Pastor Tem Mattox's office is in a 25-year-old church building in
Bakersfield, California. When he looks out his window, he can see several of
the thriving community's new building projects, including the facility his
church, called Cornerstone, built two years ago. The older building and the new
one, sitting adjacent to one another, mirror Cornerstone's own story. Theirs is
a journey of change and growth, and their testimony speaks of God as the author
of fresh beginnings.
On Easter Sunday 1996, Tem held the first public service for Harvest, a
Southern Baptist church plant that had launched in Bakersfield the previous
year. From the beginning, he says, God honored their efforts to reach people
who were unfamiliar with church. Over the next five years, Harvest grew from 62
to 120 people, many who were growing in their passion for evangelism and
excited about opportunities to reach out to the community.
Near the end of 2002, Tem became aware of a Bakersfield church experiencing
decline and looking for revitalization. Calloway Drive Baptist Church was
situated on a piece of property right in the middle of Bakersfield's fastest
growing area. Tem says the area added 50,000 new movers in 2002 alone. But the
church hadn't adapted to the new demographics in its community. Calloway
Drive's attendance had fallen drastically and hovered around 40 on Sunday
mornings, and the congregation knew they needed to change in order to meet the
needs of the people surrounding them. In 2002 the two churches united under the
name Cornerstone, a change made in order to make both congregations aware that
this was a new beginning for everyone. Harvest's young families and youth
joined with Calloway Drive's congregation of mostly seniors to discern God's
mission for their new church. Their first service saw 200 in attendance; today,
Cornerstone averages 400 people in multiple Sunday morning services.
Tem says the transition wasn't always easy; his church brought a new, more
contemporary style that was difficult for those accustomed to a more
traditional worship environment. But the pastor encouraged his congregation to
keep evangelism at the forefront of the church's vision.
"I told the senior adults, and the parents, and all those who were
struggling to understand why we did things so differently, 'You won't be
comfortable with this, but your kids and your grandkids will love it.' And
we've seen so many of those kids and grandkids find Christ and be
As the congregations adjusted to one another and to their new, unified
purpose, Tem says each brought value to the other. The group from Harvest had a
new energy and desire to be culturally relevant while adhering to biblical
principles. The seniors from Calloway Drive knew how to care for people, Tem
says. They were a model for ministry as they reached out to other seniors in
the community and the new generation at Cornerstone.
With a combination of ministry and evangelism, Cornerstone is reaching out
in Bakersfield, a city where one out of two new residents comes from Los
Angeles. Located between L.A. and Fresno, two of California's major urban
centers, Bakersfield has many of the issues found in any city. To combat the
city's drug problem, Cornerstone offers Celebrate Recovery, a ministry that
seeks to lend biblical support and encouragement for all of those struggling
with any kind of addiction. The church also started The Shindig, an outreach
ministry for the city's youth. Using church property to host weekly concerts,
the initiative drew hundreds of teenagers from around Bakersfield. The ministry
has since moved to the city's downtown area, where many teens are living on the
Along with ministering to the broken, Cornerstone also reaches out to those
with less visible needs. The church makes it a point to continually tailor its
ministry and approach to the thousands of young professionals and families
moving into the city every year. Through a relational, intentional blend of
worship and fellowship, Cornerstone seeks to make Sunday morning a time and
place for people who bring with them different levels of familiarity and
comfort with the church.
Cornerstone Church is listening to God's leading as he continues the work He
began; He is constantly re-making them into a body of outward-focused
By Ed Stetzer
After a year and a half of pastoring Heights Baptist Church in Beech Island,
South Carolina, Pastor Mark Canipe realized he'd been functioning like a
"fireman." Always preoccupied with fixing problems and keeping the peace, Mark
rarely had time to think about reaching the community much less leading his
church to do so. One day as Mark was wrestling with God in prayer and reading
Scripture, God spoke to him through the story of Joshua taking over after
The story inspired Mark to make changes in his leadership style. Instead of
throwing in the towel, Mark allowed the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into
his ministry. If there was something he believed the Lord was telling him to
do, he did it. The deacons at the church began to see Mark's leadership
develop, and they observed that the Lord blessed his efforts and brought
positive results from new ministry ideas. A fresh attitude of trust and faith
developed, which led to the birth of a new church plant sponsored by Heights
Baptist. This church and pastor exercised comeback faith, and now-four years
later-they're averaging 400 in attendance and are reaching their community for
Faith… to believe the impossible. Faith… to trust without reservation.
Faith… to hang on every word just like a child. Faith… to take God at His Word
and act on it! That's exactly what Comeback churches did.
We can celebrate churches that make turnarounds because they inspire us to
believe that seemingly impossible things really are possible. We believe
comebacks not only are needed in many churches, but possible. Revitalization
isn't an easy road, but it's a road worth taking.
According to recent studies, 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are
either plateaued or declining in attendance; either on the verge of closing
their doors or desperately in need of revitalization. Pastors and church
leaders from all backgrounds wonder: How did our church's vital ministry fizzle
out? How did we lose site of our mission? And what can we do to turn the
Breathing new life into dying churches isn't easy. We talked to pastors
across the country who experienced a comeback and asked what principles could
guide other pastors and churches down the path of spiritual renewal? We
identified three faith factors that were key ingredients to the churches'
belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church
Comeback leaders helped people know and experience the reality of Jesus Christ
in their lives. Comeback churches found that true belief translates into
action. As people were renewed in their belief in Jesus Christ, their actions
Comeback leaders helped members love their communities. Through their
preaching, teaching and praying, pastors specifically asked the Lord of the
harvest to open people's eyes to the needs He was calling their church to meet
Too many pastors love someone else's community. They long to minister to the
nice, happy and affluent families in the suburbs, thinking they'll have fewer
problems. I was recently in Mississippi where, in an open field surrounded by
farms, a young pastor told me about the 100-year-old church he served and about
its members-all local farmers. This young pastor was quite enthusiastic as he
announced he was going to revitalize that church using the strategies of a
well-known Los Angeles pastor.
I encouraged this young pastor to rethink his strategy, because the
trendy-L.A.-nightclub-meeting-church might not be the best model to revitalize
a First Church of rural Mississippi.
Unfortunately, the pastor hadn't yet grown to love the people in his
community. In order to lead a church of farmers to reach farmers, you have to
love farmers. In order to love the farmers, you have to pray for them and get
to know them, their needs and their concerns.
Comeback churches grow to love the lost. Sadly, most Christians don't like
the unchurched. We wish it were not so, but it is. They don't think like us;
they often don't vote like us; they influence our kids; they don't know our
inside references and Christianese. They are not "our" people.
Comeback churches made the hard decision to love the lost as much as Jesus
did. Too many churches never answer the hard questions: When was the last time
we led someone to Christ? What's been our attendance trend over the past five
years? How many visitors have we had in the past year and the year before that?
When is the last time this church baptized someone from outside the existing
church family? Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions can help your
church grasp whether or not it's truly growing.
Comeback churches also focus outward. We know that Jesus came to seek and
save people who are lost. In Luke 15 He told three stories that demonstrate how
passionate He is about those without Him in their lives. The question for us
becomes: Are we willing to love those pagans, those heathens, those lost people
who aren't very lovable? Often we want God to "clean them" before we "catch
them." The need to reach them in whatever condition we find them often requires
us to make changes in the way we do things. We have to find ways to love people
the way they are, and that's often messy work.
Factor number 2:Renewed Attitude for Servanthood
Comeback churches care more about their communities than their personal
preferences. Many churches will split over preferences-without either side
caring about the lost. Comeback churches have decided that the "sin of
preferences" leads to the "sin of a dying church." This is particularly true
when a community's culture changes quickly.
Every church should function in such a way that it can live in and reach
people in contemporary culture. Comeback churches accept this truth and act on
it, and it's not just about music and preaching style. Being contemporary to
your culture will mean different styles in different communities. If we choose
not to serve our community as it exists, what's the alternative? We are then
making a choice to function by our own preferences and the internal cultures we
create. Sadly, churches that serve their preferences and church culture don't
reach the unchurched and won't experience a turnaround that impacts the
Comeback pastors lead their churches to develop a Christ-like attitude.
Scripture teaches us to "make our attitude that of Christ Jesus" (Philippians
2:5). When we put others before ourselves as Jesus did, and we are known for
caring about the lost like Jesus did, comeback churches can be the result.
These can be hard changes to make. Many are convinced the need for better
believers is greater than the need for more believers. This can sound so
spiritual and so right. After all it's important for believers to grow.
However, Jesus' directives leave no question regarding the mission that we've
been given-to share the good news. Few commands get as much emphasis in
Our mission is to make more and better followers of Jesus Christ
simultaneously. A disciple who is growing spiritually will evidence a growing
desire to reach out to those who don't know Christ.
Comeback leaders model and promote acts of service. Southside Baptist Church
in San Antonio, Texas, was down to nine members in 1998 when Al Byrom came to
be the bi-vocational pastor. "The church had no mission, vision or excitement
for ministry. I came in, under the Lord's leading, and empowered the people to
do ministry. My leaders now are proactive and excited about ministry because
it's more enjoyable." In just six years the church grew to more than 700 in
A significant number of Comeback leaders identified a renewed attitude of
servanthood as a major factor in their comeback congregations. They led their
churches to overcome the hurdle of traditional preferences and to reach beyond
themselves to the community around them. From feeding the hungry to rebuilding
homes and neighborhood block parties, Comeback churches used acts of service to
revitalize their churches and their communities.
Factor number 3:Strategic Prayer
EffortsHistorically, revivals have taken place when God's
people prayed fervently and earnestly, and when they obeyed God's Word
profoundly. Not only do churches and missionary leaders need to seek earnestly
the power and presence of God in their lives, but they also need to pray
strategically to utilize God's power in places where God is multiplying
disciples and churches.
The Holy Spirit's presence and power is released through intentional prayer.
The book of Acts provides several examples of early believers coming together
to pray for boldness. In his book The Book of Church Growth, Thom Rainer
explains, "Prayer is the power behind the principles. There simply is no more
important principle in church growth than prayer. The prayers of the early
church unleashed the power of God to add thousands to the church. It happened
then. It is happening in some churches today. And it can happen in your
After praying, those early believers were empowered by the Spirit, and
people believed in the resurrected Jesus. The same pattern can be followed
today. Praying for boldness and for a movement of God's Spirit within the
community and in the lives of those who are not believers is part of an
effective outreach strategy. Comeback leaders pray strategically and fervently
for themselves, their church families and their communities.
According to Roger Lipe, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodlawn,
Illinois, the Word of God and renewed prayers were keys to their church's
renewal. The church gave new emphasis to prayer during the Wednesday evening
services. Lipe read Scriptures dealing with prayer and led the church family to
focus on praying for the needs of the church. This church was $109,000 in debt
in July 2001, but was completely debt-free by November 2002. Giving continues
to increase, and the once-dead church is alive and ministering effectively to
the community around them.
Comeback churches across the country reported an increase in evangelistic
zeal in response to their strategic prayers for their communities. Many
emphasized the importance of weekly prayer meetings and a deeper passion for
the local community.
Once your church has found new life, you'll want to continually assess your
church's mission and purpose within the community. Over time your church may
need to adjust to the changing needs of your community.
Comeback leaders know that church transformation is a spiritual business.
And reviving a dying church takes time. But it can happen. Churches that were
once down for the count are now vibrant, growing and healthy churches. God is
now using these churches to impact their communities with the gospel.
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