Revitalizing: Churches breaking traditions to overcome decline

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When Daniel Cecil accepted the pastorship at Whitesville Baptist Church in 2016, he knew changes had to be made or potentially face closing the doors despite the church's 141-year-old history.

Sunday morning attendance had dipped well below 100 for Whitesville Baptist -- a Protestant church that sits in the heart of a predominantly Catholic town of 500.

Cecil began the slow task of what's called church revitalization -- a process by which existing churches create a new vision along with a fresh strategic focus while staying true to the gospel.

He, however, was up against generations of tradition that had little to do with biblical principles.

Cecil, 41, said that changing the worship service time and remodeling the front entrance into a greeting area were among the major decisions when they shouldn't have been.

"Nothing had been changed in probably 20 to 30 years -- if not more," Cecil said. "This is just a building. It really caused me to think, 'What is a church?' and to challenge people and ask them, 'What is a church?' It's ecclesia -- a Greek word that simply means those who are called by God. That's the church."

And over these past few years, Cecil said the revitalization has taken hold without much resistance.

He added that his next challenge is attracting nearby believers who drive past Whitesville Baptist on Sunday to attend another church in Owensboro.

"I think the Lord just had this church ready for a lot of these changes," Cecil said. "Now, we just need people locally to join us instead of driving 30 minutes away to go to church."

Todd Camp, pastor of New Life Church, can identify with what Cecil is now undertaking at Whitesville Baptist.

When Camp began his ministry in 2004 at the Crabtree Avenue church in Owensboro, he said there were about "18 to 20 regulars" on Sunday.

"They didn't have enough money to pay their bills and had gone through nine interim pastors in a year," Camp said. "They were on their way out and had a fear of dying. But what they told me is they wanted this church, on this corner, to continue to be a lighthouse to the community."

Camp immediately started the revitalizing process. And one of the first "old" traditions he removed was the wooden message board that displayed the Sunday attendance and tithing amounts.

In the beginning, Camp said the existing members seemed OK with the changes.

"For the first few months, everything was good and everybody was happy; the church was growing a little bit; finances were pretty good," Camp said. "And then about six months later, there started to be control issues with the old members toward me."

For Camp, it has only been in the last couple of years that membership, finances and staffing, which includes associate pastor Kurt Hoffman who's been with the church for about a year, have given him plenty of hope for the church's future.

New Life is averaging between 80 to 100 people for its Sunday worship service. It also has purchased neighboring properties that have been turned into thrift stores, and started a transitional home for women.

New Life operates a clothes closet and a food pantry. And New Life is in the planning stages of updating its main sanctuary.

"If you're going to revitalize a church, I believe you have to be patient and persistent," Camp said. "And saying that, it takes a lot of years for it to grow and build. …Honestly, it's just now, in the last year or two, that it's stable and we got a good foundation to where I think we can build on it … God has shown us over and over that He's got us."

According to the North American Mission Board, there are from 800 to 900 Southern Baptist churches closing each year.

When all Protestant denominations are included, that number drastically increases to an estimated 6,000 or more churches that are closing annually in the United States, according to Lifeway Christian Resources' facts and trends. Lifeway cited cultural shifts away from the nation's Christian roots and members attending less frequently as contributing factors to dying churches.

It was about four years ago the North American Mission Board created a church replanting team to address the problem of declining churches.


Mark Clifton, who authored the book, "Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches," now heads the North American Mission Board's church replanting team as its senior director.

"It's a significant issue in all denominations that churches are closing; it's not just unique to Southern Baptists," Clifton said. "...We plant about as many churches as we see close. We don't quite go below water but we don't get much ahead either."

Whether it's revitalizing existing churches or planting new ones, Clifton said his team can help.

"If there is a neighborhood that needs to be reached and if the church building is still viable, we think every church can have a future," Clifton said.

One such example of a successful church plant in Owensboro is Life Community Church. It took root in 2016 in what used to be Hall Street Baptist Church at 1101 Breckenridge St.

Three years ago, Hall Street Baptist's remaining membership made the difficult choice to become among the dying and closed church statistics. And after 108 years, Hall Street Baptist Church was no more.

But instead of allowing the church building to become vacant and fall further into disrepair, Hall Street's members then voted to gift the property and its assets to Life Community Church, which had been hosting services inside an auditorium at Owensboro Community & Technical College.

For Kenny Rager, Life Community's 35-year-old pastor, that "blessing" from Hall Street has led him to seek a professional doctorate degree in educational ministry in church revitalization.

"We're here because of a church that wasn't able to make it and that really spoke to me," Rager said. "…So I thought what could I do to help in this area (of revitalization) so churches don't have to make those hard decisions."

Since assuming the former Hall Street property, Life Community Church has made major renovations to the sanctuary and other parts of the church building.

Rager said having the property gave Life Community Church a permanent home but made it clear that revitalization isn't about four walls and a roof with a steeple on top.

"What's more important than property is people," he said. "And a reason a pastor should explore revitalization, and not give up on a struggling church, is because the people who are left still matter to God."

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