Leaders who recognize the need and are willing to be involved are critical to church revitalization, speakers agreed at a church revitalization conference held earlier this month at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
The conference, which was sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention and Union, addressed the issue of “Fanning the Flame of Christian Leadership.”
Tennessee native Jim Henry, former pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church, Nashville, and First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla., spoke twice during the opening session on March 14.
A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Henry has a unique perspective on church revitalization.
When he went to FBC Orlando in the late 1970s the church was located downtown. As the church grew it needed more property but none was available in the area at the time so the church purchased 150 acres and relocated.
He noted there were some members who did not want to relocate so a good number of them remained at the downtown facility and renamed it Downtown Baptist Church.
Through the years membership dwindled and the church began to deteriorate, Henry observed.
Two years ago Downtown Church contacted Henry, who had long since retired from First Baptist and was serving in interim pastorates, and asked if he would become their pastor. Henry declined. About six months later he received another call with the same request, asking him to help “restart” the church.
After considerable prayer Henry accepted the challenge and returned to the location where he had incredible success decades ago. When he got there the church was down to about 60 in worship. Henry recruited a team comprised of primarily former staff members and volunteers to join him as part-time staff members of Downtown Church.
After a year or so the church has climbed to 300 in worship and saw 10-12 baptisms last year with about 150 additions to the church membership.
Noting that when he returned nearly everyone in the congregation was over 70, now younger people are coming in and there are babies in the church.
Henry related that he is currently in the process of praying for a younger man to come along and walk with him in the revitalization effort. “Gradually, I will back off and let him take it,” he said.
Henry is convinced that it was God’s providence that Baptists still own property in the downtown area as it is now booming. He noted in the next two years several large condominium complexes will be built within walking distance of the church.
The potential will be there for a tremendous ministry at Downtown Baptist in the future, Henry said.
As he has led in the revitalization of Downtown Baptist, Henry noted there are five basic things required to do it effectively: teach your people to witness, disciple your members, build a sense of community, minister to the community where you are located, and worship. “In the Bible, worship is critical. It is critical today,” he said.
In his second message, Henry emphasized leadership. He noted he has had nine interim pastorates since retiring from FBC in 2006. In talking with search teams, regardless of the size of the congregation, they all say they want “someone to love us, someone to preach the Word, and someone to lead.”
Churches are looking for leadership, Henry said. “A leader doesn’t give them what they want, but what they need. If you’re revitalizing a church, you have to get the congregation to where they need to be,” he stressed.
Henry related the story of Caleb and Joshua in the Old Testament, describing them as “mountain-climbing” people. “You have to have a mountain-climbing heart in revitalizing churches,” he observed. “You have to struggle to get to the top of the mountain, but it’s great when you get there.”
Mountain-climbing leaders need to stand on convictions and biblical standards, Henry said, challenging pastors to preach on important issues of the day. “We are living in a time that if we don’t address issues and deal with them biblically, we aren’t doing our people a favor.”
Mountain-climbing leaders also need to lead on God’s promises and by example. “There are times when you have to lead by example. People are going to watch you when things are tough and how you handle it makes a difference.”
Finally, he said, a mountain-climbing leader must follow the example of Caleb and not quit. Caleb waited 45 years to take his mountain, Henry observed. “We have to dream and help our people see the dream. Stay with it and help our people stay with it,” he encouraged those in attendance.
“If God gives you a vision and direction, don’t quit on Him.”
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector (baptistandreflector.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.