Johnny Hunt, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, Georgia, and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, joined Conrad to share about his experiences in how God turned around a church on decline.
At the Timothy+Barnabas Pastors and Leaders Day of Encouragement, Pastor Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia (just outside of Atlanta), and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, kindly sat down with me to encourage churches experiencing decline with hope for the future. Watch the video above, or read the text version here!
Conrad Au: Thanks for spending the day with us! You started the day by telling your story at First Baptist Woodstock. Now, I've been to your church for the SEND Conference in 2012. I remember walking into the wrong sanctuary because I went to the main sanctuary, but the conference was at the sub-sanctuary which seats 1500 people. So we know First Baptist Woodstock, Dr. Johnny Hunt, as the pastor of a mega church, but it didn't start out that way for you.
Johnny Hunt: In 1986 when we got there, we had under 200 people in attendance, the church had split, it was very unhealthy. They had dismissed their pastor and their minister of music, their two primary full time staff members. So the church was struggling to survive. There was a handful of people, and I think they lived under the shadows of other great ministries around the Atlanta area, always in hope that one day God would do the same thing with them. So it really started growing fast, almost immediately. But I believe even though it seemed unhealthy, the truth is some of the people that left, (their departure) may have been more of a blessing in disguise when they realize they may have been the barriers to the growth we've experienced - that's what some of the people who had left felt. So it could have been what we would call a good purging. Now, I love people, so I don't mean that in a negative way, but it could have been a good purging, some people called it a backdoor revival, where now the church is poised to see its greater days. So as God began to give the increase, people received it well, and celebrated it. Here we are now, starting my 30th year, and people still celebrate what God has done, not just in the way we've grown but in the way we've sent so many out to other churches, so many missionaries we've sent to the foreign field. As J.D. Greear says in his new book, we're "Gaining by Losing." I like to say we're not losing, we're launching people to serve the Lord everywhere.
CA: That's incredible! What were the signs of hope in those early years?
JH: As I began to talk to people that knew of T.W. Hunt ("The Mind of Christ", "Disciple's Prayer Life") and his prayer life and that he had influenced them, they knew Avery Willis from going through "MasterLife," I thought there aren't many, but those who are here have real depth to them. They're people that feel like the Lord had told them, when there was a chance to leave, "don't leave, I'm not through with this congregation." So they had this hope with them that they could rise. There's a little saying that you can go 40 days without food, 4 days without water, 4 minutes without air, but you can't live 4 seconds without hope. So that's a good word to use to give people hope for a better day. When it came, they celebrated.
CA: During that time before the hope came, as you've said, did you see signs where people were losing a bit of that hope, because it's almost like a wilderness...
JH: Some of the people struggled (when) they realized they didn't have control, and you can tell that when things fell apart in their hands. But even though they knew that, doesn't mean they let go. Some still tried to control the environment, some wanted to control me - they've always been in a controlling factor. The problem was they didn't give up easily, they would tell me this is the way it's going to be. But I had a lot of tenacity, and I just said "that's not the direction I want to lead, and we'll need to vote as a church" in those early days. There was enough people there that wanted to see the change that the votes always passed. Eventually, those who kept losing sensed they couldn't control it and left.
There's a little saying that you can go 40 days without food, 4 days without water, 4 minutes without air, but you can't live 4 seconds without hope. - Johnny Hunt
CA: So why would we tell an established church who has a building, or many of us here in Vancouver are established but don't own a building - we have 80+ churches and 9 buildings, so they may not have a building per se, what would you tell an established church or those who are looking to help, why not give up on them?
JH: One reason we shouldn't give up is because they are the hope for the future. We ought to be the ones to infuse life to them. None of us got to where we are without someone helping us. The churches wondering about whether they should help others: if they would study the history, they would see there was a day and time that someone helped them, and they would not be where they are had it not been that help. Also, who doesn't want to have healthy children? Really, you can become like a mother or father to another congregation and infuse some finances, some lay people, some service, most of all some encouragement to help them see great days again. They can live again, sort of like the valley of the dry bones, "can these bones live again?" Absolutely!
CA: For the church leaders (reading) this, our normal church in Vancouver is 50 or less, most of ours are probably 40, 30, and been stagnant for a long time. If you're talking to the church leader, a deacon, those who founded the church, those who are trying to start something again, what's your encouragement to them?
JH: I would encourage them to read a book like "There's Hope for the Church" or "Breakout Churches," and I would get them to dream again. They had a dream when they started, they developed so many leaders, but you can't continue growing unless you develop more leaders. So they're going to have to do again what they did. They can't try to go from 50 up, but they're going to have to go back to the foundation, solidify it, make sure they have a solid foundation of broader number of leaders that can really make a difference. They had hope and vision when they started, and somewhere along the way in the hard work and the hard soil, they lost it. They've got to get back, get along with the Lord, re-dream, let God instil in their hearts what He's up to, join Him, and just believe that the first launch didn't go as it should have, but we're not through, and next time we're going to do it.
Our partners at the North American Mission Board has launched a Replant Strategy to assist churches looking to revitalize. Visit www.namb.net/replant for more details.