It is estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 churches in America closed their doors every year over the past few years. Because of COVID-19, it has been estimated that this number will increase greatly. Let’s say that ten percent of churches close in the next 12 months. There are around 380,000 protestant churches in America, which means 38,000 churches could close in the next two years. This number might sound outrageous. However, suppose we understand that between 80–85% of churches in America are either in decline or are not keeping up with the population growth in their communities. In that case, the idea is not that far-fetched.
When we look at our Free Will Baptist Churches, we see a similar if not more concerning picture. In 2007, we had 243 churches in ou
r denomination. As of our last report book, we have 223 churches in our denomination. (This number has since decreased.) Out of those 223, half of them have less than 50 in attendance (pre-COVID) on Sunday morning, and almost half of them have 25 or less in attendance (pre-COVID) on Sunday morning.
We need to take a serious look at what is happening and do some soul searching. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that in the next few years, unless something happens, many of our churches will have to make a choice to close their doors. Therefore, our churches, pastors, and denomination need to begin to ask some hard questions. What is the reality of our churches? What can be done to help our churches? Can our churches not just survive but thrive? How can we help our churches that cannot thrive to end well?
Helping our churches thrive does not necessarily have to do with numerical growth. Although our chief business is to make Christ known to the world, the individual numerical growth of a church is not the only indicator of fulfilling the great commission. (By no means am I saying that we do not have the responsibility of winning others to Christ because we do). But spreading the Gospel can be done without a church growing in membership. Therefore, we need to help all of our churches revitalize. Revitalization is the process by which a church becomes healthier over a period of time so that it may fulfill its purpose of bringing glory to God. Church health does not depend on attendance; rather, it depends on its members’ spirituality, willingness, and attitude. You can have a healthy 20 member church just like you have a healthy 200 member church. Likewise, you can have an unhealthy 200 member church just as you can have an unhealthy 20 member church. The goal of each church should be to become healthier so that it can fulfill its mission.
One of the ways to help a church become healthier is for each church to have a passion for ministry. Every one of our churches needs to have a passion for ministry that reaches outside its building into their community and throughout the world. We cannot buy into the mistruth that ministry is done within the four walls of the church. Yes, ministry can be done in the church, but the ministry that will affect people’s lives will most likely be done outside of the church. Jesus told us to go into the world, not sit, and let the world come to us. So our churches need to ask God to help them discover a passion for doing ministry outside the church. These passions will be different for each church, depending upon their membership and location. So every healthy church, no matter how small or large, must have a passion for ministry. A passion for ministry will breathe life into our churches and help them to fulfill the mission that God has called them to accomplish.
We also need to be honest and understand that there is an appointed time of death; there is also a time when the church needs to end well. Just as humans have a life cycle from birth to death, churches also have a life cycle from birth to death. We need to understand this life cycle and prepare to close some of our churches by helping them end well.
By ending well, we are talking about understanding the signs and putting together a plan and process that will bring glory to God and help continue the legacy of the ministry of the church. This process may be done over a few months or can go on for several years. There are several steps or things that can be done to help a church end well. They include asking another church to provide help with ministry within the church, which is sometimes called fostering. Another avenue is church adoption, where a larger church comes in and adopts a smaller church and the smaller church becomes a part of the larger church’s ministry. Another way to go through this process is to share a pastor with another church so that two churches have one pastor that serves both congregations. There is also the possibility of blending or merging two churches into one. All of these are possibilities that churches need to pray and think about.
There also comes a time when it is evident that a church has come to the end of its church life. At this point, some things can be done. First, the church can choose to have a restart, which involves closing the church for a short period, allowing time to refocus, repurpose, and realign the church’s mission to begin again anew. This is usually done by allowing new leadership to guide the church through a restart process.
The second option is called a replant. A replant is when the church completely closes its doors and gives the facility and resources to a new ministry. The existing members can stay and join the new ministry or decide to go to another church. The new ministry would begin a new work in the existing facility to minister to the community freshly and differently.
The last option would be to dissolve the church and sell the building. Understanding that all proceeds of the sale must be given to another non-profit (hopefully within the Original Free Will Baptist Denomination). A church needs to understand that there is a proper way for this to happen.
The plan should go in this manner:
1. The church should pray and think about the situation.
2. The leadership of the church needs to meet with the moderator of the Conference and discuss the situation.
3. The leadership should ensure all necessary legal provisions are followed concerning the Articles of Faith and the dissolution of a church’s constitution and bylaws.
4. As part of the plan, provide for the pastoral care of the members of the closing congregation and the transfer of their membership to other congregations.
5. As part of the plan, determine the future of the building(s):
a. Will the building(s) be sold to a third party, transferred to a ministry in the denomination or to the Convention,
b. Ensure that insurance coverage (fire, windstorm, theft, vandalism) is maintained until disposition of the property, and identify who will maintain it.
c. Ensure that the building is maintained until its disposition, and identify who will maintain it.
d. If the building is to be sold, identify who is responsible for selling it, e.g., will the congregation sell it before dissolution, or will the building be transferred to someone to sell it?
e. What will be done with the building’s furnishings and other personal property of the congregation?
6. As part of the plan, determine what will be done with the congregation’s assets after payment of debts and liabilities.
7. Note: Upon dissolution, any remaining assets of a congregation can only be transferred to 501(c)(3) religious, educational, or charitable organizations or governmental entities. The assets cannot be given to individuals or non-charitable organizations.
8. Plan a special service of celebration and thanksgiving for the years of ministry of the congregation.
9. Adopt a resolution to dissolve, according to the Articles of Faith and the Constitution and bylaws of the church.
10. Gather and transfer historical information, insurance documents, financial records, legal materials, parochial records, and other appropriate congregation records to the Conference so that they can place appropriate information in the historical collection at the University.
11. File the necessary documents with government authorities to dissolve the corporate status of the congregation.
An important thing that procedure all Churches need to have included in their Constitution and Bylaws or in their minutes a Declaration of Dissolution.
An example is as follows:
Upon dissolution of the organization, the church shall, after paying or making provisions for the payments of all liabilities of the organization, give all remaining assets of the church to (name of a non-profit organization such as Church Planting and Renewal, Foreign Missions, the Convention, etc.)
As we journey together as a denomination, we need to work together to strive to help all our churches become healthier and play a vital role in the building of God’s Kingdom. Our desire as Original Free Will Baptists should be that all our churches go through a process to help them renew to be more effective in their ministries. We should be concerned about all our churches and strive to help each one. But we also need to be realistic. We have talked about the need to do something for years–Now it is time to do it!