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How one church got smaller, leaner, more effective

Brian Grout and his daughter, Payton, take part in a 5K race sponsored by The Church at Three Trails. The church sponsors two races a year to connect with local runners.

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (BP) – Ten years ago Brian Grout accepted a call to be the pastor for what would soon become The Church at Three Trails.

Approximately 200 people were on the membership role. That number has dropped by half since then. On the surface it can appear to be a negative, but the surface hardly tells the whole story.

When Grout arrived, the church hadn’t baptized anyone in at least five years, but there have been approximately 55 since.

Gus Hernandez, a worship team member at The Church at Three Trails, leads in a guitar lesson with children. Sarah Grout, far right, as led in the women’s ministry as well as a worship leader.

Attendance hovered at 15 to start. Now it is consistently at 75-80. Leaner yet stronger, there are opportunities to grow internally and outwardly.

The steady growth was all but wiped out by COVID, but the church slowly built back. Three Trails ministers in an area where 60 percent of the populace makes around $29,000 or less per year, Grout said. There is also a lot of turnover in residents.

The Church at Three Trails offers a sense of stability through sharing the Gospel as well as focusing on where the church can best contribute to its community at the moment.

“COVID killed a lot of things for us,” Grout said. One of those was a strong partnership with a nearby school that included monthly, home-cooked breakfasts by senior adult ladies delivered to teachers. Church members also took part in a school-connected program that encouraged relationship-building in families through simple means such as having dinner together and engaging in conversation with each other.

The church has four official staff members, all bivocational. Grout’s full-time job is as a field missionary for the Multiplying Churches group with the Missouri Baptist Convention. His wife, Sarah, has been a key leader in the women’s ministry. She had led worship before the arrival of associate pastor Chris Bailey and still fills that role whenever needed.

Grout estimates that 70 percent of his church members serve in some role, from teaching to greeting.

“We highlight our volunteers about once a month through social media and videos on Sunday morning. They explain what they do and the reward they get from it,” Grout said.

There are steps to ward off burnout among volunteers. Sunday mornings, for instance, are dedicated to worship with Bible study classes typically taking place throughout the week when best suited for participants. Should groups want to hold theirs at the church on Sunday mornings, that would be fine as well.

There is value to ministry developing organically. The large-scale outreach events that Three Trails used to host are fine, but crowds of attendees weren’t leading to new church members and disciples.

Instead, church leadership focused on encouraging members to think of themselves as missionaries.

“We have discipleship programs on Wednesdays and things like that, but we don’t want there to be something at the church every night,” Grout said. “We want our people engaged with others, inviting them into their homes, building relationships and being a missionary whether it’s on the softball field or riding Harleys.”

That’s a real example of a Three Trails church member. Another one who was a recovering addict asked to host a support group at the church. The missionary mindset has also led to beginner guitar classes for children and a Hapkido self-defense class. 

“We encourage our people to be the Gospel light wherever they are,” Grout said.

It is healthy for churches to assess their ministry gaps and effectiveness, noted a recent Lifeway Research post.

“Maximizing disciple-making in today’s world requires agile, responsive leadership that cuts past the noise of models, and instead focuses on real-time evaluation of outcomes (or fruit) on your people’s journeys,” wrote Clint Grider, author of “Mind the Gap.”

“I’m the guy who doesn’t want to repeat what other churches are doing,” Grout said. “When I first got here our people suggested we start a food pantry. I pointed out that there were four churches within a mile who did that, so instead of starting another one let’s support them.

“We want to be flexible, to evaluate and not get bogged down in things that are ineffective. If we try something new and it doesn’t work, at least we gave it a shot.”

As a pastor he is called to lead, but also called to listen.

“Know your people. Love your people. Serve your people,” he said. “And encourage them to know their friends, love their friends and serve their friends.”