Dan Turner led an older, established congregation through a restart. The remnant of members from the previous church brought many gifts to the new church, but also a healthy dose of grief and skepticism. They had to change and sacrifice. But ultimately, the power of seeing lives transformed overcame their grief and apprehension.
A restart is different from all other forms of church revitalization in that the existing church chooses a definitive ending characterized by a radical yielding of power and control to new guiding leadership. Restarts combine all the approaches of church planting with the pastoral work of helping a congregation die with dignity. But a restart is different from either a church plant or the death of a congregation because a remnant of older members remains in the mix.
The role of the remnant
When pastors ask how it was to do a restart, I usually say: “The encouraging thing is that you have a committed core of people and a facility. Of course, the challenge is that you have a committed core of people and a facility.” When National Memorial Church of God in Washington, DC, was reborn as Northwest Community Church, 65 percent of the members from the previous church remained part of the new church. But within just a few years, this remnant group became a minority as the congregation succeeded in reaching new people.
This remnant group can be a huge asset in the new launch, but they will also be carrying lots of baggage. The pastor needs to be both a leader and a shepherd. Throughout the relaunch, you can expect to keep lifting the vision. It will take work but if you can bring them along on the journey, you’ll see huge rewards. The remnant group will be taking a wait-and-see stance. If they stay, that’s an indication they have some level of trust in you or the process.
We had one remnant member, Alma, who had been in the church for 65 years. She had repeatedly told me that she longed to see the pews filled with young families like they were years ago. She supported the restart out of that desire. But once the new church launched, Alma wasn’t so sure. She missed the organ. The furniture that suddenly went missing from the stage upset her. She missed the hymns. The music was too loud and too new. And she was increasingly frustrated that she hardly knew anyone in the church.
I knew she was upset. I did my best to help Alma grieve and to remind her why we were doing what we were doing. I reiterated the fact that we both wanted the same thing — to see the church grow. I didn’t realize until a few years later just how upset Alma was. I eventually learned she had gone to the funeral home where she had made arrangements and requested the location of her funeral be moved from our church to the chapel of the funeral home! She said all the changes had made her feel like the church was no longer her church.
I love seeing the church full and people coming to Christ
I’m so glad the story doesn’t end there. As she confessed this change of venue to me one afternoon, Alma said that a couple of years later she went back to the funeral home and moved the service location back to our church. I’ll never forget what she said: “I don’t like the music or the changes, but I love seeing the church full and people coming to Christ.”
Her funeral service at the church was filled with her old friends. But the church was also filled with her new friends that grew to love this white-haired lady who sat in the pew next to them. We sang the hymns she loved, but we did it with our full band and the young vocalists she grew to love. Alma never stopped coming and never stopped giving, even as she grieved the loss of so much that was comfortable and familiar. She personally lived out the call of Jesus to “deny yourself” for the sake of the gospel. I wish I could share Alma’s story with every church struggling to change.
The power of seeing lives transformed
So many churches have forgotten how energizing it is to see people come to Christ in their midst. They may dislike the delivery mechanism, but the power of seeing lives transformed will begin to dwarf their grief and apprehensions. The remnant members of restart churches are truly heroes; they are also hero makers. They sacrificed their comfort, their preferences, and their traditions so that new life could take place.
I sincerely desire to witness our remnant members riding a new wave of God’s work in the old pews they had known for years. I love hearing one of our remnant members expressing excitement over seeing how many people are in worship or being inspired by witnessing another baptism. Because they know how far we’ve come, they appreciate it in a way our new members may never experience it. Our remnant members know what a privilege it is to be used by God to accomplish something new in our city.
This article is adapted from Dying to Restart: Churches Choosing a Strategic Death for a Resurrected Life by Greg Wiens and Dan Turner. Used by permission. The book is available at Amazon.
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