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2 churches boost Sunday school via ‘no-animosity’ competition

SALEM, Mo. (BP)–A little competition can be good for the soul. When two Missouri churches engaged in a friendly competition to boost Sunday school attendance, for example, souls were saved.
John Smith, pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church, Salem, Mo., approached First Baptist pastor Mike O’Guin with the idea last November.
The plan was simple: Invite people to Sunday school. The church with the higher Sunday school attendance at the end of a three-month period would be treated to a homemade dinner by the other church.
Many people who were invited to Sunday school also stayed for worship services, and some became Christians.
Pam Catlet was one. Her sister invited her to First Baptist. “She got me to come, and God kept me coming,” Catlet said. She made a profession of faith, and her husband, Donald, joined the church. Other family members also began attending church.
Smith noted that 33 percent of Dent County residents are members of Southern Baptist churches. Thirteen churches with a Salem mailing address are affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention. But it was obvious that not all were attending church, he said. “It was time to do something to blossom the growth in Sunday school.”
Oak Grove was averaging 234 in Sunday school before the contest. During the contest, the number jumped to 371. The same growth was noted at First Baptist, where the average grew from 220 to 406.
Because the churches were free to promote Sunday school attendance any way they wished, Oak Grove members dressed as clowns one Saturday and went door to door all over town, distributing balloons, candy and invitations to Sunday school.
First Baptist designated special-event Sundays, such as “Old-fashioned Day,” with O’Guin showing up behind the pulpit in bib overalls and boots, “Mend Your Heart Day” and “Crazy Tie and Earring Day.”
First Baptist Sunday school teacher Wayne Gott, who sported a Dr Pepper tie for Crazy Tie and Earring Day, said the contest “has caused some of our members who had not been attending regularly to start coming again, and now they’re inviting other people to come.”
“We’ve seen people saved, and we’ve had about 75 baptisms in March, April and May (contest months). I’d say they were as a direct result of this contest and you can’t beat that,” Gott said.
No particular age group has seen more growth than another, O’Guin noted. “For example, one Sunday I baptized a 10-year-old and a 72-year-old. And there’s been everything in between.”
More rocking chairs in the nursery of First Baptist reflect more families starting to attend Sunday school. The number of children in the “bed babies” nursery climbed from four to 15 during the contest.
“The whole nursery department was shy of children, then we were bursting at the seams,” nursery worker Era Freeman remarked. “It’s been nice to be busy.”
Other Sunday school classes also experienced significant growth. At least one new class was started at First Baptist and others had to seek out larger rooms. “When we first started, the goal was to enroll one new Sunday school class member each month,” said teacher Jack Hays, whose adult class went from an average of 17 to 38. “The key to the growth was everybody got involved with phone calls and visitation.
“There was enthusiasm,” Hays said.
One of Hays’ class members, Debbie Gromer, said the community also noticed the competition between the two churches.
“Other churches started seeing what we were doing and asking questions, and their attendance started growing. Everybody wants to be part of something exciting.”
Class member David Young agreed. “We didn’t bring groups from out of town to do this,” he said. “It was our own people.”
New Harmony Baptist Church, eight miles west of Salem, was one of the churches that may have experienced growth as a result of the competition in town.
“Because of the invitations to church regardless of what the church is, it probably made people more apt to attend,” pastor David Gidcumb said. He reported that New Harmony has grown steadily over the past eight years from 70 in Sunday school to the present 165. The church participated in a similar Sunday school contest with Smith and Oak Grove about two years ago, Gidcumb said, and the increase in attendance was lasting.
Oak Grove member Kristy Wilson said the excitement caught on in the ninth- and 10th-grade Sunday school class as well. Teacher Bucky Barton loaded up students in his vehicle and took them around town to visit other young people. “At first, only a couple of kids wanted to go visit, and then more wanted to go visit because they saw what it was doing,” Wilson said. Attendance went from eight to 16, and one Sunday there were 27, Barton added.
Oak Grove minister of education Linda Shelton said the contest went beyond the church’s expectations. “We had been running 300-plus in Sunday school, then we lost a lot of people to moves,” she said. “We were just hoping to reach 300 again, but the very first Sunday (of the contest), we had 331. We never went below the 300 mark.”
The growth may have gone beyond the church’s expectations, but not the pastor’s. Shelton reported that Smith ordered two new wall petitions prior to the contest, expecting that God would bring the people.
Shelton said the best part of the contest was that Sunday school teachers kept coming to her and asking for more learning resources. “About every week, I was on the phone with the (Baptist) Sunday School Board requesting more literature and materials,” she said. “I needed it to give to all of these people. They kept me hopping.”
After both churches topped out at more than 500 each in Sunday school in March, attendance has stayed up for both churches, even during the traditionally low summer months. Oak Grove is averaging 300 in Sunday school and First Baptist is at about 400 each week.
“Both churches won,” said First Baptist member JoAnn Absher. “There were no losers. People got saved.”
When the contest ended, First Baptist had the higher numbers. That meant Oak Grove members prepared the meal for a combined service of celebration June 22 at Oak Grove.
“There’s no animosity between the two churches,” Smith said. “The idea is to benefit both churches. … It does my heart good to see all these people here for fellowship. I wasn’t in competition with Mike; I was in competition with the devil.”

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  • Stacey Hamby