By Thomas F. Jones Jr.
Death is the end of the natural order of things. A body wears out and dies. This is true of local churches as well as human beings. Perhaps the greatest church in the New Testament was at Antioch, but there is no evidence of that church today. It died. Its legacy is found in the churches that were started after Antioch.
Today some 4,000 churches a year in America close their doors. This number is likely to increase as our parents and grandparents die.
There is hope. As Christians we are assured death does not have the final word. In resurrection, Jesus Christ overcame death and promises that his followers will live eternally.
Dying and declining churches can choose to have this same resurrection legacy. Death does not need to be the end.
Central Christian Church in Tampa, Florida, died the last Sunday of 2005. This vital and dynamic church was a thriving local congregation for many years. However, as with many churches, its members grew older, moved away, and its neighborhood transitioned into a community that was difficult for the current church membership to reach.
The good folks of Central Christian had a choice to make. Should they continue to meet until their resources were depleted? Or should they decide to “die” and give their resources to start a new congregation in their building?
They chose the latter, and asked Stadia and Florida Church Planters1 to help them continue their legacy by resurrecting Central Christian Church as a new church, Common Ground Christian Church. Common Ground will hold its first services this fall, with the goal of being a culturally diverse congregation.
Let me share what led to a new church and a legacy for Central Christian Church.
My relationship with Central Christian Church began when one of the church’s leaders, Mary Lou Harden, stopped by the Stadia booth at the North American Christian Convention. After speaking about the situation at Central, we exchanged contact information and agreed to communicate later.
After about a year Mary Lou contacted me again and asked, “Can you help us?” I agreed to visit Tampa to try to help the church understand its options. Here’s the process I used to help the church come to a decision.
Prior to visiting, I asked for church leaders to send me statistics, historical data, and other information that helped paint a picture of their current situation.
I sent church leaders and members two surveys to gain their understanding and input. It is essential that all stakeholders are given ample opportunities to express themselves during the decision-making process.
When I arrived in Tampa I immediately engaged leaders and church members in a SWOT analysis of the congregation (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).
I synthesized this information and painted a picture of the church’s past (a great legacy of being a sending church), present (declining and aging membership in a changing neighborhood), and options for the future.
I presented a number of options members could choose:
• Continue in the current location with the same programming.
• Continue in the current location and tap into building equity to fund new programs.
• Close the church and tap into the church’s property equity to provide funds for a restart and to give the building a face-lift.
• Sell current property and relocate the congregation.
• Sell the church’s property and give funds to a church-planting organization to start one or several new churches, or place funds in an endowment to build new churches perpetually.
• Sell the church’s property and give funds to several nonprofit organizations.
I told Central’s members and leaders to take enough time to make an informed, prayer-empowered decision. The choice needed to be theirs and not mine. It was important all leaders and members know all of the facts and issues. The church would soon run out of money and not be able to continue as a viable congregation. This wasn’t the kind of decision just a few people should make on behalf of the church.
Members needed ample time to express their thoughts and feelings. Many had been with the church for decades. Their families had grown up in the church. This would not be an easy decision.
Insisting on personal agendas would not be helpful. The church needed to be united, even though not all would agree.
Prayers for wisdom and discretion were needed above all else.
After much consideration, members decided to close Central Christian Church, tap into its equity, give their building a face-lift, and start a new church. Common Ground Christian Church will launch this fall.
If a church dies, shall it live again? Absolutely. Central Christian Church is learning how to leave a legacy.
1 Stadia is a church-planting organization that helps start churches throughout the United States. Contact Tom Jones at email@example.com or Marcus Bigelow at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about Stadia. Florida Church Planters is a church-planting organization in Florida. Contact Dan Donaldson at email@example.com for more information about Florida Church Planters.
Thomas Jones is professor at Emmanuel School of Religion and regional director of Stadia East.
Should Yours Be a Legacy Church?
Perhaps your church is in a similar situation to Central Christian Church. What are your options?
• Be honest and talk openly about your church’s choices. Remember it is your choice and not the decision of a consultant or church-planting organization.
• Be clear about your church’s options. Many churches simply need better leadership and a renewed vision to be the church God has called them to be. Others should have the courage to become a legacy church by choosing to close their doors and use their assets to start new churches.
• Secure the help of a new church organization or consultant who can help your church through a decision-making process and implementation.
• Do not be hasty about making a decision. Death is never an easy thing.
• Celebrate the church’s legacy.
• Do not wait too long.
—Thomas F. Jones Jr.