How a Dying Church Can Save Itself

The most successful congregations are those that do not seem to have much going for them, according to a renowned urban evangelist.

First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, Calif., had more than 2,000 members in 1939. With membership down to 80 people 50 years later, the church was on the verge of extinction, the Presbyterian News Service reported.

At that time, the once thriving church was only interested in preserving itself and returning to "the glory years," evangelist Robert Linthicum had said at a Presbyterian Church USA social justice conference in New Orleans recently.

"If the church is caught up in trying to preserve itself and its institution, then preservation and continuance is exactly what is going to slip out of its grasp," he said, according to the denomination's news service. "Trying to save the store is the surest way to lose the store."

Rather than trying to save itself, Linthicum said the church has to focus on its changed surroundings and serving the community.

"The church will not be saved by trying to preserve it but by giving its life away in service to the world. Such service and ministry to the world is the surest way to salvation."

First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, which was on its way to closing its doors permanently, launched "Pomona Hope" in 2003 with the help of six college students. Students from Claremont College chose the church as "the sorriest church they could find" to use as a learning laboratory, according to PNS.

These students redirected the church focus out of itself and to the community with the launch of Pomona Hope. The new approach, focused on community education and community economic development, drew the collaboration of other churches in local presbyteries as well as the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.

Just a little over a year ago, PNS reported, the Pomona church sanctuary was filled with attendants as it formally established Pomona Hope.

"We consistently found that the most successful congregations were those who didn’t seem to have much going for them - located in the worst slums and squatters settlements, occupying abandoned factories or other buildings rather than fancy church buildings,” said Linthicum. “They had nothing to lose and everything to give and their Christian love and ministry showed it.”

The urban evangelist listed three common factors that successful evangelistic congregations have. They are: a church focused on a single, primary mission which was affirmed by most of the congregation, not just the pastor; a mission that is outside itself and focused on reaching out; and a church that sees its essential task as empowering and equipping its people to carry out the church's mission together.

Pomona is the poorest small city in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, Pomona Hope continues to serve the people in the city, carrying out its mission to bring hope, peace and well-being to the city.