Should we be hopeful about the post-pandemic church or concerned? Are churches growing today or dying? In this episode, we talk with Sam Rainer, a pastor and church growth expert, about these questions and more. He gives specific ways to revitalize a church regardless of its current state.

Sam Rainer is the lead pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church. He is a speaker, consultant, and the author of multiple books including The Church Revitalization Checklist.








Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics. Today, we're here with the guest Sam Rainer, who is a Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church and the Author of a fascinating new book we're going to discuss today called Church Revitalization. Sam, thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Sam Rainer: Hey, glad to be with you guys. Thank you, Scott. Thank you, Sean. Honored to be on the show. I'm ready to help out your audience, however I can.

Sean McDowell: Well, this book is focus on pastors and I want to encourage our listeners if they're not pastors today to get a copy of this book, because it's short, it's to the point, it's practical. But what we want to talk about in this kind of podcast episode today are some larger questions about the church and get your insight. Not only because you're a pastor also because you do a ton of research on what's happening in the present church today. And one of the things that surprised me that encouraged me is you start off the book at the beginning saying you are hopeful about the post-pandemic church. Tell us about that.

Sam Rainer: Yeah. I actually started writing this book, as the idea came about before the pandemic. And as the pandemic hit, I really started rethinking, what the book needed to be. And I had some time to write. I was writing a lot, while we were all under quarantine for a season there. And I just thought, there seems to be a lot of negativity out there about the church and it's warranted, there're things to critique particularly about the American church. This book is geared more towards the North American church. We could obviously talk about what's going on in Africa, China, other places in the world and that would be a completely different conversation. So the book's geared towards North American. I think that there are bright days ahead.

Sam Rainer: Now, I'm not trying to be prophetic. I'm just saying, I think that there could be some good days ahead if we start doing what we should be doing. And so I wrote the book because, I thought if we just walk through this checklist, this is a church revitalization checklist. We just walked through this checklist. I think a lot of churches could move to a better place of health. And if we have a large amount of churches moving to a better place of health, well then the church as a whole in North America is going to get to a better place. And so it really is just a book that has a hopeful tone and some steps to help you get your church into a healthier spot.

Sean McDowell: I think that's a wonderful voice that I appreciate you speaking yet. It's also realistic. And one of the lines you said, "the church in general is not well", so you're hopeful. But you also recognize, you might be saying that the church to some degree is sick. Tell us what you mean by that?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Well, if you just look at attendance, just some very basic metrics, evangelism, anybody that's ever, that's tracking this data. You can clearly see a decline in people that are connected to the church, people that are coming less frequently. In fact, that's one of the main reasons churches decline is because people just start coming less often. If you had a church where everyone was coming four out of four, let's say if a church of a hundred and everyone's coming four out of four weeks, well, they go two out of four weeks. Now your church of a hundred is now 50. It's cut half, even though you really haven't lost anybody. Your attendance is in half and numbers aren't the only thing of course. I see a lot of churches struggling with evangelism and outward focus. I see a lot of churches struggling with assimilation.

Sam Rainer: The whole idea of reaching them and keeping them, the churches just aren't doing that. And then I see the people that are there not coming as often. So now there is a problem in the church and it's just a practical problem in terms of attendance is also a spiritual problem in terms of a lack of practicing the spiritual disciplines. I mean, you just do the raw numbers on who's reading their Bibles every day and it's not nearly enough people.

Scott Rae: Sam, let's go back just to the church during COVID lots of churches had to make a lot of adaptations. What were some of the main ones that you saw churches having to make in? Which one of these adaptations do you think will likely be with us for the longer term?

Sam Rainer: Yeah, we treated everything like a blank slate at West Bradenton. So, we were, we stopped our in-person services for a season just while we were trying to figure everything out. We didn't know what this virus was. We thought the best thing to do was for us to pause our in-person gatherings, which we did. During that time, we put together a best case, worst case, expected case sort of scenarios and everything ended up being the worst case. I remember being in a room with my church council and staff and just sit. All right, I think worst case we're out for 10, 10 weeks. I think this is like and we lose a certain portion of budget. Its just stretched on and on and on and on. We definitely had to make some changes.

Sam Rainer: We really ask ourselves what's most important. And we really focused in on our families. We focused in on becoming a multi-ethnic church, which we're on our way there. We're not arrived yet, but we're on our way there. And we focused on the neighborhood. We call ourselves a neighborhood church for the nations. And so we really just narrowed in on this idea of being a neighborhood church. We're crammed up against the coast here in Florida. You guys are in California, you probably know what that means. We're not exactly urban, but we're certainly not suburban either. We're coastal and we live in a pretty dense area. And so we just said, "Hey, we're at 1305 43rd Street West, let's just reach the people right around us." and so we really narrowed in on the neighborhood, we focused acutely on neighborhood ministry.

Sam Rainer: And we started thinking about how do we reflect our community that is 40% ethnic minority? And we started making some progress there. We stripped away a lot of things that at were ancillary. We refocused the budget. We even restructured the staff a little bit to accommodate this ministry, so we did a lot of things. One of the things that was most felt by the church was our worship experience. We completely changed the way we did our worship experience. When we started regathering, we didn't have classes for kids. So we knew that kids would be worshiping with us in the worship space. And we actually started gearing the worship service for kids. I split my sermon in half. We had a children's sermon right in the middle of it. We flip flopped the service to where we do one song and then a sermon. And then the rest of the songs come after the sermon.

Sam Rainer: That's the one you ask, what did we keep? That's one thing we kept people loved the way that we restructure the worship service. So, we now do just a quick intro, a song, and then I preach and then we do the bulk of our singing at the end. And it's just, it's gone over extraordinarily well for our church. Certainly not saying it's for every church, but that was just one little thing that we changed that we would've never thought to change weren't for the opportunity of the pandemic. And it was a lot of fun. We tried to have as much fun as we could during what was a very difficult season.

Sean McDowell: You listed that thousands of churches die every year and at first, I think our reaction would be, "Oh, no. That's terrible." but on the other hand, there's probably a time that some churches should die and their season maybe if ministry is done, would you agree with that? And if so, how do we know when it's time to just let a church go and not try to revitalize it?

Sam Rainer: Categorically disagree on every account, no church should eye period full stop. If you believe that God can save any person, then he can save any church to take the posture that you think that some churches should just die is tantamount to saying some people should just go to hell. I do not believe that, and I think that we should do everything we can to save every church that we can. Now there're ways to do. No, some churches will die because they're just not doing what they should be doing and that's on them. But to say, some churches should die, you as an outsider, looking at that church saying they should just die. Categorically disagree. I think that we should do everything we can to help churches. We've started fostering churches. We have adopted churches. We've done that here at West Bradenton. We planted other churches, so part of fostering is taking in an unhealthy church and coming alongside of them, sending them people in resources for six to 12 months and getting them back to where they need to be.

Sam Rainer: We've done that. We've also adopted a church where they became part of our family. I prefer that over the merger term, so we've adopted a Southside Campus. What was Southside Baptist is now the Southside Campus of the West Bradenton Church, which is really strange because West Bradenton's no longer in the west. Southside was not in the south because the city's grown around it. And now we've got West Bradenton Southside Campus, which it's neither west nor south. And it's really confusing, but you know, it is what it is. I think that churches should be working together to make sure that these kingdom outposts, these places of ministry, these spots on every street corner in some towns, there needs to be kingdom work there. I don't like going around saying that kingdom work should die there. I would rather say, let's revitalize what is there and figure out a way to get them working the way that they should work.

Scott Rae: Do you hold that every church is a candidate for revitalization?

Sam Rainer: Every single church, every single one, in the same way. I believe that every single person is a candidate for salvation.

Scott Rae: All right.

Sam Rainer: And tell that mean they will get saved.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Understand.

Sam Rainer: I'm not a Universalist, that mean they will get saved, but I think that they should get saved and the same with churches.

Scott Rae: What do you mean by the term revitalization is applied to the church? Give me a little bit more precise on what that involves?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Church revitalization is taking a church that's on the wrong trajectory. It's headed down the wrong road. It's not doing what it should be doing and getting it on a new path of health. The timelines on that are obviously, varied and they're all over the place. Some churches can be revitalized in a couple of years. Other churches, it's going to take them 20 years to turn around. So revitalization is a broad umbrella under which things like adoption, fostering, relaunching, mergers. There's a lot of things that fall underneath that umbrella. So I use revitalization of very broad sense that let's take this church that is unhealthy or not doing what it should be doing and help the church get to a better place. Let's also realize that some churches are healthy in certain areas and unhealthy in other areas. And so many times a pastor will come in and say, "You know what, we're doing these three things good, but these three or four other areas really need to be revitalized".

Sam Rainer: Revitalization doesn't even necessarily mean that the whole of the church is bad. It just means even pieces of the church could use some help. And most, you're talking established churches. You're talking churches that are 20, 30 years old, most of them in upwards of 200 to 300 years old, depending on how long they've been around

Scott Rae: Sam, are there some characteristics that you would say unhealthy churches have in common that need to be addressed in order to be revitalized?

Sam Rainer: Oh yeah. I mean, there's a laundry list and right at the top is a lack of evangelism. Next, would be a lack of assimilation, poor attendance, frequency, valuing traditions over the mission of God, elevating nostalgia above personal devotion. I mean, there's just a long list of things that could that cause a church to die, not reflecting its community, not caring about its community, not serving the community. There's lots of things that are there, but I'd say honestly, I think that at the top of the list is evangelism, assimilation and service and connection to the community, not doing those things.

Sean McDowell: We had a pastor friend, our house a couple days ago and he just said, he goes, "You know, I'm feeling I'm just tired right now. I'm weary. And it was a combination of things and COVID had a lot to do with it". Is his experience just kind of individualistic? Are you seeing that from a lot of pastors today? I guess I want to know how are pastors feeling right now?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Well, this is something we certainly deal with at church answers. I'm president of a company that serves, 2000 subscribers and worldwide reaches six to eight million. We're constantly hearing from people, constantly hearing from pastors. You know, this is, this is something that everybody is feeling. Yeah, everybody is tired. I'm calling it the great reshuffling. Everyone's thinking about leaving the ministry. You're leaving their church and some are falling away unfortunately. Some are doing some things they shouldn't be doing and that's why they're falling away. Other people are just tired. There are those who have unfortunately lost loved ones during this season. Some of them to COVID and they're making that assessment in their own personal life. How do I, don't want to care for this particular family member who is now a widow or a widower. I've got a parent who's aging. I'm a baby boomer.

Sam Rainer: I thought I was going to last till I'm 70, but no. There's no way I'm getting out in a year or two after I get the church through this. So there are a lot of pastors that are feeling down, that are feeling tired, that don't know what the future holds, they're uncertain. I think that's a pretty common phenomenon. I would also say that it's a common phenomenon in a lot of different professions. I think you could say the same of educators. I think you could say the same of healthcare professionals. In fact, they probably have it even worsts. I know they have it worse than pastors do. So it's not in a qualitative research sense. We're talking about something, that's a phenomenon, right? Something that we're all experiencing together. There's going to be some qualitative researcher that does an incredible study, a phenomenological study on what pastors are feeling during the pandemic.

Sam Rainer: You know, they're going to analyze all this stuff and give us some answers but I think anecdotally, we can say yeah. Yeah. I think a lot, it's hard pressed to find a pastor that's just like really encouraged like now, just on fire. Everything's great.

Sean McDowell: Right.

Sam Rainer: I don't know that there's a whole, there may be, they're probably out there, but I don't think that's the norm.

Scott Rae: So Sam, if that's the case that there are a lot of pastors who are depleted and running on low energy reserves. I think since the majority of our listeners are church members and not pastors, what can they as church members do to better support, encourage, hold up the pastor who they, I think they view primarily it's the pastor's job to support them, not vice versa?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. And generally that's true. I mean, the shepherd of the congregation is there to serve. So I'd say generally, the pastor being set of part to serve is true. That being said, it is to be a reciprocal relationship. I mean, you're not there just to feed off the pastor, that's not a very healthy, healthy relationship at all. This idea of I'm here to consume or, "Hey, what have you done for me lately?" or "Hey, I'm just not getting out of anything out of this church.", those are not good places to be spiritually. That being said, one of the easiest things to do, just write an encouraging note, get that church address out and write a handwritten note and just say, "Hey, you're appreciated. You're loved. You know I really enjoyed the sermon two weeks ago." just some basic things. When you see them, tell them that. Those are just common things that work for a spouse or a boss or a subordinate, it works for everybody. And just about every relationship you have. So the things that work in other relationships just apply that to your pastor and do those things.

Sam Rainer: I would say visible forms of encouragement, or whether it be a handwritten note or a shout out on social media or something. That's a good way to start or a certificate to Amazon.

Scott Rae: There you go.

Sam Rainer: Gift cards to or whatever local books. If there's a local bookstore that sells theological books, then that might be a good way to go. Because every pastor, I don't know that I've ever met a pastor that just didn't love books of some sort so whether it be digital or print, just a gift card. A gift card to me, I had a church member give me a gift card to McDonald's the other day because they know that I brew my coffee at home but on Sundays I get McDonald's coffee. And I said that as a sermon illustration or something gave me a $25 gift card-

Scott Rae: Wow.

Sam Rainer: to McDonald and they're like, this will get you by for like 15 weeks. This is really,

Scott Rae: They cover you for a long time.

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Oh yeah. I think it's a $1.70, it's a $1.70 at McDonald's a large coffee, two creams. And so they knew that because I think I said it in a sermon and they just said, "I want you to enjoy coffee on me for the next 10, 15 weeks." That's awesome. That's 25 bucks. And man, every time I go to McDonald's I'm thinking about that. I'm thinking about Connie, Connie really encouraged me because she gave me a $25 gift card to McDonald's because she knows that's where I get my coffee.

Scott Rae: I think I'd mentioned in my next message that I like filet mignon.

Sam Rainer: Yeah.

Scott Rae: And see what happens.

Sam Rainer: That's awesome. I also like candy corn, which I know is crazy and it's completely irrelevant to the topic in hand, but I have four bags of candy corn in my office right now because church members know that. And every time this year they go and they get like the first dibs at Walgreens and they bring me candy corn.

Sean McDowell: That's awesome. Hey Sam, talk a little bit about church growth today. You mentioned evangelism is down, but there are some churches that are growing. Is it through births, church transfer some evangelism? What have we seen in the church as a whole?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Almost every church is in decline post-COVID. So I, we've done the study and I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it's less than 5% of churches right now that are actually growing.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Sam Rainer: So it's very few, very very few. In fact, the average church is 20% smaller post-COVID. And the larger you are, the greater that percentage is. So if you're a very a large single site church in particular multi-site churches are faring a little better because they have smaller venues. But if you're a large single site church, you're 50, 60% that's pretty typical right now. Smaller churches maybe 80, 90% of where they were post-pandemic, but just about every church is smaller. So the ones are growing are the ones that are very intentionally reaching out to the neighborhood and the community right around the church. That's the secret sauce is you were planted at a particular address. You were there for a reason, God has sovereignly planted you at your location, 1305 43rd Street West is our location.

Sam Rainer: God has a sovereignly planted to us at that location to minister, to the people around us. And I believe that firmly that God wants us to do ministry until Christ returns at this location and those churches that figure that out. Okay. We have a God given address and the purpose of this church is to serve and to reach the people right around us. The churches that are doing that. They're the ones that are doing the best right now.

Scott Rae: Sam, we often ask our seminary students who are serving in various churches. We say, when we talk about the importance of serving your community and being out there like you're talking about, we ask them to just be honest with us and say, if church closed its doors, how long would it be before the community actually noticed that you were gone? We get some really interesting answers from some of our students who are in churches that are much more insular and much more ingrown. So I have had some students say probably other than the real estate people, it might be a long time,

Sam Rainer: Yep.

Scott Rae: Before the community noticed that we weren't there. You're you're saying that's really the secret sauce, is that the community that you're out there in the community active serving ministering so that if you closed your doors, people would notice almost immediately that you were gone.

Sam Rainer: Yeah. I mean the secret sauce is something called the great commandment and the great commission. And it's been that way since they were given now practically, what does that look like in your neighborhood? Well, the way that looks in your neighborhood is you need to ask the question, what are the greatest problems in the neighborhood and how can our church be part of the solution? So we've got a bad heroin problem here in Bradenton, you can Google it just see. It's just bad here, which produces a lot of kids in the foster system. So one of the things that we did as a church is we said, okay, one of the problems is heroin. And the result of that problem is a lot of kids in the foster system. So let's foster and you know, my family fosters we've fostered several kids. We've adopted one. We've got to be about 20-ish foster kids in any given time in our church because we've got several families that foster.

Sam Rainer: And we just ask a very simple question. What's the biggest problem in the community and how can we help solve it? And I get it. I get it all the time like how do I, okay, "I'm supposed to be in the community how do I do that?". All right, just start fostering. Get two, three, four families to foster in your church. And you're going to be connected to everything in the community, the court system, the school system, the preschools, the families, the extended families. And you're going to be right in a mess of everything. So that's just one very simple thing that you can do. Start fostering and not everyone is called to foster. I get that, but the whole church can support the two, three or four or 10 families that do foster. And just start there. That's a great place to start. Most communities have a need for people to take in foster children.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I think that's fair to say that there's an individual may say I'm not called to foster, but I don't think you can say that of an entire church.

Sam Rainer: I agree. And you get a bunch of amens at my church if you came and you said that this church is called the foster. Yes. Yeah. They would say, absolutely. We are called to do it. Cause it's a big problem in our community. These children need homes. Start there.

Scott Rae: Bradenton I take is a pretty racially diverse area.

Sam Rainer: Yeah, it's about on par with the rest of Florida. We're not any, we're not quite Miami, but at the same time we're 40% ethnic minority, mainly Latino but Black as well.

Scott Rae: What's your sense of how the church across the country is doing when it comes to racial diversity?

Sam Rainer: Terrible.

Scott Rae: Is it getting any better?

Sam Rainer: Well, I think in spots, it is. And I actually put out a blog post on this at church answer. It's about the decline of the all white church in the next 10 years. And I do think that's going to happen because just about every county in the United States is growing in diversity. I mean, literally like 99% of all counties in the United States are growing in racial diversity. And the white population declined for the first time in 2020 with the census, it declined for the first time. The white population declined for the first time since 1790. So there is the growth of our nation, all of the growth of our nation. All of it, is with people of different races. And I understand, there's difference between race and ethnicity and all that. So just bear with me as I blend some of these terms together.

Sam Rainer: And I certainly don't mean to offend, but we're growing in diversity in our nation and that's a good thing. I think that's great. I welcome it. I know not everyone may, but I do. And I think some churches are capturing that and the churches that understand it particularly with the younger generation will be the ones that benefits. Our preschool is minority white here in Bradenton and our children's ministry here at West Bradenton is close to being, I would call multi-ethnic and our student ministry certainly is. So it's the younger generation where this is going to grow. And the churches that really focus on being more diverse with younger families are the ones that I think will benefit the most long term. In the next couple of years, are we going to see racial tension still out there? Of course we are.

Sam Rainer: Racism is a sin and it's not going to go away because it's a sin issue. It's like we just wishfully thinking that lying is going to go away. It's not, you just constantly have to deal with it. And I think racism is part of that. So is it improving? Is the church improving? I think in spots, but overall I think that there is a long way to go with the church and racial diversity.

Sean McDowell: Sam, I've got a last question for you. There's a lot of talk about the church dying today as a whole. I know it's hard to make predictions, but are some of those overstated are we seeing more today less people defining themselves as Christians who maybe never really were, so we're seeing kind of a clarity in those who are Jesus followers, what would you say as a whole, to the dying church and how it fares moving forward in particularly more the evangelical conservative church?

Sam Rainer: Yeah. Well, the church has been dying since the Scopes Monkey Trial, right? I mean, people have been saying this since evolution came about in the, and I guess this really got heated in the 1920s in the United States. And everyone was saying if you don't get on board with this new agenda, if you don't, if the church is just going to die, science is going to kill the church. We've been hearing that for who knows, well, about a hundred years, is the church going to die in North America? No, it's not. Our individual church is going to struggle. Our certain tribes going to struggle that.. Yeah. There's certain denominations going to struggle. Yes. Are we going to see less people attending church in the future? Probably. But I think the core that remains is very strong. Particularly if you're talking even.. and when you say evangelical, I mean, goodness, that's one of those terms that you kind of almost have to define what you mean by that, but I think I know what you mean by that and,

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Sam Rainer: I consider myself an evangelical that may or may not be a term that rings true for some, but I that's kind of where I'm at believe in the fundamentals of the faith. And I think for those that are in the camp of being evangelical believers in the fundamentals of faith, I think you're going to see a lot of churches that remain strong. The core of people that believe remaining strong. And then the question becomes is that core, I mean, we've lost, we're going to lose the people on the periphery. The pandemic's already done that to some degree and it's going to continue, but is the core going to rise up and actually do what God has called them to do, or actually get out there and accomplish the mission of God? That's what my book is about. I think we can, I really believe that the church can start doing good things and we can experience a new wave of church growth.

Sam Rainer: And I don't mean church growth in numerical sense so much as it is just a wave of church being healthy, vital in their communities. And having a presence that is impactful to the people around them and winning people to Christ. I think all that can happen. Is it a done deal that it will happen? No, no. We're not in a good place right now, but that's why I wrote the Church Revitalization Checklist is to just say, all right, here's some things to think about, here's the checklist? What are these, how are you doing in these areas? And let's get to work one thing at a time. And I think that the future can be bright and I'm hopeful that it will be bright, but it is going to take churches of all sizes and backgrounds to really get about God's mission.

Sean McDowell: Sam, I love your enthusiasm and your passion for this, that this isn't just academic, but your pastor in a local church and putting these things into practice and guiding other pastors to do the same kind of thing. I hope our listeners will pick up a copy of your book, Church Revitalization and give it to their pastor, not by saying "Hey, our church needs to be revitalized", in that sense, but maybe just say, "Hey, heard this podcast. Heard this guy called Sam Rainer, talking about this book, thought it'd be helpful to you in the ministry. Let me know if I can help in any fashion." would be a wonderful gift for pastors. Like you said earlier, pastors love books, and they love to read. Thanks so much for coming on. And again, for our listeners, pick up a copy of Church Revitalization by Sam Rainer.

Sean McDowell: Sam, thanks so much for joining us on Think Biblical podcast.

Sam Rainer: It was an honor to be with you. Thank you both.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblical podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and online now, including an accelerated Bible theology and ministry program that allows students to earn a bachelors and master's degree together in five years. So visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a reign on your podcast app and please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.