching was biblical (though with interim pastors) but our attendance was going down the tubes. “Why is this happening?” I remember thinking. I just believed God would honor our good intentions and make us succeed. We believed what was right and that should work. We should be proven right!
Yet things were getting worse. Our Sunday attendance wasn’t much bigger than my wife’s elementary school classroom. But leaving was not an option for us, we cared about this church and its convictions. And we loved the people. The church was family, people that we had served with for years. We couldn’t just walk away. And where would we go? Our church was founded on principles that we wouldn’t compromise. After another failed pastor interview process, I feared we could be nearing the end.
Sometimes a church needs new leadership, but this was something more. We needed a whole new identity; not just a new direction, but a new beginning. It’s not easy for a church to have a new beginning. We had to decide what was more important; our legacy and church identity or the expansion of God’s kingdom.
When Ashland Avenue Baptist Church considered adopting our congregation, frankly we were desperate enough to try anything. If there was any hesitation among us, it could probably be traced back to pride. To do this adoption, we had to admit we were failing. Our little church wasn’t working. We believed the right things but we were not healthy. Anyone who had been critical of us in the past, and there were critics, could have the last laugh. That was humbling.
But maybe that’s just what we needed. I never heard anyone complain about being humbled. God seemed to have already taken care of that heart problem in most of us. We needed a new beginning. That means we had to let go of our old beginning.
Growing up as a kid in my rural Baptist home church, I remember black and white photos of our first building sitting in what looked like a cow pasture. It couldn’t have held more than 25 people, but it was a powerful symbol of humble beginnings and a proud heritage that had endured for nearly a century. The names of the church’s founding members were posted nearby with a display that reminded me of our nation’s founding documents.
But now, my new church was only a few years old, and the founding members were still showing up on Sunday. The photo of our first Sunday may have been on a digital camera a few years ago, but it still meant something to us. The founders of the church had made sacrifices, but now they were being asked to sacrifice their identity and status as founders. It meant starting all over.
But a new start meant new life for our little congregation. Everything was changed. Nothing we were doing was counted sacred. We had no say in how classes were organized, no vote in the outreach strategy. We knew this church adopting us shared our convictions on the gospel and the Word of God but they made no attempt at preserving our culture or structure. In fact, there wasn’t a “they” or “us” anymore. It was “we”.
We were doing everything differently and no one from Ashland came asking for our guidance. But most of us were OK with that. After all, it wasn’t our opinions that we were trying to promote. We wanted to promote a thriving, gospel preaching church in our town. And that took work, tons of work. As we should have expected, we were not only doing things differently, but also doing more. We gave up more weekends, we hauled more equipment, and we committed more resources. Sometimes we were tired. But there was new life in this new beginning and we were energized.
At first, the new life surprised us. One Sunday there was a face that we didn’t recognize! We tried to act casual, like we have visitors all the time, but as soon as they left, we all huddled together to find out what made them come. It was as if a movie star stopped by to check us out. But more and more came and now we were ready for them.
We had children’s rooms set up, visitor cards set out, and an elaborate follow up system that sprang to life with every new face that walked in the door. We were working in church with an intentionality that was normally reserved for our careers. We reversed the 80/20 principle. Hardly anyone was just spectating, we all had to work. Commitment became contagious.
It was tiring but our church was alive! This mattered, this is what we had been praying for. People came, and with them came more work, more chairs, more hauling, children’s space, parking problems, sign placement, and more demands on our time. What could we say; this is what a church alive does to your life. It invades comfort zones, demands energy and tears through boundaries around personal space.
There was nothing comfortable about it. Something did have to die, but in its place, was a church flourishing like a well watered garden. And our vision, the picture of a living, gospel-saturated church in our town, came to life right before our eyes. Seven years after we were adopted by Ashland, we were re-planted as an autonomous church. A church that is alive, vibrant, and growing. A church that is not merely sustainable, but reproducible as well.