Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 3
Pinelands Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida, was dying. Everyone knew it. At one time one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in South Florida, it had boasted a membership of 900; now, in 1980, only 50 pairs of elderly eyes stared at the pulpit each Sunday morning. Sunday evening services had been cancelled, and if four people came to mid-week prayer service, it was a minor miracle. The remaining stalwart members were sad, disheartened, and disillusioned, remembering the glorious days of the past and powerless to recapture them.
What had happened? Among other reasons, folks were simply fleeing – fleeing a neighborhood which was rapidly becoming a blue collar potpourri of nearly a score of nationalities, mostly from the Caribbean and South America. Church growth consultants, called in to propose a remedy, recommended two options: close the doors and cut your losses or move to a better neighborhood with a more homogeneous base from which to build a church.
But 33-year old Harry Reeder did not believe these dire predictions and knew the church could be revitalized. He set out to prove it when the church called him as their pastor 10 years ago. Reeder – now a Doctor of Ministry student at RTS – began, not by advertising or canvassing, but by visiting every family in the church, accompanied by an elder. Incredibly, for many it was the first time in years a minister had visited in their home; one family had not had a pastoral visit in 22 years! Is it any wonder the church was dying?
From the pulpit, Harry began to preach strong, biblical, expositional sermons. And God began to move in the congregation. Harry vividly recalls that first Sunday at Pinelands.
“My first sermon was on saving faith. I closed the message in prayer and the organist/choir director was supposed to play. But she didn’t. I was panic-stricken; I knew Satan was attacking. I opened one eye and glanced sternly toward the organ. She wasn’t there! Now real panic set in. Then I heard sobbing, and I looked beneath the pulpit. There she was. She simply said, ‘I’m here to become a Christian.’”
A holy excitement began to grip the little throng of believers. God was working! That week a deacon named Jack came to Harry and admitted he was not a Christian, and Harry prayed with him to accept Christ. However, the deacon was not satisfied; he felt he had been living a lie for 14 years and wanted to make it right by acknowledging Christ publicly during the next worship service. “I agreed,” remembers Harry with a smile. “But on Thursday of that week, Jack almost severed his thumb with a power saw at work. Using microsurgery, they sewed it on and told him to rest with his arm up for weeks. However, that Sunday Jack was in the worship service. I gave an invitation, not really expecting anything since he was in such pain. But he came forward, along with his wife, and the chairman of the diaconate with his wife, followed by two elders with their wives!”
The next week 26 people came forward to confess Christ publicly! Revitalization had begun, and within three years, the church had blossomed. By 1983, membership had risen to 300, and more than half of those were added by conversion or rededication to Christ. Former members became a vital part of the new work; only one family was lost from the original congregation during the process of revitalization.
How did such an amazing turnaround happen? Chiefly through Harry’s careful study of Scripture – which has much to say about revitalization – and a lot of practical ministry. As he ministered, Harry began to pinpoint problems at Pinelands – problems that he later found are common to dying churches. To these problems he applied positive biblical solutions which can help any church grow. The insets in this article are excerpts from a chapter he wrote for The Pastor Evangelist describing some of those principles. He has since done further research and is completing a book concerning revitalization to be published soon.
A New Challenge
The ministry at Pinelands had really taken off. After three years, the excitement was palpable as a packed sanctuary of people, representing over 20 nationalities, some rich, some poor, all held hands and sang, “I’m So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God.” By God’s grace, the church growth experts were wrong; Pinelands had become a vibrant, growing congregation which was multi-cultural and economically diverse. It was then that the Lord set before Harry another challenge – to grow a new church using his insights and skills regarding revitalization.
The situation was unique. Christ Covenant in Charlotte, North Carolina, Harry’s own hometown, began in 1974 as Alexander Presbyterian Church, but the organizing pastor became seriously ill, so the work was abandoned in 1979. However, four faithful families persevered and finally organized as Christ Covenant in 1981. Would Harry consider becoming their pastor?
It was a hard decision because Harry was happy in Miami. Pinelands had been reclaimed, and now he was witnessing the fruits of his labor – an exciting, rapidly growing multi-cultural ministry. Could he leave? Should he leave?
Harry and his wife, Cindy, prayed about it for almost all of 1982. Then God moved their hearts to accept the call. By the time they arrived, the church had 36 active members and an average Sunday attendance of 40. They met in a modular unit on four acres of land on a rural highway.
In six months, attendance increased to 65-80. By the end of 1983, they sold both the modular unit and land and began to hold services at the Charlotte Christian School. By April 1988, attendance ballooned to 650-700. They had bought 31 acres of land earlier; now they erected a multi-purpose building and an educational building, into which they moved in April 1988. Membership today is over 800, with an attendance of 1300-1400!
Putting Positive Principles To Work
It’s easy to see that biblical revitalization principles work, and Christ Covenant is an excellent example. It would be hard to find a church whose vision, goals, and entire scope of ministry are more carefully planned and adhered to. Under Reeder’s leadership, Christ Covenant seeks to have a balanced ministry by trying to place equal stress on evangelism and equipping, on the proclamation of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and on being faithful in word and deed.
The church is heavily involved in social and moral issues. They helped initiate the Christian Action Council in Charlotte and give significant support to the Crisis Pregnancy Center. Not only do they work in the foster care area, but Christ Covenant was also instrumental in bringing a chapter of Bethany Services to Charlotte. Also, some of the congregation have been involved in Operation Rescue.
“Most of our people are really involved,” Reeder notes. “In many congregations only 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work; if that were the case here, we would not be able to carry on half the ministry that we do. Through our Pastor’s Membership Class, we give people three months to decide whether to join Christ Covenant. If they don’t, we gladly help them find another church. Why? Because we want people to be where the Lord wants them.”
Caring for others is a distinctive feature of Christ Covenant. Small groups, which meet weekly are the backbone of the church. These groups of 8-18 people build relation- ships, study the Bible, pray and do ministry projects together. One small group has been very instrumental in bringing a student from Uganda to Covenant College – paying for his travel and clothes, plus helping finance a scholarship for him. Another group has done the same for a student at Reformed Bible College. The small groups also take meals to the sick and provide for housecleaning. Periodically they may have an evangelistic covered dish supper and invite friends; sometimes Harry attends, and anyone can ask anything they want about the Bible.
Worship is vital at Christ Covenant. The style is traditional, but dynamic and enjoyable, including an orchestra. Evening services, with about 600 present, also incorporate testimonies, baptisms, ordinations, and concerts in addition to biblical exposition.
Educational and leadership training opportunities abound. A Sunday Bible School Hour – with 12 electives from which to choose – is bursting out of its meeting area with an attendance of 1000, forcing the church to think about additional facilities. Harry is personally involved with two key ministries – LEAD (Lifestyle Evangelism and Discipleship) and DAWN (Discipleship and Weekly Nurture).
Church planting is a priority, too. They have already been involved in planting two churches in Charlotte and have helped Mission to North America start others elsewhere, too.
A Christian day school with over 200 students and a lengthy waiting list, a radio ministry called Perspective, and an extensive tape ministry round out a formidable scope of ministry at Christ Covenant.
Harry’s vision is for Christ Covenant to be a resource church. He explains, “We are trying to establish a church that is committed to advancing and expanding the kingdom of God by supporting not only its personal efforts, but efforts by other believers, organizations, and congregations.”
“We have a particular burden for the revitalization of dying churches,” continues Harry. “Between 85-92% of America’s churches are stagnant or declining; we want to put together a model to reclaim and revitalize some of these churches, to offer ministry tools that help pastors who want to turn their churches around, instead of moving to the suburbs. We not only want to send them information, but we would like to be able to invite pastors and leaders for one week sessions to work with us and experience what the Lord is doing here. They could then take new insights and motivation back to their churches.”
Yes, Harry proved the experts wrong at Pinelands. He discovered that biblical principles of revitalization do work. Then he proved that the same techniques which worked to save a dying church could found a new one. Now, Christ Covenant is ready to help you.
If you would like more information about Christ Covenant and revitalization principles, just write: Christ Covenant Church, 305 Pineville-Matthews Highway, Matthews, NC 28105.
Dynamics of a Dying Church
Dying churches have similar problems – negative patterns which must be recognized and addressed if the church is to grow. Pastors, do not speak against these signposts of death from the pulpit. Instead, present the positive teachings of God’s Word showing what Christ can and will do when His people are committed and faithful. Lead your congregation from the doldrums to the dynamic experience of a living church.
Catching the Vision of a Living Church
It is crucial to communicate a positive, clear, and concise biblical vision of the living church, whether starting a new church or revitalizing a dying one. God’s people must be called to action that is faithful to His Word. They must he confident that God will provide, according to His promises. A biblical vision for the living church includes: