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Stetzer highlights keys to revitalization

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–News has been bad for churches in America as growth has slowed to an all-time low, and according to Ed Stetzer, congregations are dying at a rate of eight per day. But Stetzer sees a glimmer of hope as some churches refuse to give up and are making a comeback.

Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and author of “Comeback Churches,” spoke about growing churches during the keynote address at the Church Revitalization Conference sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health Oct. 11-12.

The two-day conference, which was cosponsored by the Perry R. Sander Center for Ministry Excellence at the seminary, featured three pastors who led their churches to dramatic turnarounds: Chad Grayson of Airline Baptist Church in Bossier City, La.; Mike Walker of East Bayou Baptist Church in Lafayette, La.; and Alan Floyd of First Baptist Church in Middleburg, Fla.

New Orleans Seminary professor Reggie Ogea, who directs the doctor of ministry and doctor of educational ministry programs, also spoke on the principles of church growth.

To illustrate the pervasive nature of the current decline among U.S. churches, Stetzer cited a 2004 study by the Leavell Center that found only 11 percent of Southern Baptist churches could be considered “healthy, growing churches.” The study looked at key church health indicators such as membership increase, number of baptisms, membership-to-baptism ratios, additions by conversion and percentage of members involved in discipleship programs.

According to Stetzer, since 2000 every category of baptisms is down in Southern Baptist churches except one — the number baptisms of those under 5 years of age. The number of churches baptizing 10 or more people is declining every year. These statistics are an indication that something is wrong in Baptist churches, he said.

But Southern Baptist churches are not the only ones struggling with stagnant growth, Stetzer said. Two-thirds of Assemblies of God churches and 80 percent of Nazarene churches are plateaued or declining.

To compile research for Comeback Churches, Stetzer and co-author Mike Dodson surveyed 300 churches across 10 denominations that achieved significant growth after a period of decline. Stetzer and Dodson found many common factors in the churches that learned to grow again.

“The pain of staying the same has to become greater than the pain of change,” Stetzer said. “The pain to be inflicted is they have to fall in love with lost people again. They’ve got to fall in love with seeing men and women come to faith in Christ.”

Effective leadership was the issue that surfaced most often among comeback churches. Leaders helped their churches see the harvest and made people a priority, Stetzer said.

“We became convinced that leaders grow churches,” he said. “I know that is cliché, but there was no getting around it.”

Comeback church leaders share ministry with church members and model a passion for evangelism, Stetzer said. Communicating a clear vision also was a key factor in growth.

Comeback churches exhibited three common faith factors: a renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church; a renewed attitude of servanthood; and a more strategic prayer effort, Stetzer said.

“You can’t love Jesus and hate His wife … you know the church is the bride of Christ,” Stetzer said. “The reality is they fell in love with the church again.”

Leaders of the revitalized churches stopped focusing on their own preferences and began focusing on servanthood. According to Stetzer, the successful leaders began exhibiting the attitude of Jesus found in Philippians 2:5-11. And they focused on seeking God’s direction through prayer.

“They prayed. They heard from the Lord. They got on mission,” Stetzer said. “There were a lot of structural changes, but we need to start with the spiritual things. Leaders lead people to spiritual changes.”

Comeback churches renewed their evangelistic efforts, and for many churches, this means learning to love the lost, Stetzer said.

The churches illustrated their love for the lost by actively witnessing. Stetzer said each successful church used a variety of evangelism methods. While some church members excelled at traditional door-to-door outreach, other members developed relationships with the lost as an avenue for witnessing. None of the comeback churches in the Stetzer survey used only one evangelism method, but each created an environment where both spontaneous and planned evangelism could take place.

“Most churches love their traditions more than they love the lost,” Stetzer said. “We lock ourselves into a self-affirming subculture.”

Removing barriers to the Gospel was another way the churches showed love for the lost, Stetzer said. These barriers included meaningless tradition and practices that repelled unchurched people. Stetzer suggested keeping the focus on the Gospel.

“We need to remove every stumbling block we can except the stumbling block of the cross,” he said.

On the second day of the conference, Chad Grayson shared the story of Airline Baptist Church’s turnaround over the past three years. The church has focused on three things during Grayson’s time as pastor: magnifying Jesus, ministry to others and missions.

When he became pastor the church was ready for change, Grayson said, and change has come. Baptisms at Airline are up from an average eight per year to more than 100 per year. Sunday School attendance has grown from an average of 180 to 600, and more than 70 people participate in FAITH evangelism each Tuesday night.

According to leaders at the Leavell Center, the conference is designed to stimulate creative ideas for leading churches to evangelistic growth. The speakers represent a wide background of church situations and contexts, and each led a church to significant growth.

Ogea, an experienced pastor and Baptist associational leader, identified a number of crucial issues for church growth. Like Stetzer, Ogea pointed to effective pastoral leadership as the most important factor in bringing growth to a church. Longevity of the pastoral leadership can be a key contributor in revitalizing a church. Ogea said understanding the “how” and “when” of change is a critical issue as well.

“The ‘how’ of change involves creating a sense of urgency,” Ogea said. “Effective change must be slow, incremental and exponential.”

Other issues Ogea explored included raising the church to a new level of excellence one ministry at a time and refocusing the purposes of the church in its community context.

“It’s always exciting to hear the firsthand accounts about churches that are growing again and reaching people for Christ,” said David Meacham, director of the Leavell Center. “At NOBTS we are focusing on training leaders for healthy church growth.”

Bill Day, associate director of the Leavell Center, found in a 2004 study that only 11 percent of Southern Baptist churches were experiencing healthy growth. So revitalizing plateaued churches is a crucial task for many church leaders.

In conjunction with the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, the Leavell Center honors “Churches of Excellence” which meet five criteria for healthy churches. The churches honored this year may be seen online at http://baptistcenter.com/leavellcenter.html.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Paul F. South contributed to this article.