by Mark Dooley
I’ve always been curious about the “Year of …” lists that appear — the year of the tiger, the year of the rat, and so forth. Who decides about those things? In my brief research, I’ve been able to determine these things are generally related to the Chinese zodiac and the Chinese calendar.
In the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) sphere, 2021 is “the year of revitalization” — a year of focusing on renewal within our churches. That need for revitalization in churches is evident from even the most casual observation.
In “Reclaiming Glory,” Mark Clifton says a healthy or revitalized church is “one that has a reputation for making disciples who make disciples and whose community is noticeably better because of the existence of the church.” Unfortunately, the reputation of some of our churches in their communities is for many things other than making disciples. And rather than contributing to the betterment of the community, some churches actually contribute to the dysfunction of the community. Indeed, the need for revitalization is great.
Church of today looks similar to first century church of Corinth
In 1 Corinthians, we see an example of a dysfunctional church. Bobby Jamieson, associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, lists seven issues in the church at Corinth in a 9Marks article from Oct. 27, 2011.
- Divisions and factions (1:10-17)
- Toleration of sexual immorality (5:1-13)
- Lawsuits among church members (6:1-8)
- Confusion over marriage and sexuality (7:1-40)
- Division over Christian freedom (8:1-13, 10:1-38)
- Worship wars (chapters 11-14)
- False teaching about the resurrection (chapter 15)
Jamieson then says, “If you squint your eyes slightly and adjust the cultural particulars, the church in Corinth circa A.D. 55 is the spitting image of many evangelical churches today.”
I agree completely with Jamieson’s assessment. Largely, the church of the 21st century doesn’t look too dissimilar from the church at Corinth in the first century. Just as the church in its infancy was already in need of revitalization, so the church today continues to need revitalization.
“We need revitalization”
The oft-quoted statistic is that approximately 80 percent of churches are either plateaued or declining. In “The State of the American Church,” published in 2018, Dr. Aubrey Malphurs even quotes Gary McInstosh, who said, “I have been working with a judicatory in the Midwest. In their district, 97 percent of the churches are in decline. Not plateaued, but in decline.”
I’m sure that many of us remember the research of Thom Rainer several years ago. In his 2017 blog article, “Dispelling the 80 percent myth of the declining churches,” Rainer’s research, based on a statistical analysis of 1000 churches, determined that the figure was closer to 65 percent, rather than 80 percent. He went on to say that “there is a huge statistical difference between 80 percent, the myth, and 65 percent, the reality.”
There is no doubt that Rainer is correct in that assessment. But that is like needing a rental car and finding out that the car you’re about to rent will start 6 days out of the month but that the battery won’t even turn over on the other 24 days. When you tell the rental car agent that such a car is unacceptable, they reply that they understand and offer you another car that starts 11 days out of the month but fails to start the other 19 days. That scenario is also unacceptable. If 80 percent of our churches are plateaued or in decline, we need to do much better. If only 65 percent of our churches are plateaued or in decline, we still need to do much better. We need revitalization.
Finding a better trajectory
Of course, there are a number of churches in the BCM/D that are reaching people and making a significant spiritual impact in their communities. In that regard, they may not need revitalization per se, but we can all be part of the collective cooperative work of helping our churches find a better trajectory. As Church Renewal Specialist Matthew Bohling of the Presbyterian Church of America once commented, “We can no longer simply ignore struggling churches. We must give attention to these churches before they die, or we all lose!” I believe Bohling is right. German theologian Karl Barth popularized the phrase “ecclesia semper reformanda” — the church must always be reformed — supposedly borrowing that phrase from the patristic theologian, Augustine. Just as the church must be vigilant to guard the integrity of its doctrinal fidelity, lest we find ourselves in need of a subsequent Reformation, so must churches be always ready for and desirous of the rekindling of its relational fervency with Jesus that will lead to renewed worship, evangelistic zeal, service, and growth.
Opportunities for churches
So, how will the BCM/D help to promote revitalization in 2021? Well, it will be a bit tricky to be sure, owing to COVID-19 and the reality that it will be at least some months into 2021 before we see a return to being able to meet together personally on a larger scale. But we’ve organized some helpful opportunities for churches to be able to give revitalization efforts a greater focus.
Through June, we will have a series of eight webinars on six different days with national leaders speaking about various topics. Each webinar will last just over an hour. This will lead us to our major event on Oct. 1 and 2, our Renovate conference, to be held in person at Riva Trace Baptist Church near Annapolis. This event will feature keynote addresses, breakout sessions, and dynamic worship. In addition, participants will be able to browse a bookstore and display area to where they will have an opportunity to purchase numerous revitalization resources. One of the presenters at the Renovate conference will be Dr. Kenneth Priest, director of the Center for Church Revitalization at Southwestern Seminary. Dr. Priest is a national thought leader in the area of church revitalization. He will also be available to visit BCM/D churches for a private consultation between August 29 and September 5. More details about all these opportunities as well as registration options are available at bcmd.org/revitalization.
Getting to work
The work of revitalizing a church is needed and it is hard work. But as difficult as that sounds, it is also possible. So, let’s get to it. Let’s not shrink back from the challenges associated with revitalization but rather embrace them as we seek to lead our churches to greater health and to be, as Clifton suggests, churches that have “a reputation for making disciples who make disciples and whose community is noticeably better because of the existence of the church.”
Mark Dooley serves as the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s state director of evangelism.