Turnaround: How dying churches can find new life

On June 1, Hillview Baptist Church in Franklin, Tenn., transformed into Conduit Church. "The ‘church’ is not defined by a physical address, or four walls or a name . . . the house of God is built by serving one another," according to the church's website.

On June 1, Hillview Baptist Church in Franklin, Tenn., transformed into Conduit Church. "The ‘church’ is not defined by a physical address, or four walls or a name . . . the house of God is built by serving one another," according to the church's website.

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(RNS) For years, a handful of members of Hillview Baptist Church in Franklin, Tenn., prayed their pews would be filled with worshippers.

In early June, those prayers were finally answered, as more than 300 people gathered for a Sunday morning service.

But the pews were gone. So were the traditional hymns. And a new sign outside the church now bore the name “Conduit Church.”

A few weeks earlier, the congregation of Hillview had voted to merge with Conduit, a 4-year-old nondenominational church. At the time, Hillview had dwindled to less than two dozen members, and was on the verge of shutting down.

Darren Tyler. RNS courtesy photo

Darren Tyler. RNS courtesy photo

“They were tired,” said Darren Tyler, pastor of Conduit, “and they knew their strategy wasn’t working.”

Instead of closing down, Hillview became one of a small but growing number of struggling evangelical congregations who’ve found new life by teaming up with a larger church. The mergers allow small churches to reinvent themselves and bigger ones to extend their reach.

The arrangement met a need for both congregations.

Hillview had a building but few people.

Conduit had people but no building.

The church had been meeting in a local high school since its founding. But the school board policy put a time limit on how long a church could rent.

“The clock was ticking,” said Tyler.

As part of the merger, Hillview gave up ownership of the building -- which had a $150,000 mortgage. Just before the first joint worship service, a friend of Conduit Church came forward and paid off the building.

The process was a bit like dating -- Tyler and Jim Gosney, Hillview’s pastor, met for coffee first, followed by a meeting of leaders from both groups. The whole process took about two months.

Gosney remains on staff, and the church plans to build an exhibit that highlights Hillview’s heritage.

“I don’t want their history to disappear,” said Tyler of the church that was founded in the 1980s.

Mergers may offer new life for many smaller congregations, which have been hit hard by the changing demographics of American congregations.

Most U.S. churches are small -- under 100 people. But the majority of church attenders now go to a big church, according to the National Congregations Study. That leaves thousands of churches with buildings but few worshippers.

In some cases, those churches have chosen to join bigger multisite congregations, like Edmond, Okla.-based LifeChurch.tv.

The church has 18 locations, known as campuses, around the country. Five of the campuses were created as a result of mergers, said Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor and innovation leader at LifeChurch.

It’s not an easy process, he said.

“If you are wondering what will change -- everything will change,” he said. “We are not making a hybrid. A church that is going to become part of what we are doing is going to have to change.”

That means giving up property and independence, and often the church structure. In most cases, the church staff also changes.

Most of the congregations that merged with LifeChurch.tv were smaller and struggling. Some were in danger of closing down.

“They didn’t want the church to just disappear,” he said. “They wanted to reach more people.”

David Raymond of ChurchFuture, a consulting firm in Minneapolis, often works with mainline Protestant churches that are considering mergers. In this type of merger, two or more small churches unite rather than consolidating with a larger franchise.

“They are typically in sharp decline,” he said. “They can’t keep going.”

Most of the churches he works with are small -- about 70-75 people. All their attention is focused on survival, so they have little energy to reach out to their neighbors or serve their community.

“When you have that few people -- you are chewing up everybody’s resources just to keep the Sunday school running and the lights on,” he said.

Raymond starts by asking the struggling church to think strategically about its ministry. He often asks, "What can we do to reach out and serve more people in your community?”

“I always put it to the congregation this way,” he said. “This is your church. This is your choice. Do you want the church to close -- or do you want to try something new?”

Craig Pederson, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, said a merger can jumpstart a church’s ministry.

His church was formed in 2007 after three small churches decided to close down and pool their resources. Those older three churches had a total of 600 members, Peterson said, but few people showed up for services.

The churches were stuck, he said, with little hope for the future.

Opening a new church gave them a chance to begin with a clean slate. As part of the restart, the churches formed a separate nonprofit called Grace Center for Community Life in northeast Minneapolis, which is housed in a converted school.

Today Grace Lutheran has about 200 active members, said Pederson. They meet in the Grace Center for worship service on Sunday, sharing the space with three other churches -- a Hispanic Pentecostal congregation, a startup Lutheran church, and a Seventh-day Adventist congregation of immigrants from Ethiopia. The center also rents space to two charter schools, a food pantry, a child care center, and other neighborhood programs.

Still, he said, there was a lot of pain in the process. Watching a church that you love shut down is hard, he said, as is saying goodbye to a church building, which often is filled with powerful memories.

But a merger can get a church out of survival mode and get the congregation focused on the future. That’s a good thing, he said.

“A seed has to die to have new life,” Pederson said. “That’s hard to hear for some churches. But it’s in the Bible.”



  1. “A seed has to die to have new life,” Pederson said. “That’s hard to hear for some churches. But it’s in the Bible.”

    Laughable nonsense.
    It didn’t work for Zeus, or Osiris, or Isis, or Athena, or…fill in the blank God.

    Religion is a calamity for humanity – a nutty theory. May it die once and for all and leave humanity with reason and rationality ascendant.

    Because with gods nothing is possible.

  2. Perfect time for the lib-holes in amerika to scream and whine to their despotic banking government and demand we have laws written that make all religious endeavour a taxable “business”. That will kill em off for good, and then no one will stand up to the deviant sexual “education” they force on the nations children.

  3. Do athiests believe they have a “soul” in the biblical sense of the word? If not, do they believe they and people in general have something comparable to a biblical soul but have just relabeled it to whatever the current version of science tells them it is? You know, something that makes them more important than a simple mass of tissue and flesh, distingushing them from the concept of a mere “fetus”?

  4. @Lles Nats,

    Atheists only agree on one thing: “There is no reason to believe in God”
    That’s all.

    All other ideas like ‘souls’, afterlife, etc are ad hoc depending on which Atheist you talk to and what level of skepticism they have.
    I certainly think the idea of a soul which outlives a person’s dead body is insane.

    I am a skeptic on any question for which there is no evidence.
    There is no evidence of souls, ghosts, goblins or anything of the sort.

  5. “Lib-holes”? And you really expect to be taken seriously?

    There is not enough invective there. I think it needs more.

    Do you want to throw in a side order of “Kool-Aid” and “sheeple” as well?

  6. Nah. Too overused. But now I know you read the same type of blogs I do.

  7. “I had my son killed in the bloodiest way I knew how
    just for your personal benefit
    but if you don’t believe me I’ll do worse things to you!
    You are nothing to me.” – Yahweh.

    Somebody explain why you love this theory.

  8. I’ll have a go. I actually don’t love this concept. I don’t even like the idea of being saved, living in heaven singing praises to god for 5000+infinity years. I want to relax up there. Make my own choices, not be a servant.

    I think if religous folks were honest with ourselves, they’d abmit to thoughtd similar to what I just expressed. Assuming they did that, you could only conclude their religousness comes from a motivation other than a innate love for god.

    So I submit that this hidden motivation is the alternative to a no god scenario itself. If there is no god, there is only man, and we cannit.stomach that thought. Man and his decision making is absolutely relative in every single aspect of his character. And complete relativism is equal to choas. Absolute human freedom is chaos.

    For example, we as a assumed secualr society say murdrr is wrong in general? Why? Based on what? You and I were born absolutely equal absent a god. So who made you god and enabled you to proclaim murder evil? I might reject your thinking on the matter outright or on som logical basis, but logic wouldn’t be necessary as you are not god, equal to me in every way by natural law, and there is no consequence.

    The argument of this completely relative nature if man, eithet in conflict or cooperation is hell. It applies to anything we do or imagine as far as I am concerned, and the reason I believe there must be somthing more than us,.mere animals.

  9. The irony of the “lack of belief leads to relativism” thing is that most believers, Christians especially are the most morally relativistic people out there. Its an overused canned argument which does not hold up to the slightest bit of examination. Its also based on deliberate fictions about atheism as well.

    If your moral criteria are determined by an outside authority, one which is clearly capricious and arbitrary, one is not actually making moral decisions. Every act can be justified if one is claiming to do it “for the Lord”. We have such a long history of destructive, malicious, immoral activities being done on behalf of following “God’s word” that the very notion of it being a moral guide is utterly laughable.

    Religious morality means denying the effect and purpose for one’s conscience. It means denying one is acting like a human being with connection to other humans. Its an appeal to sociopathy. That someone is so divorced from their connections to humanity that they have to be kept on a leash to prevent them from harming others.

    “For example, we as a assumed secualr society say murdrr is wrong in general? Why? Based on what?”

    Society can’t function properly if interactions between people is fraught with the danger of murder. Murder harms others besides the victim.

    As a human being with emotions, attachments to other human beings and capable of understanding what others go through. We wouldn’t want to be murdered. We know it hurts others. We don’t want others to go through that. Its called social order. Its called empathy. Its called not being psychotic.

  10. Excellent comments Larry. So good in fact, I must admit I need to stop and mull it over a bit more deeply.

    Just one surface observation I can make in response…you’re claim that evil has been done in the name of religion or some other outside, divine, unchanging standard….I.do not deny. I agree with that. But evil things that have happened have.not exclusively happened as the result of adherence to this outside god standard. They happen in the secular world as well. And under the scenario I describe about natural law and the chaos it implies, if such a human condition were undeniably true, you would have no standard secular measure to call the work of religion or secular people “evil”….as it would be a concept individually defined by each person.

  11. Exactly, Larry.
    Which is why secular morality is far superior
    to religion or dictates from an imaginary god.

  12. Of course plenty of evil acts are done outside of “God’s name”. Plenty of them are done by people who think they are doing what is right. The point is that morality when determined from the outside authority, makes such acts easier to justify. Religion is the most common and historical example of this process. So just because you see the same thing elsewhere it does not negate the point made.

    Morality is always internal. It is always based on one’s personal conscience. We act according to how we perceive others. Whether we consider the personal costs of an action over the effect it has on others. How much of our empathy and connection to others allows us to consider them in the equation. Generally as a rule of thumb it is the weighing of harms to others which sets the standard for people. God is unnecessary and in fact harmful to such standards. The desire of a society to function requires that people not to be harmful to each other. It is just part of being a human not living by themselves in a cave. A rational and secular measure of standards if there was one.

    “Natural law” is such a non-term. It is used to define anything one does not want to explain in a straightforward manner or have criticized.

    “Outside standards” deny innate workings of one’s conscience. They are always to some level arbitrary. Religious standards are very arbitrary, capricious. “The God standard” is so full of loopholes, excuses, exceptions that it is really no standard at all. It usually ends up excusing behavior which is harmful and malicious in nature. Very relativistic.

    Your argument fails because just because a religion defines something as evil, it does not actually mean it is. Since you fail to consider why such a definition is made as such beyond merely deferring to authority, you fail to make a moral decision based on it. Following a God standard is not acting moral at all. It is merely following self-interest and authority. No actual decisions are being made.

    You fall under the classic religious moral dilemma, “is something good because God says so or are there things which are inherently good that God doesn’t need to tell you so”.

  13. @Lles,

    “the reason I believe there must be somthing more than us,.mere animals.”

    You should take heart for two reasons:

    1. But there is something more than us. The cosmos is an infinite number of possibilities.
    2. Animals are not ‘mere’ but amazing and we are one of the most amazing animals in existence.
    3. The existence of a God closes all inquiry so belief in God shrinks life and its meaning to nothing.
    4. Belief in God’s afterlife destroys and gobbles up the meaning of this life and renders it a mere doormat to the next doorway which very likely is only eternal death.
    5. Belief in God blinds you to the awesomeness that you ever existed! The number of possible people who will never be born outnumbers all the trillions of stars of the cosmos.

    You do not remember anything from 100 years ago because you were not alive to experience it.
    You will not remember anything 100 years from now because you will be dead.

    There was an infinity before you were born and you missed all of it – but now you live!
    When you die there you will be infinitely silent once again never to wake up.

    Don’t miss this amazing life by spending it defending silly superstitions from the bronze age.

  14. It’s not just a change of demographics, it’s a change of belief. As more people become more educated in the liberal arts, especially in science, they are less prone to religious belief. They are as “moral” as ever, though that is not very impressive, not even among religious believers.

    Religious history shows that the mismatch between ethical behavior and religious belief and preaching has always been a great contradiction. Some of the meanest spirits we have ever seen have been those who claimed to be deeply religious, even church organizations..

    Religion is like politics, and that is precisely why religion and politics are such a poisonous combination. That is precisely why the Framers of our Constitution promptly added that the very first Right of everyone was separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and freedom from religion.

  15. Part of the reason so many people are unable to accept that this life is all there is results from the brainwashing of churches that there is a resurrection from death and some form of eternal life after that.

    They also try to scare everyone into their belief system by claiming that submission to that system is the needed passport to that life after death. And who heads up the belief systems?

    Parents who should protect their kids against all harm, hand them over to the “charlatans” of churches. As with prejudice, ignorance is the basis. Ignorance promotes parents to promote the tales of religion as a false comfort against the reality of existence.

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