A conversation with Wayne Kilpatrick
Occasionally you hear of a pulpit minister who completes a tenure of a quarter-century with a single congregation.
Rarer is the story of a minister who goes on to another long and successful ministry with a second church in the same city.
Meet Wayne Kilpatrick, a child of the South, and an extraordinary preacher whose ministry skills and heart for building strong churches and evangelizing the lost have enriched thousands.
After 27 years of work with the Homewood Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., and nearly 10 years with the Heritage Place church in the Birmingham suburb of Irondale, Kilpatrick, 71, and his wife, Carolyn, recently celebrated 50 years of rewarding, full-time service.
Where Kilpatrick has been, local congregations have grown. Beginning with his first work at the Bellmeade Church of Christ in Evansville, Ind., in 1962, he discovered his gift for outreach, baptizing 18 people in 18 months.
Attendance at the Homewood church grew from 256 people on its first Sunday in 1973 to 1,500 in 2000. Homewood became a cutting-edge church, developing an extensive mission plan, including a long-running weekly television program.
But in 1992 the church began to plateau and then slowly decline. Kilpatrick began doctoral studies with an emphasis on developing a strategy for church renewal. During his last two years at Homewood, the church began a slow process of recovery.
For four years — from 2000 to 2004 — he lived his dream of traveling the country, holding meetings and sharing his church growth knowledge. But when the Heritage Place church called, Kilpatrick said yes. The church has grown from 60 in attendance to a diverse membership of 200 today.
What are some early warning signs that a church may be on a growth plateau?
People who study church growth have discovered that 80 to 85 percent of the churches in America are in decline. This decline is not limited to liberal, mainline denominations. Many conservative and evangelical churches have plateaued, and many conservative denominations are in serious decline.
A plateaued church is not extending and expanding in reaching and assimilating new people. Therefore, growth ceases. Plateaus are part of the life-cycle of any organization, including the church. A plateaued church is in a period of inertia where the church has little movement forward in the area of growth.
Accurate record-keeping is very important in helping to know if a church is growing, plateaued or declining. Churches need to keep and examine their records from month to month in order to know the health of their church.
Can plateaued churches grow again? How?
The church must choose one of three possible responses to this eventual decline.
One choice is to do nothing, maintain the internal status quo, allow cultural forces to run their course and let the church disappear from American society. This is the choice of church members who like their churches the way they are and will not tolerate change.
A second choice is to plant new churches, even if it means abandoning extant churches. C. Peter Wagner, a church growth specialist, says, “Without exception, the growing denominations have been those that stress church planting.” Many church growth advocates doubt that existing churches can be revitalized.
Church researcher George Barna, in his book “Turnaround Churches,” states, “The good news is that some churches can reverse a rapid decline and make a full comeback to health. The bad news is that the odds of experiencing such a turnaround are slim.”
There is a third option to the church’s plight in America — revitalization.
If established, declining churches can be revitalized, then the combined membership, the accumulated wealth, the buildings, property and furnishings in those churches can be reclaimed and brought to bear on the task of evangelizing America.
I believe the key issue for churches today is church health, not church growth. When congregations are healthy, they grow the way God intends.
In his book “Your Spiritual Gifts,” Wagner says, “Church growth and church health are interrelated. Only healthy bodies grow well, and only healthy churches grow well.”
Can churches become evangelistic if they currently are not? How?
The major reason for church decline is that churches ceased doing the things that caused them to grow.
When we were experiencing our greatest growth during my lifetime, we were involved in many evangelistic endeavors. We had gospel meetings at least twice a year, taught personal evangelism classes and equipped our members in the use of the Jule Miller filmstrips and Bible charts in converting their neighbors.
We had Monday night visitation and zone programs that cared for the members and provided assistance to the community. We hosted a five-day Vacation Bible School and urged our members to invite friends to come worship God with them.
The church has almost cut out every single thing that caused growth and has not replaced these things with more successful ministries.
One of the most important things churches can do to grow again is to create an atmosphere in their worship services that causes people to want to come worship God. Many members are ashamed to invite their friends into their local church due to boring services, buildings that are rundown and unattractive and unfriendly members.
The difference in a growing church and a dying church is one word — invite! We are not inviting our friends and associates to come worship God with us.
My suggestion is to sit down with some of the leading members of your church and ask them, “What would we need to do to cause you to invite your friends and associates to come worship with us?” Then take their ideas and do whatever is Scriptural and right to become a place where people are excited and thrilled to want to come.
Church growth occurs when the local church supernaturally and faithfully fulfills the Great Commission in its unique context and with a vision for the world.
What do you see as elements of growth in a new church plant?
Many of the new church plants have more passion to win the lost. They begin with a lot of hope and enthusiasm and spend much time in prayer. They understand that no work has ever been accomplished for God outside of much time in earnest prayer.
New church plants begin with a structure to not only bring people into their church but also structure to keep them. Churches must constantly structure and restructure to allow for continued growth and to maintain growth that has taken place.
New churches realize their meeting places and facilities have to be up to par. No matter what type of building they have, they strive to make it look the best it possibly can.
They understand the importance of advertising. They use media and publications in their area to let others know about their ministry. They also understand the importance of signs and church information. Times of services are clearly displayed.
New churches focus on accessibility. They give thought to their location and make themselves available to their members and guests. Since they are a new church, they often pursue excellence in all they attempt to do. They understand the importance of visitors and welcome them without embarrassing them. They get information from their guests and then follow up with letters, phone calls, cards from various members and, if they are open to it, a home visit.
New churches put lots of emphasis on special events. A church needs to have at least four big events each year. These give the members opportunities to invite friends to attend with them.
Do new congregations need to be planted in order to pursue growth?
Wagner observes, “Without exception, the growing denominations have been those that stress church planting.” Lyle Schaller, another author who studies church vitality, states that church planting is “the most useful and productive component of any denominational church growth strategy.”
New churches operate with an almost panicked urgency. If a church planter wants to preach to someone on Sunday, he has to go get them. Whereas many established churches end up relegating outreach to a single night during the week, the new church focuses on going after new people. And without a calendar full of committee meetings and counseling appointments, that’s what gets done. New churches reach people.
New churches are versatile within their communities. A new church is not encumbered in its methodology but can quickly adjust in order to take advantage of newly presented opportunities. They have a freedom that many established churches do not. They never run up against the dreaded, “We’ve never done it that way before,” because nothing has ever been done.
A church planter is able to look around and ask himself, “How can I best get the Gospel in front of these people?” New churches make the most of their circumstances.
What is the role of the preacher in the growth of a church?
Church growth must begin with the preacher. No church can outgrow the preacher. Here are some suggestions as to what the preacher can do to assist the church in growth:
• There can be no growth if the preacher fails to embark on the journey of personal growth. The day he stops growing, the church stops growing. Lack of personal growth will show in pettiness, narrow-mindedness, inferiority complex, fear of offending and carnal attitudes. The minister needs to grow spiritually, emotionally, mentally, socially and in his ability to become a more effective communicator. Personal growth is the key to ministry growth.
• Preachers need to take courses in church growth. Bible college and seminary training has little or nothing to offer in real church growth study. Bringing growth to their church means they must unlearn some things and learn new things. They will need to attend quality conferences, buy books, search the Internet and take a practical course in church growth.
• Preachers need to believe in the theology of growth. One minister said, “God did not call the church to grow. He called it to be faithful.” Yes, God did call the church to be faithful. He also called the church to be fruitful.
Theology of growth is believing that growth is the sign of life in the church. So, everything will be done with growth in view. Whatever does not contribute to growth must be scrapped.
• The minister needs to analyze his local congregation. Ask relevant questions such as: How many were converted in the past year? What is our growth rate? How many came from other churches? What growth do we have — conversion, biological or transfer growth? How many were assimilated? Are the people becoming disciples or nominal Christians? What is the strength and weakness of this church? What percentage of our programs are maintenance rather than evangelism oriented? At our growth rate, compared to our birth rate, where will the church be in 10 years?
• The minister needs to pray for church growth. Share the vision of growth. Create time for intercession for growth. Plan and set goals for growth. Be willing to initiate change. He never changes the Gospel but must be willing to change his methods. Pinpoint the areas that need change. Communicate change to his leaders. Gain the authority to lead.
Gradual change is the key. Change leads to growth. Without change, growth will be difficult. Be able to know where your church is and how much time is being spent on evangelism and missions. Be abreast with these facts and then communicate wisely, consistently and continuously to your people. In your communication, demand commitment to God, to the church and to outreach.
What is the role of the elders in the growth of the church?
Christians understand that their job is to sow the seed of the Kingdom and depend on God to give the increase. He has promised that his word will not return unto him void and as we sow, we reap. God gives the increase in the church. We know that.
Elders must realize that the man who stands in their pulpit is the most important factor in how the seed is sown and whether the church grows or not. If elders want the church to grow, then they must have a preacher who wants the church to grow and is willing to pay the price to see that it grows.
Elders also must want the church to grow and be willing to pay the price for growth.
Elders need to insist that their ministers attend quality lectureships and conferences, buy books, listen to tapes and talk to ministers of growing churches. They must insist that ministers think, pray, live and breathe how they can reach more people with the Gospel.
Most elders have full-time jobs and have little time to study and learn how to grow a church. With their work, family responsibilities and shepherding God’s flock, their hands are full. They need to unleash their minister and urge him to lead in the matter of church growth. Provide him with the resources and back him in his attempts to lead the church in reaching the lost.
I am a firm believer in church growth. I know we can reach many lost people today if we are willing to do what God has taught us to do. May the Lord strengthen us in our resolve to save the lost, edify the saved and help the needy.
FeedbackA lack of praying among ALL of us(1 Cor. 11:5),shows little faith to be forgiven and changed. Without confessing sins and praying, (James 5:16, 1 John 5:16 ) we keep our pride, but Jesus remains unseen.Wayne McdanielNorthwest church of ChristPhoenix, Az
USAMarch, 15 2013