By Walter Fenton
Last November the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 226 member Global Legislative Assembly could not have known just how important its authorization of a taskforce to focus on Church Revitalization would become. But now, in the wake of a pandemic and a worldwide recession that have shuttered local churches, strained their budgets, and isolated their members, pastors and local church leaders are acknowledging a season of revitalization is imperative.
“It breaks my heart to see what the pandemic and the economic crisis has done to local churches,” said the Rev. Dr. Leah Hidde-Gregory, a district superintendent in the Central Texas Annual Conference. “And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a small, midsize, or large church, this pandemic has dramatically impacted all of them to one extent or another.”
For the past ten months, Hidde-Gregory has served as chairwoman of the WCA’s Church Revitalization Taskforce. When the taskforce first met, its mandate was to address what many believed was already a crisis: rapidly declining attendance and a lack of vision in many local United Methodist churches. Now, in light of the pandemic and its economic impact, there is a heightened urgency to addressing the matter.
“As a DS I’ve seen churches desperately in need of revitalization, some of them right on the brink of having to close their doors” said Hidde-Gregory. “What’s exciting, and sometimes just amazing, is to witness a rekindling, a renewal, or really a rebirth of a local church. It’s what motivates me; to know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can bring new life and purpose to a local church. So when the WCA asked me to serve as the chairwoman of its Church Revitalization Taskforce I jumped at the opportunity.”
Hidde-Gregory led an ever expanding taskforce group of clergy and laity, from all sizes and kinds of local churches, in an effort to evaluate different settings and offer a range of general and specific recommendations for revitalization. Over two dozen people participated in evaluating churches that have experienced revitalization and producing a 39 page report it recently delivered to the WCA’s Global Council.
“No matter the size, location, or financial strength of a local church,” the taskforce wrote in its report, “[we] are convinced every church can be a vital agent of Christ’s love and grace in the Wesleyan movement. We envision a denomination with local churches full of disciples of Jesus Christ making new disciples, serving God and their community, and growing in their faith.”
Among eleven “Foundational Principles for Revitalization,” the taskforce said local churches needed to be “united around a Christ-centered vision that is empowered by the Holy Spirit;” daily implementing proven strategies for growth and multiplication; and, intentionally engaging in the work of making disciples and helping disciples become deeply rooted in the faith.
“Our principles for revitalization are not new principles,” said Hidde-Gregory, “but getting pastors and laity to intentionally focus on them and find practical ways to integrate them into everything they do can be a challenge. But if they can adopt these principles as they plan for worship, discipleship, and evangelization, then we believe they will set the stage for revitalization.”
The taskforce also offered a list best practices for local churches committed to revitalization. It noted that local churches too often lurch from one program to another in the hopes they will lead to growth. It found that spending time centering the congregation in Christ and engaging in communal prayer were essential first steps. And steps like identifying roadblocks to revitalization are important before a church hones-in on its vision for fulfilling its mission in its community and the wider world. The group also noted qualitative and quantitative metrics were essential for discerning fruitfulness and effectiveness.
“We all know there’s no sure fire ten step plan to revitalizing a local church; the Holy Spirit has to be in the midst of any authentic revitalization,” said the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, the WCA’s vice-chairwoman and lead pastor at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. “However, we also know what pastors and laity have done in revitalized local churches. We want to take what they have done and share it with others, and of course pray that the Holy Spirit works in their midst.”
The taskforce acknowledged the importance of planting new churches as we share the Gospel. “New church starts are very important to the life and the health of the church universal,” the group said. “However we cannot overlook our existing local churches and the potential they have through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them in their communities.”
“We’re committed to planting new churches in places where we know the church should be present,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the WCA. “We need to plant churches globally in inner city neighborhoods, in suburbs, and in rural communities, but we’re confident we can simultaneously support existing churches of all sizes that are committed to revitalization. Many of these churches are already in places where we need to be present proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. We want to come alongside them and help them become healthy and vibrant congregations.”
The WCA Global Council will refine the taskforce group’s report and make it available to its members and friends, particularly its member churches.
“We’re not waiting until the launch of a new global Methodist church to implement the recommendations and best practices the taskforce has presented,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, chairman of the WCA Council and senior pastor at Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. “We need to implement them as soon as possible, so we’re encouraging local churches that would like to be part of a pilot program to reach out to us at email@example.com. We’re going to test and perfect these recommendations, and then make them available to our members and friends across the connection.”
Walter Fenton is vice president for strategic engagement of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Greater New Jersey Conference of The United Methodist Church.