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.
As a fellow Lexingtonian pastor, and one who is involved in a revitalization process in my own congregation, I feel it is important to tell you that this article concerns me. I appreciate the author’s humble spirit and the way in which he pursues a kingdom-first mentality to the local church. That said, I believe that what is presented here as a “church revitalization” is misleading with regard to the larger understanding in current Baptist life. I am afraid that what this article portrays–which I think is better termed a church takeover–can serve as a stumbling block for many churches that are in need of revitalization in our country.
My biggest concern is the following passage: “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.” This is certainly outside the norm of what is generally understood as church revitalization. Now, you may argue that you brought about new life and so, semantically, “revitalized” this church, but you did so by taking them over.
And that’s where the rub lies. Should a church truly desiring new life be open to all options? Yes. Should they allow God to work by whatever means to make that happen? Yes. But realistically, are most of the churches that are in need of revitalization in a position to accept full abdication of their prior identity to do so? Absolutely not. By presenting this model as “church revitalization”, I fear that you are poisoning the water for any pastor who stands in the pulpit calling for revitalization in his congregation. I fear that by putting images of an outside body coming in and calling the shots in the heads of the common pew-sitter, you are making it harder for them to be open to revitalization.
Does “revitalization” sound better than “takeover”? Certainly. But does the real cost to the numerous churches needing true revitalization make such a branding acceptable? I would hope that you would say no.
Dear Pastor Todd,
Glad to hear from you and to learn you are serving at Thompson Road. I love fellow pastors, and I will be praying for you there. Revitalization is hard work. I’ve never gone to a church that was healthy, so it seems that revitalization has been my calling, first at a small inner-city church, then a small suburban church, and for the last 14 years at Ashland.
It does not really matter to me what anyone labels our efforts in Madison County, KY. Our pathway was to adopt them as a mission, them to become a campus, and then launch them out as a healthy autonomous congregation when they were sustainable and reproducible. It took 7 years, a ton of resources, energy, and effort, but we rejoice that by God’s grace it happened. We started with a small group of about 30 people on the verge of disbanding, and we launched them as a vibrant, growing, missions-oriented band of about 350 people who are committed to planting a church themselves.
You could call it church revitalization, which my dictionary defines as “to give new life to, to give vitality and vigor.” That certainly happened. You could also call it church planting. You could call it a takeover, to use your language, as long as you also say, a takeover to sacrifice for and give away when healthy. They became members of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church with the same responsibilities and accountability as all of our other church members. What term you use is of no consequence to me.
As far as your description of “an outside body coming in,” that’s not an accurate characterization. They contacted us at the urging of their interim pastor. They voted to disband and to become members of Ashland, so we adopted them into our church family. We pastored all our members, some meeting in Lexington, some in Madison County, and now some in Oldham County. As John said in his excellent article, it was no longer “they” and “us;” it was now “we.” And we started over with a beautiful band of Christ-followers who made it a joy to serve as we led them down a new path with their responsiveness and thankfulness.
I’ve been involved in church revitalizations that probably fits whatever you consider the definition to be, and I have been involved in this adoption strategy. It is always glorious! When a church goes from near death to life, vitality, and gospel vigor, I count it as a taste of heaven on earth.