Can Churches Build when the Walls Seem to Be Falling Down?

Creating New Imagination to Restore the Heart of Today's Church

This past January, the church I pastor, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, had its own “come to Jesus” moment during our Annual Church Meeting.  I had done my due diligence all year — studying the latest data regarding church growth trends and reading articles that examined societal shifts impacting congregations across the country. 

Not much of what I read painted a positive picture. 

In April 2018, a Christian publishing company posted an article by Rick Chromey entitled, “When Giants Fall: What the Church Can Learn From Sears.”  In it, Chromey details the the missteps made by the former retail giant and makes the argument that churches will find themselves in a similar failing state if they don’t reinvent themselves and put their finger on the pulse of the culture around them. 

Seven months later it would seem that the message wasn’t heard as The Atlantic published an article by Jonathan Merritt describing, “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.”  Merritt writes, “Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow.” 

Certainly these aren’t the only two articles describing this sad state of affairs for many churches.  A simple Google search will show millions more, all trying to get a handle on what’s happening and why many congregations are facing the steady drip of decline.  

However, many pastors and church leaders don’t need articles to understand the reality of empty churches. We face the reality of changes happening right before our eyes in our own congregations.  The pews are a bit more sparse, congregational energy is harder to sustain and fewer and fewer people are stepping forward to volunteer in important church roles. 

The church I serve has not been immune to some of this. We’ve experienced a 14% drop in average weekly worship attendance, and I can’t remember the last time our 15 passenger church bus was filled to half its capacity on Sunday morning. Our Sunday School program fizzled out years ago. After a decade now of burying cherished pillars of our congregation, I often find that while eulogizing them, I’m simultaneously bidding goodbye to the ministries that they led as well. 

It’s difficult for me to share this because like many pastors, I’m an optimist. I’m hardwired to see the glass half full. 

My reflex is to zone in on the living edges of our ministry and frame things so they don’t seem as bad. I believe this is a healthier posture—for me anyway—but it’s also important to face the ugly and as my Jesuit friends say “lean into the discomfort.” 

Despite the many places where I am still growing, I like to think of myself as a pretty good pastor and I try very hard to serve those in my congregation well.  Their evaluations of me suggest that I have a passing grade. So to hear from your members that you’re doing pretty well, and at the same time face qualitative data that suggests that the church is struggling in key areas if not outright dying, can be a frustrating paradox for the most positive among us.

My reflex is to zone in on the living edges of our ministry and frame things so they don’t seem as bad. … but it’s also important to face the ugly and as my Jesuit friends say “lean into the discomfort.”

What made the paradox manageable for me was when I learned that other pastors that I know personally, or am familiar with, are experiencing similar struggles. In addition to speaking very candidly with church leaders in my immediate circles, I also started analyzing the Annual Reports of other churches — combing them for data that could serve as a point of reference for me. 

I remember the surprise I felt when I found the report from a pastor that I respect who leads an African American megachurch in Georgia. In 2012, more than 1,600 people joined their church, but last year they reported just 560 new members for the year. Now to be clear, if 560 people decided to join my church in one calendar year, we’d have to knock down walls to accommodate all of them. However, for their church it represented a 66% drop in new members over 6 years. I am in no way relishing in this, but it did help me to de-personalize what was going on at my church and step back to examine other factors that were making this a more common occurrence in so many ministries.  

Of the resources that I looked to for understanding and guidance, Dr. Martha Simmons, creator of The African American Lectionary and the Women of Color Ministry Project, was most helpful. She conducted two Facebook Live video sessions in December 2018 entitled “The Next Ten Years of the African American Church” and uploaded a PDF summarizing the presentation. 

Dr. Simmons highlights many of the shifts happening internally and externally to churches that are impacting ministry vitality. However, with helpful distinction from other widely available resources, she also primes the spiritual imagination by offering specific ideas that churches can pursue to maintain vibrancy.

For example, she unpacks why an up-to-date online presence is so important for churches today. So many people Google a congregation before making a decision whether or not to visit. For congregations with more than 500 people, she raises the idea of a multi-site congregational effort that puts the worship services and ministry offerings closer to where people live, work and play. She even admonishes seminaries and denominations to update their polices, criteria for membership, and course offerings in an effort to be more useful to churches and pastors who are navigating today’s changing scene.  

In preparation for my church’s annual meeting in January, I had our governing body read Dr. Simmons’ report together and reflect on what it meant for our church. We were able to better understand that the challenges that we sensed as internal to our ministry weren’t necessarily aberrations particular to Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, but rather signs of something larger going on. This exercise helped us stretch our spiritual imagination and zoned us in on what we’re good at as a ministry. This created room for me to present a package of adaptive changes that would require great sacrifice for all involved.

I had been sensing that some opportunities were within reach for our church for the past few years, but didn’t quite feel like the moment was right for us to launch out and pursue them. However, this year, after studying the metrics of our ministry, surveying our congregation extensively, analyzing the latest research regarding church growth, and sensing a greater willingness for full partnership by my governing board, this felt like the moment to go “all in” and take a risk for faith.

I proposed to our leadership and congregation that we build organizational capacity, reconfigure our ministry based on our strengths, and establish strategic partnerships with the other anchor institutions that we have strong relationship with in our neighborhood.

The main element of the vision involves the establishment of a Young Adult Residential Fellowship Program focused on areas that are growing edges for our church and needs in our community—education, food sovereignty, and social justice. Similar to AmeriCorps, we will extend the opportunity for three young adults to put their faith in action by serving together for 12 to 18 months while living rent free in a currently vacant house owned by the church. We’ll provide a $20,000 stipend and make health insurance available to them as well. 

Instead of dreading the future, we are now excited by the opportunity to reimagine what church can look like in our time and in years to come.  

To make this work, I recommended that the church reactivate its Community Development Corporation—providing seed funding for these for the next three years and fully renovate the house making it ready for the Fellows by Fall 2019.  I also recommended a 42% cut to my compensation package—asking the church to hire a Young Adult & Campus pastor and securing virtual assistant services to help manage all of the new moving parts.  To my great delight, the congregation enthusiastically supported the vision and instead of dreading the future, we are now excited by the opportunity to reimagine what church can look like in our time and in years to come.  

It’s no doubt that the landscape has changed for churches and people of faith, but we need not be frozen by fear. It seems to me that an entity that has vast experience celebrating divine possibilities and valorizing the realities of transformation, death, and resurrection would be perfectly suited to unleash its spiritual imagination and pursue great visions that, yes, will require great sacrifice, but also stand to yield rewards—eternal ones, at that.

America, church, Faith, Jonathan Merritt, Martha Simmons, Ministry, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, Rick Chromey, The African American Lectionary, Women of Color Ministry Projec

Heber Brown

Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, III is pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland and Founding Director of Orita’s Cross Freedom School and the Black Church Food Security Network.

Featured photo: Pete Johnson, Untitled (N.D.) via CC2.0 license.

Body photo 1: “Water Glass Drip.” Via CC2.0 license.

Body photo 2: Júnior Ferreira, “Lamp Magic” (July 12, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.