The Question of Revitalizing our Older Churches

As I wrote last week, as I go about the North Alabama Conference, I repeatedly hear a couple of questions that I would like to attempt to give an answer.  These questions which I fear are based on misinformation or a lack of information.  Last week, I responded to the question, “Why do we start new communities of faith mostly in all white, affluent suburbs? This week,  I’ll attempt to answer the question: Why are we starting new churches when we ought to be revitalizing our existing congregations?  I hope my responses will be helpful in better understanding our North Alabama Conference Priorities.

Will Willimon

2. Why do we start new communities of faith rather than revitalizing our older churches?

The answer is WE DO REVITALIZE our existing churches that are willing to move into a new future.  We are now able to provide revitalization help (Natural Church Development) to EVERY church that wants to be part of the program.  Natural Church Development is a Conference Priority and is changing the future for many of our congregations.  To date, we have NO existing, older congregations that have undertaken Natural Church Development, followed the program, and been committed to the process that have not reaped positive results.

Most of our Connectional Ministries staff spend most of their time in congregational revitalization.  And we have had some dramatic results.  A few specific revitalizations projects come to mind.  We have been successful with revitalization projects at:  Calera First, Pelham First (Lakeview), Gadsden Central (Christ Central), University Church Huntsville (Grace UMC Huntsville), Genesis (the relocation of Grace UMC in B’ham).  All of these are relocations.  If some of our older churches will consider relocation they too may achieve new life.  Other revitalizations that come to mind are:  Jasper First, Huntsville First, Tuscaloosa First, Friendship Athens, Guntersville First, Trussville First, Gardendale-Mt. Vernon, Bluff Park.  These are thirteen older churches that have new life.  There are other smaller churches as well.

Warning: Dick Freeman, Thomas Muhumba, and Dale Cohen would have me add: No existing, older churches can be revitalized without risk, commitment, and a determination to be faithful to the mission of Christ no matter what. 

If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live (alas, there is no in between when it comes to churches).  The majority of our churches are not growing, thus we have a huge challenge before us.  Still, our major challenge is not to find good resources for helping a church grow and live into the future; our challenge is to have pastors and churches who want to do what is necessary to live into Christ’s future.

While new communities of faith do evangelize more people, tend to be more multicultural, multiracial, and welcoming to new members than existing congregations, and while we are not beginning as many congregations as we are losing congregations (over half of our congregations failed to make ONE new Christian in the past two years!  These are clearly churches that are dying), we are showing good, solid progress in congregational revitalization.

The good news is that we now have a proven, reliable, theologically based program (NCD) for church revitalization and growth and we now have a group of pastors and lay leaders who know how to utilize NCD for the benefit of our older congregations.

Log into our Conference website, look at your congregation’s recent record under“Church Stats” and decide if your congregation should be participating in NCD now.

God is blessing our efforts for revitalization.  Thanks be to God!

Will Willimon

12 thoughts on “The Question of Revitalizing our Older Churches

  1. From a book by Gary Wills called ‘What Jesus Meant’: “…Gilbert Chesterton said that Christianity has not failed- it has just never been tried. But when it is tried, it is seen as a threat, just as Jesus was. Churches resist all radicalism- which means they resist Jesus. They pay lip service to the poor, while distancing themselves from the poor. They do not reflect enough on the obvious- that Jesus wore no gorgeous vestments. He neither owned or used golden chalices or precious vessels. He had no jeweled ring to be kissed.”


  2. hmmmm.. Iam, Chesterton was also became Roman Catholic, so one must understand his words via there theology. He wouldn’t have bought into the idea that a ring or a chalice was an antithesis to CHristianity. Chesterton was talking, as Wesley and Luther did before him, of living life radically trusting in God, not in man’s sanctification. Remember it was Judas that would deny the annointing of Jesus with the costly perfume. Social Minsitry is great, but it is not our ultimate ministry – that ministry is the ministry of reconciling people to the Father, through the gospel of Christ.NCD is a decent tool, if it is followed through on, the idea is simple – that of 8 characheristics of healthy churches, weak points prevent churches from growth. So you identify them, strengthen them, and re-assess. Example – if the church worship service is so poorly handled, that it detracts from the sermon and sacrament of the table, work at it. IF it is people are not hospitable – consider that. If people don’t really share in each other’s lives, or know GOd’s word, consider small groups that address these issues. Simple concept really. If it is just given, and no action taken, it is worthless.God Bless your congregations, Bp Willion! May the dead and dieing remember their first love, and may many more be planted, till all know of Christ’s love.


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