“I’m the most unsuccessful pastor in Pacifica,” Jonathan Markham observed four years ago. Markham’s church in affluent San Mateo county southwest of San Francisco was growing spiritually he thought, but not numerically. Church attendance hovered around 15-20 each week with few visitors attending. Located near the Bay area, the coastal town of Pacifica boasts an upscale, affluent California lifestyle where churches compete for residents’ attention. But Markham’s church had failed to attract many from the community.
In an unusual but providential twist, Jonathan Markham was asked to serve as interim pastor of a second congregation which met at a different time. Attendance at this church ran about 30 each week. It wasn’t long before Markham wondered if the two struggling congregations he led might become one. He approached church leaders of both congregations with the idea of creating a new church to reach Pacifica. By March 2007, both older congregations had disbanded and a new church was born.
This brand-new congregation, New Life Christian Fellowship, opened its doors to the community for the first time in September, 2007. Attendance shot up into the 80s each Sunday. But, the real confirmation of their church rebirth came on Easter Sunday, 2009. The church packed 153 people into its sanctuary, and church members had personally invited each guest.
Here’s how they did it:
1. One pastor led two congregations. In typical church mergers, two congregations with two pastors have to sort out vision, staffing, finances, and worship styles. Jonathan Markham was uniquely positioned to guide both congregations toward one dream — a viable, effective church for their community.
2. Discernment involved each church. An exploratory work group of six people, three from each church, was selected to answer one question posed by Pastor Markham: “Is it God’s will for two churches to die, and another one to rise in their place?” Markham thought discernment would take six months. Instead, the group unanimously answered, “Yes” by the end of their first meeting. The positive responses of both groups created momentum for the new church.
3. Everything old had to die. After the initial decision to combine congregations, details had to be worked out. Both groups agreed everything was on the table. Old church names were scrapped in favor of a brand-new identity. Meeting space was discussed, and though the final decision kept them in their jointly-owned building, the new congregation made that decision intentionally.
4. The new church launched in two phases. The new congregation met together for the first time without public fanfare in March, 2007. They took six months to create a new identity and genuine fellowship. By the public launch in September, 2007, the new church functioned as one body committed to reaching their community.
5. A culture of invitation emerged. Markham led the new church to develop a “culture of invitation.” After months of spiritual preparation, the pastor challenged each church family to invite 10 unchurched neighbors to join them on Easter Sunday. The result: 153 at worship. “People didn’t just come for the service, they stayed afterwards for lunch and small group discussions,” Markham reported.
Not every small church can grow by merging with another congregation, but some could consider that option. New Life Christian Fellowship’s vision, leadership, and commitment generated a new way forward for two struggling churches. “Our rebirth was critical to reaching new people,” Jonathan Markham said. “I’ve never felt less in control, but I’ve never felt more at peace.”
This article first appeared in my column, Small Church, Big Idea, in the July/August 2009 edition of Outreach magazine.