Dan Turner led an older, established congregation through a successful restart, reshaping its ministry to reach a changing neighborhood. He outlines five key steps in a process of helping a church die to the past to embrace a new, more fruitful future.
National Memorial Church of God opened in 1942. It was a proud effort by the Church of God denomination to place a representative congregation in the nation’s capital just three miles directly north from the White House. Once the novelty wore off, however, the church struggled to live up to its mission. By the 1970s, National Memorial had plateaued and then started a very long and steady decline.
Change had been happening all around us, but National Memorial had stuck to the same formula. Even though our membership reflected some diversity, the flavor of worship and leadership makeup was decidedly Euro-centric. Just a handful of members lived within the ministry area of the church. We were a church full of suburban dwellers trying to relate to an urban demographic.
One Sunday afternoon, 20 tired and discouraged people gathered in the church basement to talk about the future of our church. Seniors worried the church wouldn’t be there to bury them. Others had one foot out the door. We sat on stained and torn carpet with mold hiding behind peeling paint. I was encouraged to hear that the core of the church was seeing what I was seeing. There is great freedom in accepting your true narrative that what you’re doing is no longer working.
1. Dying to restart
I prayed that God’s Spirit would prepare the way. I did eight home visits to lay out the plan of giving up control so that something new could happen, and I presented the slate of leaders willing to serve as outside advisors. Each board member agreed it was time for this radical step. With their agreement, we started preparing the congregation. In a series of meetings, I laid out the plan and listened. Some were ready for a change, but many feared this would be the end of the church they loved. At times, the response felt very personal. They were losing something they loved, and it hurt. But in the end, our congregation voted nearly unanimously to go the route of a restart.
2. Memorializing the change
Funeral services play a critical role in how we cope with grief and in helping us launch into our next stage of life. In June 2006, we celebrated the end of the history of National Memorial Church of God. This was a day to celebrate 65 years of ministry and the hundreds of lives that had been touched. It was a moment to celebrate what God had done in that space. At the end of that service, I said: I hereby release you from all volunteer, leadership, and financial commitments to National Memorial Church of God. You are released from your commitment as a member of this church. In October of this year, we will launch a new church. You are invited to meet in a living room Bible study over the next few months if you would like to be a part of the new church. You have my blessing to transition to another church if you feel that it is time to do so.
I felt the enormous weight lift from my shoulders. Yes, the change was painful, but I was beginning to sense new life on the other side of the grave. The first phase of the journey was ending, and the next phase was beginning. In retrospect, God used that moment in some amazingly healthy ways to help members transition to new churches and to help the new church to experience the freedom of a truly fresh start.
3. Taking a break
It’s extremely helpful to demonstrate that a seismic, cultural shift in the DNA has taken place. We didn’t want to have the final worship service and then come back the next week into the same space and format and pretend everything had changed. For the DNA to be new, a physical break is essential.
A gestation period gives you time to plan for the launch and reset the stage. In our case, we literally reset the stage, removing a huge organ and outdated chancel furniture and installing new sound and media equipment. Resetting the stage also involved determining our new target audience and the drastic changes required to appeal to them.
During this period, we held three preview services. Other than the stained glass, not much was familiar to past members, but the gestation period gave us time to respond to their culture shock and reiterate why we were making the changes. Without this preview, we would have had week after week of complaints during the launch and no time to debrief and reiterate the vision.
4. Clarifying your new vision and values
Healthy restart churches tend to be very intentional about clarifying their DNA through the church’s mission, vision, values, relationships, ministries, structures and operating systems. With the closing of the old church, you really have a lot of freedom. We began to pray and discern what the new church would look like. We knew the demographics of our area. To reach the community, we would have to pursue an entirely different style of worship, reflect diversity in our leadership, and develop ministries tailored to singles and young families. We selected a new name to reflect our aspirations, Northwest Community Church.
5. Reaching out
We began to experiment with how to best reach our community. We gave away tens of thousands of cups of water and lemonade at local festivals in our target area. We blanketed our zip code with postcards. In those first few years postcards accounted for almost all our growth. Perhaps the best decision was to invest in a completely new website. We also reached out to the schools just a few blocks away and eventually partnered with the elementary school.
Since the restart and launch of Northwest Community Church, nearly 60 people have been baptized. Attendance has increased an average of 8 percent each year over the last decade. Our membership has grown to include more than 200 who call Northwest their church home. We have seen lives transformed and people serving in the church that never thought they would ever set foot in a church. Our church is involved in ministry with the local schools, homeless ministries, and street outreach events. We are planning for the next stage of ministry. We believe God is calling us to multiply and plant another church in another neighborhood over the next few years.
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.
- “Dying to Restart: Choosing a Strategic Death for a Resurrected Life,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Dan Turner
- Overcoming Apprehension about Change by Dan Turner
- Closing a Congregation as an Act of Faithfulness by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke