Christian Articles Archive

Restarting A Dead Church

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Granada Hills Church in the thriving San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles had dwindled to just a handful of members. They finally decided to die, deeding their property over to the parent denomination and relinquishing control of the church to a steering committee which included members of other churches, pastors, and denominational leaders. Since the steering committee called the Rev. Stephen Hasper as restart pastor three years ago, the church has grown to 70 attendance on Sunday mornings.

When we're talking about a true "restart," we're not referring to the typical small, struggling church that finds fresh life and growth, nor are we looking at mergers or relocation of existing churches. A church that is a candidate for a restart has already disbanded or is almost ready to do so. The church has dwindled down to a handful of survivors who are too tired to continue on. It's a church that must have leadership and resources outside itself. These churches in which God uses the local district or denomination to help bring back to life we call "restart churches."

"I have a concept of letting it die," says Dr. Fred Wymore, Western (Northern California) District Superintendent of the Foursquare Church. "For good healthy change, there needs to be a spiritual death for that church. It doesn't need to close up. But there must be a rebirth of its spirit."

Just how do you go about restarting a dead church? In talking to restart pastors and denominational leaders across the country, these principles come up again and again:

1. Make Sure There Is Growth Potential in the Facility's Location.

Not every church is a good candidate for a restart. Rural areas that are losing population, areas of ethnic change, and declining neighborhoods are difficult. The area around a restart church needs to have a definable target group of sufficient size which may be effectively reached by the type of ministry that denomination has to offer.

2. Celebrate the Old Church's Past.

Before the old church passes away, gather to celebrate its victories and glorious past. As South Park Church of Buffalo, NY, got ready to close, an elderly member was asked to prepare a history of the church for distribution at the final service. "It was a time of joyful memories shared," the Rev. Jan Mahle recalls. "Four people who had been there over 40 years shared during the sermon time." Then members of 50 or more years were asked to stand and were given a candle, and on down the line to 10 years or less. "We did this," says Pastor Mahle, "so they could know that their ministry had meant something and they were appreciated." The service concluded with "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and the Lord's Supper together, and then moved into a period of "new beginnings" led by the executive minister.

3. Close the Doors of the Church for a Time.

Rev. Steve Hasper wonders if closing the doors might have helped Granada Hills Church. "We're not sure we ever died," he says. "The old church never close. Services continued under interim leadership. To older members, it seems like we went through a sickness and a trauma which we have now come out of. If we had closed the church," he muses, "renamed, and done some remodeling, the community would have realized what was happening. In the business world we would have put out a sign that said 'Under New Management.' We lost an opportunity to say something to the community."

Restart Pastor Mark Emerson, who is in the early stages of a restart at American Baptist Fellowship of Littleton, Colorado, wonders, "Have we really severed ties with the past? If we would have shut down, let the building take care of itself, and kept mortgage payments going, maybe we could have crossed these hurdles better."

4. Transfer Control from Local Power Brokers to a Steering Committee Of Mostly Outsiders

One of the most common blocks to growth in a dying congregation is leadership that is closed to faith and a vision of the future. Often these entrenched old timers have run off the very people who could have provided vital ministry.

The failure to effectively change the leadership contributed to the failure of a restart of an old urban church in the Bunker Hill section of Boston. "The nucleus of old timers were still trying to call the shots and were not willing to see change," recalls a denominational staff member. "When the few new people showed up they were intimidated by the older core of people. Right from the beginning," he counsels, "make sure you have the cooperation of the church people involved. Here there was an indication that the church people were only half-hearted about cooperating."

East Baptist Church of Philadelphia didn't use a steering committee. "We did not follow the guidelines for a restart, and I think that was a tragic mistake," says restart Pastor Rachel Lee. "We never closed. Lay leadership never changed. This has been one of the greatest obstacles to growth."

A steering committee of outsiders dilutes the power base that has blocked growth and allows a new dream to develop. "The meetings are very focused, says the Rev. Jan Mahle, "There isn't the same rhetoric, the same conflict, the same discussion over the same issues. It's more visionary."

Even a steering committee may not break all the negative power struggles. One pastor says, "The people from the restart church on the steering committee are part of the old power group." Another comments, "There have been a couple of key people who have been very reluctant to see anything change, and they exert a powerful influence. They're domineering and can throw a wet blanket on any new idea. People will sometimes outvote them, but you lose the thrust."

5. Change the Church's Name.

Buffalo's South Park Church decided to change their name as they entered the restart process. Now they're called Good Shepherd Church. Kathryn Baker, Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Niagara Frontier, says, "One of the things that I think was most symbolic for this church in giving up their identity was to change their name. That way the people in the community can see that it isn't just the same old group limping along, but a new church."

Another important symbol might be transferring ownership of the property to the denomination for a time. While this seems drastic, death is drastic. It should be done for the right reasons, though. The protection the weak and vulnerable church receives from being taken over by outside groups is secondary to its symbolic value of death and breaking power.

6. Develop a Fresh Vision for the Community

Without a mission beyond its own survival, a restart church is neither new nor viable. "The word restart is not fully appropriate," says Mark Emerson of Littleton, Colorado. "We're not going to restart the old ministry. We're here to make a new beginning. We have a new name, a new purpose."

Good Shepherd Church of Buffalo surveyed their community and gathered statistical information. "The church began to catch a new sense of mission," says Pastor Mahle, "when the Buffalo Community Food Table moved into our facility to serve meals." The vitality of East Baptist Church of Philadelphia is evident in their outreach to children and adults in their neighborhood through a new twist on VBS: Marketplace 29 A.D. featuring workers dressed in Biblical costumes. "We were able to involve some community people who could do the shops [interest centers]," says Pastor Lee, "even though they might not be able to teach a class."

7. Call a New Church Pastor with Energy and Faith.

Restarting a church takes mountains of energy and faith in God's power necessary to ward off discouragement. One of the common ailments in a restart situation is the people's tiredness. "You fix it for us pastor," they seem to say. Trying to do it all will burn out a pastor in short order.

The pastor's energy must be focused on growth. "If the church doesn't die," observes one restart pastor, "the new life brought in by a new pastor is expected to revitalize the old traditions and there's not enough energy left to do something new."

That's the single theme which one hears again and again from restart pastors: make sure the church is really willing to die and help it to seal this decision with significant symbols: name, control, property, etc.

A pastor on the East coast recalls, "When I first moved here, I thought the denomination had done the right thing by not closing the church. I thought I could build on the church's standing in the community. But it's like what Jesus said, 'You can't put new wine in old wine skins.' It's taken me a while to see you just should not leave everything intact."

A period of feeble health you can expect from an elderly person who recovers from a grave illness. Resurrection is only possible from a corpse.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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