By Bob Smietana
For years, Galilee Baptist Church was a vibrant evangelical presence on Chicago’s North Side. The 500-member strong congregation had one of the largest Sunday schools in the city and a thriving missionary program overseas.
Then, a little at a time, the church slowly declined. New people stopped showing up. Old members died off or moved away.
By the late 1990s, Galilee was a church full of empty pews, with a handful of people hanging on.
“We tried to reach the neighborhood,” says longtime member Chuck McWherter, “and we just couldn’t do it.”
But then the church merged in 2000 with New Life Community Church, a multisite congregation that specializes in church restarts, and the people started coming back.
Today, about 200 people worship at the church on Sundays, including young families and a stream of visitors. The music is different—an eclectic mix of guitar, drum, and cello that McWherter describes as “lively”—and the name has changed, to New Life West Lakeview. But the mission remains the same.
McWherter spends Sundays as a greeter, shaking hands with newcomers. It’s the best job in the world, he says.
“I am thrilled to see what God is doing,” says McWherter.
New Life West Lakeview is one of a small but growing number of churches around the country that have experienced new life after years of decline.
Some are joining up with church plants or with larger congregations. Some have found new life after rediscovering the stories of past ministry. Others have been jump-started by denominational revitalization programs.
All, says Mark Jobe, senior pastor of New Life, have discovered that God loves to breathe new life into old things.
“God has a fondness for restoring things He has used in the past,” says Jobe.
Finding New Life
Jobe didn’t always feel that way. Although he’d helped New Life grow from a small, struggling congregation into a megachurch, Jobe was skeptical about the future of struggling churches.
“I always said I didn’t want to get into the politics of an old church,” Jobe says.
But seeing the relaunch of New Life West Lakeview changed his mind. He began to believe God could do something new in the life of that congregation.
Still, restarting the church wasn’t easy. Along with a new name and different music, the church also hired a new pastor and adopted a new culture.
“If you have 25 older people and one young pastor, you haven’t changed the culture,” says Jobe. So New Life sent out a core of 30 people who joined the two dozen or so Galilee members when the church relaunched.
That created a new culture for the congregation and added some momentum to the relaunch. New Life West Lakeview is still going strong 15 years after the relaunch.
Where once they were cut off from the community, now church members volunteer at a local school. In the summer, they hand out free popcorn during outdoor movie nights at nearby Hamlin Park.
“We’re a neighborhood church,” says McWherter. “That’s all we ever wanted to be.”
Remember the Mission
Leading a congregation to embrace a new vision and new culture isn’t easy, says Bob Whitesel, professor of Christian ministry and missional leadership at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Whitesel, who often consults with struggling congregations, says many declining churches often focus on survival, rather than mission.
“If a church is simply trying to survive,” he says, “newcomers can tell. They will flee. We have to get the mission right.”
Getting the mission right starts with regaining a sense of urgency about the gospel.
When he meets with churches, Whitesel reminds them to worry first about the spiritual needs of their neighbors, who are often far from God and in need of the good news Jesus offers.
Whitesel also recommends pastors in struggling churches try to find as many allies as possible. Those allies should include gatekeepers in the congregation who oppose changes, as well as those who want to make changes. And these influential people should be empowered to help shape the church’s future.
“Often pastors get ahead of this,” says Whitesel. “They create vision and want people to follow. But other leaders in the church are smart people too—they are used to making decisions.”
Along the way, he says churches should look for short-term wins—small signs the church is making some progress.
For some churches, a win has come when someone is baptized, or when a few young families show up, or an outreach project is a success.
“People need to see this new direction is working,” Whitesel says.
For New Community Church in Mesquite, Texas, one of their first small wins came when the church started a community outreach called “FamFest.”
Church members and other volunteers handed out backpacks for schoolkids, gave haircuts, conducted health screenings, and hosted a meal for low-income neighbors.
The event was a boon for families in Mesquite, a formerly well-off suburb that had struggled for a number of years. It also helped the church reconnect with their community.
As new people came to church, some gave their lives to Christ and were baptized. That, too, gave the church, which had shrunk to about two dozen people, hope for their future.
Bill Henard, author of Can These Bones Live?, cautions pastors that new methodologies or programs don’t guarantee success. “Healthy churches are ones that experience growth through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s presence and movement are evident, not only in the preaching, but in the lives of the people.”
We Have Done This Before
John Wenrich, director of congregational vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church, says churches often find hope for the future by looking to the past. He recommends churches practice “narrative archeology,” by digging through their archives to see how God worked in their past.
“There are radical, life-giving stories locked up in your church archives,” he says.
At First Covenant Church in Everett, Washington, pastor Jason Mohn discovered the congregation of about 100 people had a long history of innovation.
Founded in 1903, First Covenant has recently been working their way through their denomination’s congregational vitality program. As part of that process, the church called Mohn as their pastor in 2011.
Early on, he visited longtime members of the church and explored the church’s archives. There he discovered a number of times the church had made big changes in order to become more effective in ministry.
In the 1930s, for instance, the church, which was founded by Swedish immigrants, began holding services in English for the first time. Around the same time, the church’s young people started a Sunday night radio program that ran for 14 years.
At the time, radio was the latest in modern technology, says Mohn.
Now, if he hears the familiar phrase, “We’ve never done this before,” Mohn has an answer from the church’s past.
“We have done this before,” he says. “We can do it again.”
First Covenant has also been inspired by its connection to missions. In the past, missionaries have visited the church to report back their work.
Now those missionaries give feedback on how the church is doing in reaching its own backyard.
“What we have woken up to is that we have missionary work to do here in Everett,” says Mohn.
Road to Recovery
There is a real need in today’s landscape for healthy and vibrant churches. Years ago the church was the social hub of most communities. Today, that is no longer the case. Many churches have either stalled out or are in decline.
Whitesel says pastors have a vital role to play in revitalizing churches. They can provide vision for the future and inspire people in the pew to reach out to their neighbors.
But church members must help drive the revitalization process because the average churchgoer will still be in a church long after the pastor is gone.
Whitesel encourages pastors and lay people alike to find a Bible story—like the story of Joshua and the people of Israel entering the Promised Land—that the congregation can rally around during a revitalization process. And he reminds churches to keep an eye on what God is doing in their midst.
“God is writing a new chapter for your church,” he says. “Tell that story.”
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.