William Thornton is the SBC Plodder.
Occasionally, I run across an assertion or a statistic that stops me cold. Here is one that did just that:
“Fear of change is one of the reasons one in four congregations will close during the next 15 years…”
Let me digest this: Twenty-five percent of American congregations will not be present fifteen years hence?
Jeff Brumley of Associated Baptist Press has an interesting article on the future of churches, Experts seek balance between optimism and pessimism in future of congregations, in which he quotes Bill Wilson, founder of The Center for Healthy Churches, as making the assertion above. I have found Wilson’s material to be quite insightful and helpful generally but do not know where he got this figure. In the same piece Thom Ranier says that 20% of American Protestant churches will close in the next two decades. George Bullard, who was a South Carolina Baptist Convention executive when I served in that state, is featured in the article. I have read a good bit of his material and find that he has some astute observations about churches and denominations. You can find links in the ABP piece for all of these people.
There are about 46,000 SBC churches. If Wilson is correct then we can expect to see 11,500 SBC churches disappear by 2030. I suspect that the 25% figure was for all US congregations and rates of closing would differ among the different groups. Almost certainly, we will not be seeing two SBC churches per day closing their doors; however, I suspect that we will see increasing numbers in the years ahead. (Note here that we are not talking about net growth or loss. We are starting churches so no one expects the total number to decline by one-fourth.)
Which brings me to the concept of church revitalization, a perennial topic and thrust in SBC life and one that everyone favors. The various SBC and state convention organizations have church revitalization programs and personnel and have for decades. Alas, I am unaware of any effective top-down revitalization program. There is no national or even state convention program for revitalization of congregations that I see as holding much promise. If your state has one, and has a track record of success, I’d like to know about it. It makes sense to me that the most effective program for church revitalization would be found at the level closest to churches – the association. My local association has a program that is very attractive. It is also very new and without any history, so there are no results to evaluate, but I like what I know about it.
I’ve preached in a few very small churches whose future is extremely precarious. I’d not be surprised if some of these go defunct but, who knows? With our recipe of local church autonomy (and the fact that churches have no tax bill to pay every year) it is not difficult for a couple of dozen people to hang on to their building and church for years and years. You can always get a supply preacher cheaply.
The question is do these churches desire to be healthy, effective, ministering churches?
Some do. Some don’t.
We should put some resources in those that do and let those that don’t die a natural death. Things change. Demographics change. Geographic population distributions change. Churches should change as well. Some should close.
If we have sums of money to spend it is more likely that our best results will come from starting new churches rather than trying to resuscitate old ones. One of the points that all the experts agree upon is that it is extremely difficult to revitalize a church and few are successful at it.
I see nothing that dissuades me from agreeing with that.