Report of the Committee to Study Weak or Declining Churches
1. The assignment given to the Committee at the 2004 Annual Conference was to study and propose mechanisms to provide support for weak and declining churches. The committee met three times during the year to accomplish this assignment.
During our study and discussions together we sought to be sensitive to two concerns:
1. How can we maintain a healthy balance between our respect for the autonomy of the particular church “in need” and our commitment to the responsibility of the fellowship of churches to minister to each other? Our particular churches, though autonomous are not independent but interdependent. (F&O, Article 203:2, 3). Any assistance offered or suggested by the body at large must be given with a humble spirit of love and respect for the elders in authority over the church in need.
2. How can we provide a mechanism that will not only help churches that are already considered “weak and declining” but also will help the more “healthy” churches to avoid deteriorating into an “unhealthy” state? The assumption behind this question is that no church is in “perfect health.” Every church can rise to a higher level of spiritual vitality. Therefore, we should look for a tool or a program that will minister to the needs of both healthy and unhealthy churches as well as those in between. Following is a summary of our research and the reasons behind our final decision and recommendations:
The New Testament teaches that the church of Jesus Christ is a living, growing organism that is expected to reproduce itself when enjoying maximum spiritual health. This reproductive growth has usually been defined in terms of numerical statistics. However, in recent years (since 1998) a revolutionary church growth study originating in Germany has rightly shifted the focus from membership growth to spiritual life development as the primary means of defining a healthy, growing church.
Natural Church Development (NCD) is the result of the labors of Christian A. Schwarz, who from 1994-1996 directed the most comprehensive research project about the primary causes of church growth that has ever been conducted. Surveying over 1,000 churches on all five continents led Schwarz to single out eight key qualities that are always present in healthy, growing biblical churches. He believes these qualities can serve as a standard by which any church anywhere can successfully determine its level of spiritual health and begin to initiate steps to increase that level (See note #1 below).
This survey mechanism is of special value to churches that may be viewed as weak and declining. In light of the directive from Annual Conference in April 2004 that “a committee be appointed to study and propose mechanisms to provide for weak or declining churches” this committee, as part of its research, has agreed that the NCD survey is the best tool available to assist in the analysis and possible renewal of “unhealthy” churches.
We further recognize that the implementation of such a survey is only part of the strategy necessary for churches to analyze and/or renew their spiritual life. We need a broader mechanism to provide a context in which the NCD survey can be properly administered. One such assessment tool is the strategy already developed by the Conservative Baptist America (formerly Conservative Baptist Association).
At the heart of the CBA’s program is the implementation of the NCD assessment survey. However, in order to understand where a particular church is, in terms of its level of spiritual health, the CBA places every church in one of four categories. They are 1) Replant Church, 2) Restore church, 3) Refocus church and 4) Resource church. (See note #2 below) Upon determination of a church’s appropriate category the NCD assessment survey may be administered.
An alternative model to the CBA’s four categories is presented in a yet unpublished book by Carl Shank. Shank suggests the three options facing a weak and declining church are:
1. The Revitalization option
2. The close-and-restart option
3. The Closure option (See note #3 below)
Shank’s approach to determining the various levels of spiritual health may be more meritorious for consideration because:
1. It provides a category for a dying church to be closed permanently (CBA does not).
2. It avoids the confusion of having CBA’s two categories which are almost similar in definition, i.e. 2) “Restore Church” and 3) “Refocus Church.”
3. It also includes the NCD assessment as a critical part of the revitalization process.
4. It allows for us to add CBA’s #4 category of a “Resource Church” if so desired.
Whatever categories we establish, be they the CBA’s, Carl Shank’s or something else, we are unanimously committed to making the NCD assessment survey the primary tool for ascertaining the spiritual health, not only of churches that appear to be weak and declining, but also of all of our BFC churches and church plants.
Note #1. The initial survey done by Schwarz and his team resulted in 4.2 million responses from Christians all around the world. The following principles are the final product of this research. More information can be found in Natural Church Development by Christian A. Schwarz, Church Smart Resources, 1996 and The ABC’s of Natural Church Development by Christian A. Schwarz, Church Smart Resources, 1998
The eight principles are:
(1) Empowering Leadership
• Effective leadership begins with an intimate relationship with God, resulting in Christ-like character and a clear sense of God’s calling for leaders lives. As this base of spiritual maturity increases, effective pastors and leaders multiply, guide, empower and equip disciples to realize their full potential in Christ and work together to accomplish God’s vision.
(2) Gift-oriented ministry
• The Holy Spirit sovereignly gives to every Christian spiritual gift(s) for the building of God’s kingdom. Church leaders have the responsibility to help believers discover, develop and exercise their gifts in appropriate ministries so that the body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love.”
(3) Passionate spirituality
• Effective ministry flows out of a passionate spirituality. Spiritual intimacy leads to a strong conviction that God will act in powerful ways. A passionate spirituality can only be accomplished through an optimistic faith which views obstacles as opportunities and turns defeats into victories.
(4) Functional structures
• The Church is the living Body of Christ. Like all healthy organisms, it requires numerous systems which work together to fulfill its intended purpose. Each must be evaluated regularly to determine if it is still the best way to accomplish the intended purpose.
(5) Inspiring worship
• Inspiring worship is a personal and corporate encounter with the living God. Both personal and corporate worship must be infused with the presence of God resulting in times of joyous exultation and times of quiet reverence. Inspiring worship is not driven by a particular style, but rather the shared experience of God’s awesome presence.
(6) Holistic small groups
• Holistic small groups are disciple-making communities which endeavor to reach the unchurched, meet individual needs, develop each person according to their God-given gifts, and raise leaders to sustain the growth of the church. Like healthy body cells, holistic small groups are designed to grow and multiply.
(7) Need-oriented evangelism
• Need-oriented evangelism intentionally cultivates relationships with non-Christian people so they can become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who are actively participating within the life of the church and community. Using appropriate ministries and authentic relationships, believers can guide others into the family of God.
(8) Loving relationships
• Loving relationships are the heart of a healthy, growing church. Jesus said, “People will know we are his disciples by our love.” Practical demonstration of love builds authentic Christian community and brings others into God’s kingdom.
(1) Replant Church-This church is near death with a long history of decline. It will close if current trends continue. There has been a lack of vision, financial problems, declining attendance, internal conflict, and a lack of conversion growth. This church needs to be closed and replanted in the same city in a different location with new leadership. All facilities and property should be sold to finance the replant.
(2) Restore Church-This church has experienced substantial decline, yet is still worth saving. Ministry areas are out of balance, leadership needs new vision and commitment, and new methodologies are necessary. There are internal problems that will require outside intensive help.
(3) Refocus Church-This church is stagnating in its growth. The leaders are not on the same page and are confused about what to do next. The ministry is ingrown and focusing on those in the church and not the community.
(4) Resource Church-This church is a model of a church with Great Commission Health. There should be a willingness to use their resources to help struggling churches.
1. The “Revitalization” Option
a. Congregation must accept and be able to meet all the conditions, namely a radical revamping of the spiritual, organizational and ministry life of the church.
b. Pastor(s) must accept all of the conditions, or be willing to resign.
c. The church board will need to be radically changed, either through supplementing it with new (or outside) members or through constituting a whole new board. The board must be willing to do this.
d. Hire a consultant to walk the congregation through the steps of revitalization.
2. The “Close-and-Restart” Option
a. All current memberships are ended. (Transfer to same or sister denominational church nearby or join another evangelical church.)
b. Decide what to do about the property and assets.
c. The current pastor agrees to resign.
d. The church buildings and activities lie “fallow” for a year or so. No services are held until the new church starts up.
e. Process and hire a gifted church planter to do the restart.
f. The restart might be on the same premises, but usually it would meet elsewhere.
g. The restart would be treated as a “new” church by all attenders and outside denominational people.
h. Members and attenders of the former church are welcome, but they must agree to new core values and objectives of the new pastor.
3. The “Closure” Option
a Nostalgia “lock-in” could lead to closure:
• Major “power” people or centers are unwilling to change
• Congregation-wide inability to change (e.g., too old to go through the rigors of change and transformation)
b Polarization or factionalization could lead to closure:
• If “yes,” how severe and how long? The longer or deeper the severity, closure recommended.
c Is church at “dropout” stage? (Doors may be open, but unable to support a pastor, or barely able to pay the maintenance bills, etc)
• If “yes”, are outside ministry or operational funds available?
• If funds are available, is the “right pastor available?
We, therefore, recommend that the 122nd Annual Conference adopt the following:
1. Resolved, that the Study Committee on Weak and Declining Churches continue its work for another year and further that this committee is hereby given as its first assignment the writing of a more complete and final document describing the task, structure and rules of operation of the proposed board to be presented at Annual Conference, 2006.
2. Resolved, that we invite Carl Shank to present the N.C.D. program to the BFC church at large through such avenues as the 2005 PED retreat or regional seminars.
3. Resolved, that we adopt the following legislation at first reading:
Board of Church Health
The Board of Church Health exists to serve the particular churches of the Bible Fellowship Church by promoting strong church health. A healthy church includes the following characteristics: empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships.
Composition and Election
(1) The Board of Church Health shall consist of four ordained ministers and four elders.
(2) They shall be elected for a term of three years in classes as follows:
Class I Two ministers and two elders
Class II One minister and one elder
Class III One minister and one elder
(1) It shall monitor and assess the health of particular churches.
(2) It shall approach, based on its assessment, particular churches to offer assistance for strengthening church health.
(3) It shall provide counsel and resources for the assessment of the health of particular churches.
(4) It shall provide a list of recommended consultants to particular churches needing assistance in moving toward stronger church health.
(5) It shall offer training and seminars to promote church health.
(6) It shall in cooperation with the Board of Directors assist particular churches to close when necessary.
(7) It shall make recommendations to Annual Conference to declare a particular church closed.
(8) “It shall consult with the Board of Church Extension regarding the feasibility of planting a new church in the same area”.
(9) It shall develop sources of financial assistance to particular churches who cannot afford church health resources.
(10) It shall receive and disburse monies designated for church health.
Committee to Study Weak or Declining Churches: Byron Widger, Chairman; Carl K. Spackman, Secretary; Carl C. Cassel, Randall A. Grossman, Greg A. Urich, John C. Vandegriff