Because of the unexpected passing of their pastor, I am now ministering again at Naylor United Methodist Church (UMC) in Naylor, Georgia, at least temporarily until the Bishop and the District decide what they want to do with this congregation. Even though I am no longer affiliated with the Methodist Church because of administrative and some doctrinal issues, I volunteered to fill in because this is a church I dearly love -- people I consider some of my best and closest friends.
I knew the church had declined in recent years through death and through membership transfers, but it was hard to truly grasp the magnitude of that decline until I walked through the doors on my first Sunday back in the pulpit. While Naylor Methodist Church had always been a small congregation, averaging only 8-15 in worship each Sunday, their regular worship attendees had now fallen to just four, with two of the four over 75 years of age and the other couple the children of one the church matriarch.
There are many definitions of a declining or dying church. Naylor UMC exceeds these definitions. I left that first Sunday with a heavy heart. What can be done to save this congregation? To save this church?
Nothing breaks my heart more than to see a church slowly decay and die -- to see the doors of a church shuttered, never to open any more. I have seen this time and time again in our area as smaller congregations finally gave up and just passed away.
When I left the church that morning, I couldn’t help but think about the Christian witness of that church in the Naylor community over the years. That church was founded in the late 1800s, and for over 125 years, this church has represented and presented Christ to that community. Those empty pews had once been filled with vibrant worshipers. That altar and chancel rail had once been filled with lives being transformed and hearts being changed, as repentant sinners came to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and faithful saints cried out to God for help in their circumstances. This church had given Bibles out to every home in Naylor. They had passed out water to strangers on hot days, allowed homeless travelers to spend the night in the sanctuary, and ministered to friend and family and stranger alike. Closing these doors forever is just not something I am comfortable with.
What can be done to revive a dying church in a rural community of 500 people? What can be done to make this church a light for Christ again in Naylor, Georgia? I honestly don’t know.
But, I believe in a God who has the power to do the impossible. I believe in a God who can transform the hardest heart and heal the sickest sinner. Who can raise the dead to life, and who can raise churches as sacrifices of praise to Him, as well.
In near-by Valdosta, about 9 miles away from Naylor, there are several large congregations of various denominations, congregations with over 1,000 members on the rolls and multiple services. One idea I had was to put out a call for Christian missionaries who were willing to leave these large congregations -- who find themselves just a face in a crowd on Sunday mornings -- and ask them to consider coming to Naylor UMC where their gifts and talents could be used to revive a dying congregation, to build a new church from the ashes of the old. One problem we have at Naylor UMC is that we just don’t have the people to do the ministry of the church, and if we can get more people, then the church can begin to heal and to expand and to grow. If we can get a committed group of believers to bring their gifts and talents from their large congregations to put them to work in our church, I believe this would help this little church start to grow. A new influx of energy, gifts, talents, and people can only help this congregation.
Can Naylor UMC be revived? Does God want this church to be revived? I don’t know. But we’re going to try. And I’ll let you know how it progresses.
If anyone has any ideas or suggestions on what we might do to revive this church, please comment below or send me an email.