Mill Creek Baptist Church had dwindled down to only 20 members.
Located in a meadow outside of Roxboro, N.C., many may have guessed Mill Creek had seen its better days. But God had another plan.
Thirty miles northeast, He was stirring in Hope Church in Danville, Va., where Brian Edwards was praying specifically about planting a church in Roxboro.
“Hope Church had believed for some time that we were called to plant a church in Roxboro, and we were moving in that direction,” Edwards said. “That’s when we learned about the possibility of adopting Mill Creek.”
Hope Church began with a simple conversation. They found that Mill Creek’s remaining members cared deeply about their church’s legacy and wanted to move forward with a revitalization process to exist in the future.
During that meeting, the oldest member in the room was 96-year-old World War II veteran Sam Parham, who recalled the glory days of his beloved church.
“He shared stories of large baptismal services, crowded classrooms and the sound of children enjoying Sundays at church,” Edwards recalled. “He then shared the sadness of the church’s decline and his great fear that its doors would soon close once and for all.”
Parham was part of the congregation since the church began. He walked along its cemetery with Edwards one day, reflecting on its history.
“He was a deacon,” Parham pointed to one grave, then another. “He taught Sunday school.”
“The moment made me aware of the fact that there are people who preceded us that served the church during the season of health,” Edwards said. “I really try to think about the legacy they left behind and honoring that legacy even in the future.”
Edwards remembered the tug in his heart when Parham said, “People sacrificed so much so that a church would be here reaching this community.”
“[Parham’s] tears became my tears and the desire of those people to see their church revived birthed a vision for that in me,” Edwards said.
That vision would take over a year to complete — and its results are ongoing.
First, both Hope Church and Mill Creek had to make sure they were on the same page for revitalization.
“There is no immediate quick fix with a magic wand and the building is full. We are honest about what you can expect,” Edwards said. “They wanted to know the truth about Hope Church: our plans and our intentions. We wanted to know the truth about them: their willingness and expectations.”
After many meetings and presentations with Edwards, Mill Creek members met to discuss the continuation of the adoption process.
“The day the church voted, we were all nervous,” Edwards said.
Did they believe adoption was their best option? Would they be willing to trust Hope Church to walk with them into the future?
“Those questions were answered with a strong unanimous vote,” Edwards said. “The moment we received that call, our hearts jumped for joy. We truly believed this was a divine appointment and that God had huge plans.”
The next steps in the process involved legalities, compromises and finding a pastor. For Mill Creek, Edwards wanted a pastor who would “identify with them, suit their rural culture and be able to lead them to adopt a new identity.”
That pastor was Josh Westmoreland from Tishomingo, Miss. The Mill Creek family immediately welcomed Josh and his wife, Valerie, and their two children, Max and Heidi.
“It was truly love at first sight,” Edwards said.
Within a few months, children were in the building for the first time in years. The church needed to quickly organize a growing children’s ministry. The problem was an answer to many prayers.
In the last seven months, the church has grown to 75 people and increased in diversity. Multiple people have been baptized — something the church hadn’t seen in more than five years.
“There’s an excitement of the people there who have continued to hold on,” Edwards said. “When those people finally see the church living again, when they get to see transformation, it’s fulfilling.”
For the past 12 years, Edwards has focused on pursuing the advancement of the gospel through church planting and revitalization. While he quickly found church planting to be easier in some ways — starting a church with no established DNA, expectations or traditions — he noticed churches that were dying. Churches like Mill Creek.
“I started feeling convicted about the fact we were starting new churches in a community where resources have to be obtained, buildings built, properties purchased,” Edwards said.
“We were putting new churches in a community where dying churches already exist. Why wouldn’t we cherish the opportunity of bringing an existing church back to life? Then that community could see the resurrection lived out through the reviving of a dead church.”
The challenges of revitalization
Edwards has helped more than a handful of churches in North Carolina and Virginia find new life.
One was hidden by vines and weeds with a blackened steeple from mold. Another was down to 15 elderly people fighting over a Sunday school class, filled with resentment and a power struggle while their basement was standing in water.
“What I’ve realized with these small groups of elderly people who are fighting to keep a church alive, they’re giving everything so they can continue to meet together in a room out of habit,” Edwards said, describing the church as being sick with cancer.
“They actually guard the cancer that’s killing them, rather than take some measures of having the cancer removed,” Edwards said.
He believes the greatest challenge of church revitalization is helping people understand the seriousness of their condition.
“Dead churches do nothing to glorify God, advance the mission of the gospel or train other children,” Edwards said. “If we say we believe the gospel is the greatest need of humanity, then we also have to say we care deeply enough for the church for the advancement of that message.”
Unfortunately many dying churches do what they think is best to stay afloat, often expending their resources.
“They see their bank account as life support,” Edwards said. “As long as they have finances that allow them to gather on a Sunday morning, they convince themselves they’re alive.”
That leads to another challenge of church revitalization: convincing church members that they are stewards, not owners. Ministries and facilities don’t belong to man, but to God.
“People start to hold the building as sacred rather than the mission,” Edwards said. “They build shrines to their past. Entire walls are dedicated to pictures of people no one knows, plaques to families who donated that are no longer alive.”
He asks churches what means more: preparing to reach the community with the gospel or holding onto the past?
Ultimately, he’s found the celebration of a revitalized church to be worth the difficulty.
“When you actually see a church revitalization take place — you see that church flourish, the building brought back to life again and children on the property — the joy is worth the sorrow.”
“If a church can be revitalized while they’re in the emergency room state rather than the critical care stage, the outcome will be better,” said Edwards.
For dying churches, “it comes down to this: loving Jesus, loving the church and believing the need of the community is greater than the comfort of the familiar.”
by Lizzy Haseltine, NC Baptist Contributing Writer