What does a revitalized church look like? I currently serve as a pastor on the staff of Mud Creek Baptist Church, founded in 1803. The recorded history of our church is rich with stories of those who fought to keep the doors open when attendance was low. Our church now has a membership of over 4000, and continues to grow and thrive in our corner of western North Carolina. In my 14 years at Mud Creek Baptist Church I have seen the consistent growth, and while I take no credit for this personally, I believe that our experience provides helpful truths for any pastor and church congregation. While every church has unique opportunities and challenges, I believe these observations can help those seeking to revitalize a stagnant or dying congregation.
On October 5, Mud Creek Baptist Church celebrated its 211th anniversary. The church has a unique history. Around 1880 the church experienced some major struggles and even considered disbanding. But Betsy Barnett walked from Greenville, SC to Hendersonville, NC (about a 40 mile trip) to vote against disbanding. Solid and stable leadership has exemplified the church since the middle of the twentieth century with only three senior pastors since the 1951. In 1979 the church experienced a tragedy with their pastor for eighteen years, Frank Carter, dying in a car accident. To that point in our church history, Mud Creek was an average Southern Baptist Church in the Bible belt. Even after stable leadership through the majority of the twentieth century the church was averaging around 125 people in regular attendance when Greg Mathis was called to be the pastor in 1980.
He has led a revitalization effort that has spanned his ministry of 34 years at Mud Creek. By every measurable category, the church has grown exponentially. Currently we have around 4,000 members with an average Sunday morning attendance around 2,400 people. We continue to expand numerically, grow in depth within the congregation, and have advanced our missions and outreach partnerships significantly over the last 15 years. Mud Creek is not a perfect church, nor are we healthy by every rubric that could be used. But we do represent almost 2% of the population of our county in Sunday morning attendance and continue to reach people with the gospel. Following are my observations about church revitalization that can be replicated.
- Commitment to evangelism and discipleship. For a church to move out of stagnation, she must see her mission with clarity and apply it with consistency. Greg Mathis led Mud Creek in the 1980s and early 90s to adopt D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion. This commitment to evangelism and gospel preaching has continued through 2014 and must be a priority for any church advancing in their context.
- Leading with people not over them. Mud Creek has its share of strong personalities. Instead of demanding that people follow a vision, our pastor has perfected the art of communicating with key leaders ahead of sharing the vision publicly. I realize some key leaders in some churches will make this a fascinatingly difficult challenge for a pastor with a burning vision for a church and city. But if a vision is to succeed, key congregational leaders must share it and support it.
- Longevity in leadership. Our pastor, pastoral staff, and key lay leaders have been at Mud Creek for a long time. Longevity in leadership creates relational trust, builds consistency, and offers a framework of stability. This stability has grounded the consistent growth we’ve experienced over the years.
- Willingness to adapt. Mud Creek is not the same church it was in 1980, or 1990, or 2000 or even 2010. We have been and are willing to adapt, change, and redirect in order to reach new people. A vitalized church is one on the move, not static.
- Consistent vision casting and outward emphasis. We look for new ways to show and share how the gospel can and does influence the world. Celebrating mission success, building on mission partnerships in numerous contexts, and highlighting evangelistic and mission efforts require constant evaluation and effort. But it is well worth it. When your congregation feels the same mission tension concerning the lost and unreached that the pastor and staff does, mission and evangelistic advance follow.
- Positive, worshipful atmosphere. Unfortunately, many churches ooze negativity, criticism and gossip. The redeemed church of Jesus Christ ought not be this way. We believe entering church should be a joyful, worshipful and generally positive experience. People tend to be attracted (and I don’t mean creating a seeker friendly church) to the positive and reject the negative. Tone, content, and demeanor within corporate worship should be positive, uplifting, and focused on God.
- Regard for heritage without being tied down by tradition. Our heritage informs our vision, but we don’t let our past, our traditions, or our sacred cows predetermine our vision for the future. For a church to experience revitalization, some traditions must be allowed to die in order for more effective visions to take place.
- Dependence on God but not pharisaical super spirituality. There is no doubt that churches seeking revitalization need to depend on God completely. That dependence should be evident in worship, vision, and ministry. Leadership that depends on God is revealed by manner, power in communication, discernment, wisdom, and is evidenced by God’s favor. The Pharisees were quick to point out their spirituality, but lacked a relationship with God. Leadership in a revitalization effort should reveal their relationship with God, not by speaking in flowery language of spirituality, but rather their character should display godliness.
I’m sure there are more general observations that could be made about church revitalization. But these eight I’ve witnessed having an indelible effect on a growing church.