Church Revitalization: SC’s population growing, but Baptist churches aren’t

South Carolina ranks 7th in the nation in population growth per square mile and is growing over three times faster than the national average. Nineteen of the state’s 46 counties are in the top 25 percent of the fastest-growing counties in America.

However, while the population is growing, South Carolina Baptist Convention churches as a whole are not growing.

Recently, the SCBC commissioned Tom Carringer to prepare an up-to-date statistical analysis of the “demographic and psychographic changes” occurring in our state. He observed, “Many churches are likely out of sync in the communities where they now find themselves. It is estimated that approximately 88 percent are affected by this and are now either plateaued or declining. Revitalization/restarting strategies are absolutely essential in this context.”

He noted that churches are going to have to change “even faster than ever before to keep up with the changing community and societal conditions they are likely facing.”

The growth in South Carolina’s population is not evenly dispersed across the state. While 19 counties are growing rapidly, it is anticipated that 20 counties will actually decrease in population in the coming years. It is important, according to Carringer, that a church understands the context of its own reality — whether they are located in a community that is growing or declining, and if the church itself is at risk or in need of change.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. has stated, “The Southern Baptist Convention and its churches are at the center of a great and unavoidable question: Do we have the courage and conviction necessary to replant churches? We need existing congregations to plant, sustain, support and lead church planting. We cannot have one without the other.”

The revitalization of declining churches is important. The restarting or replanting of at-risk churches is essential. An at-risk church is defined by the South Carolina Baptist Convention as “a congregation whose current status is vulnerable to imminent decline or closure.” Jerry Sosebee, who leads the revitalization efforts for the SCBC, has stated, “The hard part is getting a plateaued or declining church to understand their current reality. They have to see that in order to move forward.”

More church plants are needed just to keep up with the population growth in most of the state. But that will not happen unless there are more existing stronger churches to partner with and support those efforts. Mohler noted, “There is this obvious fact: If existing congregations do not thrive, there will be no one to plant, sustain, support, and lead church planting.”

There are several churches in South Carolina that have helped at-risk churches through a revitalization or replanting process. Some churches merge together. Oak Grove Baptist Church in Spartanburg was an at-risk church where attendance dropped dramatically. Hub City Church was a relatively new church plant. The two congregations held several meetings, decided to utilize the more-than-adequate facilities at Oak Grove and name the new church Hub City. Today, the church is growing and impacting the community. Sans Souci Church, once a flourishing church in Greenville, had dropped to less than 40 attending when a sister church provided members and resources to help replant the church.

Mount Airy Baptist Church near Easley just committed to a three-year revitalization effort to help Eastland Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. First Baptist Church of Varnville has helped restart two congregations in that part of the state. Citadel Square Baptist Church in Charleston merged with another congregation but kept its name. There are many other examples, but according to national and state Baptist leaders, many more are needed.

The SCBC outlines three options for at-risk congregations:

  1. Revitalization — a change of strategy and/or leadership, but not identity;
  2. Restart — a change of identity, leadership, and strategy; or
  3. Reinvest — a church closes with dignity and invests its remaining resources in another congregation or mission.

Whether a church is revitalized or restarts, both processes can be successfully utilized to bring energy and new life to a dying church. Jay Hardwick, the new chief strategist for the state convention, stated that “every restart is a revitalization, but not every revitalization is a restart.”

Churches that may be at risk can find help through the SCBC. Jerry Sosebee and the church strategies team focus on revitalization. James Nugent and the start team primarily work with restarts.

Those churches that may want to reinvest their resources in another church can contact either the church strategies or church planting teams.