By James W. Yates
This is a perplexing question that should be addressed by a number of congregations. It is a difficult one for many reasons. Major decisions must be considered and made – decisions that affect the lives of each of the members in different ways and by varying degrees. I have personally been involved when two churches faced this problem. One determined to ignore the inevitable, remained at its long-time location, and has continued to decline in numbers, contributions, abilities to preach the gospel to others, and in its spirituality. This mature congregation had more opportunities for doing the Lord’s work than most. They had the resources and abilities within to accomplish any reasonable work. The talent was there; but for selfish reasons on the part of a few, the advantages that were evident and present were lost – perhaps never to be regained.
The second congregation accepted the challenge of changing locations, and is now one of the more able congregations in this large metropolitan area. It is a church that God has blessed almost beyond belief and, certainly, greater than those who made the decision to move could anticipate at the time. It is this decision that we want to address in this article.
The congregation had been functioning since the early 1950s, having served a rapidly growing section of the city acceptably. It was a church that had been scripturally organized with elders, deacons, and full-time local preachers from its beginning. They grew rapidly in numbers and were evangelistically minded in supporting gospel preachers in many areas of the country as well as overseas. In the mid-1950s, they faced the important decision that all churches of that period faced in regard to institutionalism and respect for authority or lack thereof. They made the scriptural decision, and 100 of their members withdrew from the fellowship. They were wounded, but were not defeated. Growth continued, and their work in evangelism continue.. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this church was additionally distressed, which was caused by hobbyism; however, the core became well-taught in the nature and work of the church with respect to obeying God’s will and by doing his work in his ways. In the mid-1960’s, membership increased again. Then, the inflation of that period began in earnest. This residential community began to change and change rapidly. Single-family residential properties became too expensive for the younger families and vacant land too expensive to develop with residential developments. Our younger members moved or were transferred by their employers; they were not replaced. The membership declined drastically in a short period, with the average age of its members increasing significantly. The Bible classes became difficult to plan. Some age brackets were few in number, so classes that were designed for a level of learning had to be eliminated and/or mixed with others which caused a wide range of age and maturity levels in a single class. The influx of immigrants in the area also caused significant changes. Heathen religions were introduced in the community for the first time. A number of special efforts were attempted to attract new members and converts. A second preacher was added and supported. Special classes and door-to-door contacts were attempted. Multifamily residential properties were worked extensively; however, the results were not acceptable or productive. It was time for the major decision. Do we stay and possibly decline to the point we eventually die; or do we relocate?
The manner in which we addressed the question is not necessarily the only way it can be successfully accomplished, but it is one way.
The four elders and two preachers spent several weeks confidentially discussing the matter in detail. We attempted to anticipate every conceivable problem, advantage and disadvantage of such a move. In the main, we were concerned about the “people problems.” We took a map of the area and located the physical complications that each member would have. We had some members who could not drive at night and others with similar problems, so plans had to be made to accommodate these individuals. We then broadened the consideration by bringing the deacons into the decision-making process.
At this point, we did not have a single negative opinion, which is probably slightly unusual. I would judge that in most churches you will not have complete agreement at this point. After all, there are now 15 men (plus their wives) actively involved. The problems were openly discussed and concluded one by one. Some of them were:
1. The membership; physical limitations themselves; distance to the proposed new location; the problems and suggested methods of curing them; how far is too far to travel?
2. The physical makeup of the proposed new neighborhood; developments that existed and their nature; most likely future development of vacant land.
3. The disposal of the existing building (a major consideration) and a realistic value of it.
4. Preliminary physical needs of the new location, including the size of the site and the building and a,rough estimate of its cost.
5. The alternatives for those who might not want to move to the new location. There was another nearby congregation that had been weakened in much the same manner as we. It was a desirable place to worship, and our move would result in two stronger congregations rather than two weaker ones.
After the elders, deacons and preachers had given the matter confidential but thorough consideration, the idea was presented to the entire membership with special efforts being made to have as many of the members present as possible. This meeting was well-planned but open and fair, and the results of the investigations that had been made were detailed. We suggested a period of time for the membership to discuss the matter among themselves and to ask any questions of the leadership. At this point, we had a few negative responses – perhaps as many as five or six individuals. Some pursued the matter to the ultimate extreme of their influences which resulted in their gaining a small number to support their cause which resulted in some unpleasantness.
However, the decision was made to proceed and to expedite the move as soon as reasonably possible. We placed the existing properties on the real estate market and drew preliminary building plans, obtained a new site and made ready to move when the older plant was sold. Financing was arranged with a local bank; but to keep the burden of cost at manageable levels, we would not start construction until the older property sold. It required approximately 14 months to sell the old building.
During this period of consideration by the membership, one of the deacons and one of the preachers had a change of mind (prompted by other matters, but taking advantage of the pending move); they began to meet separately, causing a division. We learned we had some among us with festering concerns that no one knew of prior to the interest caused by the actions of these individuals.
It is unrealistic to assume 100 percent will agree on the matter, and those who oppose must be given every consideration. Their reasons must be heard and considered fairly. Then, after meaningful consideration of each member, a decision must be made. Don’t let a very small minority – at times totally unreasonable – depress a positive decision that will keep the Lord’s work moving forward. Provide adequate alternatives for those who do not wish to be a part of the new work, or perhaps cannot be a part.
The division was discouraging and caused many heartaches. Repentance has not to this day been forthcoming. Souls will be lost as a result. The remaining number totaled approximately 70 people. We determined to press on to the accomplishing of our goals. We obtained permission from a local school district to use one of their cafeterias until we could get the new building redesigned to accommodate the actual selected site, obtain final financing, and actually construct the new facilities. We were in the school building almost two years with actual construction time being nine months in duration.
Four years had been required from the time the thought of such a move was made until we occupied the new facility. Four years of hard work, many hours of heartache, problems surfacing that were totally unknown prior to the move, and having to meet in adequate but unfunctional facilities for a longer period than we originally estimated – yet, a period that resulted in the firming up of the remaining core group into a hard and more effective working unit. That core group moved into the new facilities in November 1982. The membership doubled in the first year and has continued to grow at a reasonable rate until this good day. We are at peace, happy and have now completed all construction, and some expansion. We are now “out of debt” and using our resources to support gospel preaching. That original core continues to work together well, and we have added some of the best and most able members. Our largest problem, at present, is in utilizing to a maximum effective degree all of the talent we have within the congregation.
Yes, we strongly recommend that churches who are located in changing communities which have resulted in declining locations to do as we did – move and do the will of the Lord. There will be a few of your members who will not want to move for every type reason including being committed to the brick and mortar, instead of the Lord. There are some who do not want to attend other nearby congregations which could serve them well and who needed their help and influence. It was impractical for a few due to distance and health, but the large majority of these wished us well. Those who did move have been blessed beyond measure. It is a tough decision, but one we recommend if the circumstances demand it. There is nothing sadder than seeing a former, live, working congregation becomc-an “old folks home keeping house for the Lord” when you have an opportunity to use your abilities and resources to a better service in his cause.
We believe the Lord will bless your efforts as he has promised, if you will set aside all selfishness and put him and his cause in their rightful place. He blessed us, blessed the work, and made us all realize that his promises are true. We need to believe them and become working servants. You can expect some unplanned and unknown problems; but we know you will be as happy as we are that we made the dccision to move. The Lord will bless you for keeping his work alive and productive.
A Resume In Making The Decision:
1. What is the realistic future of the existing location?
2. What is the realistic future of the existing neighborhood?
3. The location of each member in relation to:
a. The present building.
b. The proposed site.
4. The availability of other churches, if any, in the area that could be strengthened by the acceptance of some of your members who would rather transfer than move.
5. The resources available for the new plant/facilities.
6. The reasonable value of the older facilities and net amount anticipated from their sale and “when.
7. Where would you move and its advantages?
Know, You Will Have:
1. Members bound to brick and mortar, not the Lord’s cause (although they may not realize this). Those who move to be near the present building.
2. Members who do not want to make changes, any change.
3. Health problems; problems of some in getting to and from services.
4. Members who will use this period to bring up all types of problems not previously known. It is a period of unsettlement and may be longer than you originally thought.
1. Will be positive beyond your expectations.
2. Will produce a solid core of enthusiastic members who will be as filled with zeal as when originally baptized.
3. You can expect a solid initial growth period which is exciting and zeal-producing.
4. Those that are active in the move and construction phases will be satisfied beyond anything you can imagine, which spills over in the whole church.
5. It is a period of joy, satisfaction, and rededicating oneself to being active in the Lord’s work.
6. If your decision is right and if the leadership does their homework, God will bless your efforts; and, by faith, the accomplishments will be beyond your most optimistic expectations. You cannot “out give” the Lord!
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 1, pp. 16-18
January 5, 1989