When someone from the search committee at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, first approached me about being their pastor, I resisted. Cheryl and I begged God not to bring us here.
The 100-year-old church had recently gone through a couple of very hard years. Attendance had declined considerably. There were financial concerns.
On top of all that, the expectation of some members was that I would wear a tie and be at every hospital bed. That was totally different from my previous experience in ministry.
I came into vocational ministry later in life. For many years, I resisted what others (including my wife) saw in my life. I felt my calling was to make money to support the church, not lead a church as a pastor.
After entering ministry, I was a part of two successful church plants. Church planting suited my entrepreneurial spirit well. I love the excitement of starting something new.
I never imagined taking what many considered a step backward in my career to serve in an established church. I’m a doer. I like progress. I like action and change. I’m not afraid to push the boundaries. Those qualities don’t always fit well in some established churches.
Still, I love Genesis 6:22: “Noah did everything just as the Lord commanded him.”
When I surrendered to ministry I told God that would be me. I would be obedient. And obedience, by definition, is never partial. As God made it clear that coming to Immanuel was our next assignment, ever so reluctantly, we surrendered to His call.
Cheryl and I know now that God knew what He was doing. Had we not been obedient to this call, we would have missed some of the most rewarding days in ministry and in life.
We have seen a declining church come alive and grow again. We have seen young families come back to the church. We have seen older members serve in new ways.
We know what it’s like to see an intergenerational church thrive. We have witnessed the difference an established church can make in a community when it fully embraces its mission. But it hasn’t been easy.
Church revitalization is harder work than we experienced in church planting—and church planting is hard.
Immanuel is one of the friendliest churches we’ve ever experienced, but there have been days when I seem to have more critics than supporters. Navigating change is never easy.
I’m often asked what I’ve learned in the revitalization process. There are so many things, but the one that sticks out to me most is this: Don’t reinvent. Rediscover.
I’ve found people are less resistant to change when it doesn’t take away their identity. Every church has a history and a heritage in which it is proud.
There were once monumental leaps of faith to start the church. And there have been special days and seasons when the church especially saw God at work.
The church has had to overcome challenges, but has survived them. Part of church revitalization is to rediscover those parts of the church’s history and use them to rekindle the momentum to grow again.
Shortly after I arrived at Immanuel, I spent considerable time in our history room and talking to those who knew the church’s history. I learned a couple facts that proved to be monumental building blocks.
First, the church sat idle for several years during World War I. It held no services at all until a group decided to reenergize the church.
Second, the church was a pioneer in television. Immanuel was one of the first churches in the state to launch this still vital ministry.
I have been able to use this information to better connect with the church and encourage new innovation. I can encourage people that Immanuel is an overcoming church, not afraid to lead into unchartered territory in following the leading of God.
Everything may not look the same, but we have stayed true to the core DNA of Immanuel.
We’re rediscovering what it means to be Immanuel—a church that after 105 years is still alive, vibrant, growing, and obedient. And we’re leading the church to survive and thrive through its next 100 years.
Sure there have been a few bumps along the way, but God has shown up time and time again.
Bringing new life to a struggling church doesn’t always conjure images of excitement, clarity, or joy. But seeing a church turn around to become a healthy, growing community is rewarding in so many ways.
We have seen God do some amazing things in our church the last three years. I’m humbled and honored to be a part of its history, and look forward to our future, celebrating what I believe could be the best years yet to come.