Have you ever heard your kid’s pastor utter this phrase? “What will I do if one more child comes into the Sunday school room, we are busting at the seams with kids.”
That was the situation Marion, the children’s coordinator at St. Louis Park Free Church found herself in back in the early 1950s.
Fast-forward 60 years, and Marion, now in her 90s said St. Louis Park Free Church has evolved into a place where “we’re all using walkers and have false teeth.”
the church needs to make some drastic changes or it will die…
“The church got to a point where the interim pastor said the church needs to make some drastic changes or it will die. Nobody wanted that for the legacy of the Gospel,” said Pastor Andrew Peterson.
As God would have it, He had plans to revitalize this stalled church. While St. Louis Park Free Church was searching for a new lead pastor, City Vision Church started using Park Free’s building on Sunday nights to plant their own church.
“Park Free’s church leadership realized they weren’t reaching the community effectively, the ministry forums and methods they were doing were dated, and they needed younger leadership to breathe new life into the church and the community,” said Pastor Peterson.
develop internal rhythms and disciplines that foster health and healthy outcomes…
They asked Peterson if he would prayerfully consider merging the two churches into one. There was no manual in place for how to do this; so the two church leadership teams turned to prayer together.
“From there I wrote a marriage proposal on why I believed this was what God had for the future and growth of both churches, and why it set us up to reach St. Louis Park. We’d be better together than separate,” said Peterson.
The two churches voted unanimously to merge in 2015, and the name of the united church was changed to Park Community Church. Peterson says Park Community Church is working to build a new culture and new DNA as a new church together.
Peterson is inspired by the humility of some of the original church attendees.
“For the people who have been at Park Free Church for 60 years to be willing to give up their church’s name, some of their identity, preferences and control, in order to be a part of what God is doing is encouraging,” said Peterson.
Peterson says both churches were lacking what the other church offered.
“City Vision had passion, leadership and energy to reach the city. Park Free had stability, history and wisdom, but lacked leadership and the energy that comes with the younger generation,” said Peterson.
How does 90-year-old Marion feel about this?
“I’m excited that we have young people and kids around!” said Marion.
Peterson says this sentiment is shared among the whole community, which is growing as they reach out to the St. Louis Park community.
The merging of two churches into Park Community Church was a new process for the EFCA denomination, so a plan had to be created in real time. Other denominations have established their own system, and offer that process as a resource to churches who are slipping in numbers or vitality. The Northwest Conference for the Evangelical Covenant Church developed a Congregational Vitality Pathway 10 years ago to help churches that were in a stall pattern or a slow decline.
“Every healthy organism and every healthy organization has to develop internal rhythms and disciplines that foster health and healthy outcomes, or they in time will slide into a stall or decline,” said Jon Kramka, Director of Congregational Vitality for the Northwest Conference.
A part of their congregational vitality approach is to identify 10 markers of a healthy, missional church (see full list below).
“This came in response to a much too simple way of monitoring church growth in the past: bodies, bucks and buildings. Those assessments don’t reflect the whole and full mission of the church,” said Kramka.
Kramka says understanding the missional life cycle of a congregations, has helped to resurrect, rehabilitate, and reenergize churches at risk of dying, those at critical moments in the life of the church, or those satisfied and primarily self-serving (inward focused). We have attached a number of resources from the Congregational Vitality Ministry at the bottom of this article.
we currently see ourselves as considerably more faithful and fruitful…
“Bethlehem had two historic Achilles heels; they had resisted forms of contemporary services, and had resisted supporting church planting,” said Kramka. After going through the Vitality pathway, Bethlehem now hosts a second contemporary service, and became host to a new Hispanic church plant.
Harris Covenant Church is also experiencing a rebirth after following the Congregational Vitality pathway.
“Harris is coming alive, and is finding a new sense of purpose and mission. They are seeing that God isn’t through with them and is honoring their faithfulness. They are seeing people coming to Christ, and a renewed passion and zeal for their own faith as a congregation,” said Kramka.
“Having been a ‘critical moment’ church, we currently see ourselves as considerably more faithful and fruitful, and are enjoying what happens as more people use more gifts both within and outside of our church walls,” said Pastor Steve Weihsmann, Harris Covenant Church.
Harder than Church Planting
Where do you start if your church is dwindling in numbers, fervor, or leadership? Kramka says this process starts with having an honest conversation about where your church is at in relation to what God might hope and dream for your church.
“We start with the assumption that God’s hope and dream for every church, in every season, is that it would be a healthy, missional expression of Him and His Kingdom in their community and beyond,” said Kramka.
But often these challenging conversations bring up past hurts, sin, or issues with leadership.
easier to plant churches than it is to rebirth established churches…
“You’re talking about established churches with established habits and systems. The process of assessing how a church got to this point, often reveals some unhealthy habits or patterns that exist,” said Kramka. “Not facing these dynamics can make it easier to plant churches rather than to renew and rebuild established churches, but we don’t see it as an either or proposition in God’s Kingdom economy.”
Another denomination, the Reformed Church of America, witnessed the success of the Congregational Vitality pathway, and is now developing a similar version of it in several of their regions in recent years.
Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis launched a revitalization program called Jumpstart five years ago.
“Our Jumpstart Program is our effort to revitalize churches that are plateaued or in serious decline,” wrote Kenny Stokes, Lead Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist’s Downtown Campus.
So far two pastors from the Treasuring Christ Together Network have been appointed to relaunch two aging church congregations, one in East St. Paul, one in South Minneapolis.
As a testament to the challenging, and painful work that is associated with revitalizing aging churches, both pastors were hesitant to speak about the work they’re doing restarting a church. Although however uncomfortable the work is, they are hopeful God will be faithful to these local congregations.
“Every Sunday that we attend church, the small band of elderly members communicate their love for us and their joy that Bethlehem has partnered with them in the Jumpstart Program. Their eyes sparkle when they consider their desired gospel legacy,” one newly appointed Jumpstart pastor wrote in his blog.
Strengthening Status Quo Churches
Some churches realize they’ve been at status quo for too long and need a Holy Spirit shake-up. Converge North Central’s (Baptist) district offers consulting and coaching to any pastor who requests it.
“Of our district’s 253 churches in Minnesota and Iowa, we have about 8-10 churches who are in crisis; whether it be losing membership, possible friction between leadership or the congregation is at a crossroads point in their church life,” said Mandy Johnson, P3 Administrator and Executive Coordinator for Converge North Central.
The death of a church is similar to the death of a loved one…
“It helps the church’s search team reexamine the stage they are at in terms of health and life cycle,” said Johnson. “If a church is at a point where they are without a lead pastor, things can go array, churches can struggle during that time. If no one steps up or the wrong person steps up during that time, it can be a difficult time.”
Many of Converge North Central’s rural churches are reflecting the declining population trend all across Minnesota’s rural communities.
“The death of a church is similar to the death of a loved one,” said Johnson. “We have counseling services who have helped buoy up church leadership when they lack confidence.”
But because of the autonomous nature of the Converge denomination, the district headquarters can only implement their church strengthening plan on a church whose leadership team asks for assistance.
Open to Change
The most important quality for a church in need of revitalization is openness.
Openness to meaningful change. Openness to honest conversations.
One of the older members at Harris Covenant Church puts it this way: “If the sheep stay in the same pasture too long, you end up with just a muddy field.”
Following Harris Covenant Church’s involvement in the Congregational Vitality pathway, their lead pastor says, “we are moving to greener pastures and finding great encouragement from the Lord as we go,” said Steve Weihsmann, pastor of Harris Covenant Church.
“There aren’t many denominations who are actually doing this, but I think there’s a great hunger in the body of Christ for this kind of renewal work,” said Kramka.
there’s a great hunger in the body of Christ for this kind of work…
Our prayer at Transform Minnesota is that the Holy Spirit will break-through to recalibrate and redirect any established church who needs a reboot.
“It’s messy. Because people are messy and so organizations we build at times can be messy,” said Kramka. “But God wants His people and Church to continue to advance His mission and love for the world.”
And to that we say, Amen.
Northwest Covenant Conference Congregational Vitality downloads (scroll to bottom of webpage for downloads)
Email Pastor Andrew Peterson, Park Community Church