ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) -- Just over 70 percent of churches are plateaued or declining in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, according to North American Mission Board statistics. In response, NAMB -- working with state conventions -- is launching a series of Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conferences in 2012 and 2013.
Former SBC President Johnny Hunt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church Woodstock, launched the first revitalization conference at Northside Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on Sept. 20. Representing NAMB, Hunt will conduct revitalization conferences in eight states.
Hunt said church revitalization is his personal passion along with church planting, noting, "As D.L. Moody said, unless we stab American cities in the heart with the Gospel, we will lose this country."
"With NAMB's help," Hunt said, "we want to help churches revitalize.
"In addition to planting new churches, sometimes we need to revitalize existing churches," Hunt noted, recounting how First Baptist Woodstock took over an aging church that had dwindled to 17 people. "That church is now six years old, averaging 600 every Sunday," Hunt said.
At one point, First Baptist Church in Essex, Md., just outside Baltimore, was among the 72 percent of plateaued or declining churches. But its pastor, John Smith, ultimately decided -- with God's prompting -- that he would have no part of shepherding a diminishing flock.
Early into his career in ministry, had someone asked Smith about church revitalization, his answer would have been simple: It's a great idea but just not for him.
"It was one of those places in ministry that I just never thought I was going to be," he said.
But God had a different plan. When Smith visited First Baptist Essex, it was "a church with one foot and four toes in the grave, and I was not interested in pastoring it at all."
After preaching at the church twice while visiting family friends in the area, Smith sat down with a small committee from the church looking to keep the doors open. However, he still did not feel the call to take on the role of pastor to a dying congregation.
"As I was driving out of the parking lot for what I thought would be the last time, I heard God tell me it was my job to lead this church out of the grave. It was as if He was saying, 'You're telling this church it's going to die, but I'm asking you to die to yourself and pastor this church.'"
So Smith answered the call. In the two years he has served as pastor at First Baptist Essex, Smith has worked tirelessly to revitalize and change the atmosphere there.
"We got out there and started getting back out in the community, reminding the people that we were there and just trying to bring in new people to give the church a new life and new excitement about it," Smith recounted.
Attendance has since grown from an average of 35 every Sunday to now around 120 each week, with big days showing 200-plus in worship. Nearly 100 people have come to Christ through the church and 67 have been baptized as new believers.
"We really worked to find a balance between honoring the legacy and history of the church while still casting a new vision for new life at FBC-Essex," Smith said. "When it's all said and done, the God that started our church, the God that saw it struggling to stay alive -- that same God loves this church still and wants to see it march forward towards a future."
Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization conferences are scheduled Nov. 1 at Living Hope Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Ky.; Dec. 6, Georgia Baptist Convention, Duluth, Ga.; Jan. 29, 2013, First Baptist Church, Brandon, Fla.; Feb. 7, Broadmoor Baptist Church, Madison, Miss.; Feb. 28, Colonial Heights Baptist Church, Colonial Heights, Va.; April 25, Mount Vernon Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C.; and May 23, White Oak Conference Center, Winnsboro, S.C.
Every conference -- co-sponsored by NAMB and the state convention -- runs from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., with final registration at 8 a.m. The cost is $30 and includes registration, conference materials, lunch, refreshments and a $15 LifeWay gift card.
To learn more about church revitalization or to attend a Send North America Church Growth and Revitalization Conference, visit http://namb.net/revitalization; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 770-410-6305.
Compiled by North American Mission Board writers Sara Shelton, Joe Conway and Mickey Noah. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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