As a revitalization consultant I am often in churches that were once large, but in recent years have experienced significant decline. I recently spoke at a church that ran well over 1,000 in the 1940s, but now barely has 20.
How many city churches have seen their attendance go from 300 to under 100 in the span of a few years?
Unfortunately, these stories are too often told in our convention. So much so that we have come to expect that church decline is inevitable. While there are seasons of growth and pruning in the life of a church, I do believe that established churches can grow and thrive over long periods of time.
One example is Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington. Immanuel has a rich history and has been a leading church in our state for several decades now. The church has remained strong, but recently they have experienced a new, exciting growth spurt.
Numerically, the growth has been amazing. The church averaged between 1,000 and 1,450 in worship for the 30 years leading up to 2011, but since 2012 the church has seen incredible growth. In 2014, the church averaged 2,035 people in their two morning services. This Easter, the church had more than 4,000 on campus for its worship services.
Growth also has been displayed in their giving and missions involvement. Several people have been involved in partnerships in church planting in Chicago, and numerous groups work to connect through local service in schools, services for the poor and family outreach ministries. Financially, the church has consistently run ahead of aggressive budgets and continues to faithfully support mission endeavors. Morale is high in the church, and the church had almost 1,000 first-time visitors last year.
Obviously, only the Lord makes things grow; nevertheless, there are principles that have guided the church during this growing season. I noticed six things that have guided IBC over the past few years.
Principle 1: Have a “visitor first” mindset.
From the way they welcome people on Sunday morning to pastor Ron Edmondson’s down to earth style, the church excels at thinking how will a visitor “feel.” When I asked lifelong member Laura Stuart about this, she was quick to respond “intentionality.” She said the staff has trained the church to be “intentional in making people’s first-time experience a positive one.”
Principle 2: Work hard to “get the word out.”
The church is strategic in their marketing of events. They utilize social media extremely effectively. Pastor Ron has a blog (www.ronedmondson.com) in which he writes very practical advice for families and church leaders. He and his entire team utilize several mediums of social media to connect with the church and community. I am told Edmondson has the third most followed Twitter account in Lexington.
The church invests in marketing as well. They have made strategic hires of a communication director and have utilized several campaigns around Easter, Camp Immanuel (VBS), and Christmas that have generated lots of interest, web traffic, and visitors.
Principle 3: Celebrate your heritage.
One of the things that I quickly noticed is how Edmondson immediately gives credit to the many people who have made Immanuel a great place for so many years. He believes revitalization pastors should “rediscover instead of reinvent.” He shared that many churches need to “get back to things that encouraged a congregation in the past.” He reminded young pastors that “all of us stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us …. We should celebrate that!”
Just recently, I saw this principle put into practice as Immanuel honored long-time pastor, Ted Sisk. The chapel of the church was named in his honor.
Principle 4: Engage the community outside of the building.
Churches that turn around, large or small, are churches that have turned their attention outward. Immanuel is definitely outward focused. They are community oriented. When I asked David Howard, associate psstor, what changes have helped their growth, he pointed out that IBC has “tried to get to know our community, its leaders, and best ways that we can help.”
Principle 5: Build a great team.
When I asked Edmondson about the growth of the church, he started by sharing about how God has gifted the staff and lay leaders in the church. Excellence is the target in every ministry, both volunteers and paid staff want to give their best for the Lord. The team is not only gifted, but they seem unified around the church’s purpose and direction.
Principle 6: Take risks for the Kingdom.
While the church has celebrated their past and maintained the things that have made the church strong, they have been willing to make changes that have helped them engage the community better. The church has adapted service times, has stepped out on faith to support church planting, some traditional events have been changed, staff size has been adjusted, and many other things have been modified in an effort to reach more for Christ.
Change is never easy, and growth always means change, but when the “why” is big enough, the “what” becomes doable. When talking about the changes and the willingness of the congregation, Laura Stuart adds, “People want to be involved in something that is bigger than themselves.” Seeing more people come to faith in Jesus is the big “why” motivating the people at Immanuel Baptist Church. (WR)